And I’m not talking about the film! Far too many children aren’t getting enough calcium. In fact, one in eight 11-18 year-olds aren’t getting the recommended amount, and it’s a big problem.
We need calcium for strong bones and teeth, especially during childhood and adolescence when our bones are growing fast. This is our once-in-a-lifetime chance to build strong bones. They reach their strongest in our mid- to late twenties, then start to lose calcium and get weaker. So children who don’t have enough calcium are at risk of developing rickets in childhood, and osteoporosis or brittle bones in later life. We also need calcium for healthy muscles and nerves, and to keep our blood clotting well. It’s why calcium’s one of the key nutrients in the national school food standards.
The great thing is that you’ll find calcium in all sorts of foods. Ask where it comes from and most people will think of milk, cheese or other dairy products. They’re right: these are some of the best sources of calcium, but they can be high in saturated fat. There are lots of other foods which will help you get it into dishes on your school menu: broccoli, rhubarb, chickpeas, sage and pilchards are just a few examples of other foods with good calcium credentials.
So here are my top tips:
- Choose low-fat varieties of dairy foods. Try adding low-fat plain yoghurt to curries – this helps to make them less spicy as well as increasing the calcium content
- Swap for soya – get some of these little beans into your dishes. Try swapping some kidney beans in chilli for soya beans, and you’ll boost the calcium content
- Try adding semi-skimmed milk or plain low fat yoghurt to a smoothie…just make sure there’s still plenty of fruit in there too
- Use canned fish with small bones, like pilchards and sardines – the bones are edible and high in calcium. Try pilchards in pasta (there’s a great recipe for herby pilchard pasta here which works particularly well for little ones) or sardines in fishcakes
- Add different varieties of dried fruit to porridge and other breakfast cereals in your breakfast club.
There’s lots more about dairy foods and calcium for under-fives on page 22 of our guide for childcare providers.
And have a look at these recipes for school cooks which are all designed to give pupils a calcium boost.
Laura’s one of our research nutritionists. Email Laura.