I’m often quizzed on what parents should look out for regarding the food served to children at nursery, & what is classed as a ‘good’ menu. I’ve worked on this post with the brilliant Laura Matthews who has worked across London boroughs reviewing nursery & school food standards for the past 3 years.
So, we’ve written a blog, which includes some helpful information for parents on what to look out for on nursery menus in a pre-school nursery within a primary school, a private/independent nursery, a local authority maintained nursery or even with a registered childminder!
Firstly, why does what my child eats at nursery matter?
The early years are so important in establishing healthy eating habits as they can set the foundations for their future health & wellbeing. In addition, the time that children spend in a childcare setting is hugely influential & of great importance for receiving good nutrition & laying the foundations of healthy habits for later years.
There are resources out there to support eating well in the early years, it’s just about knowing where to find them. Hopefully this feature will help you to feel better armed to know what to look out for & where to get help if needed.
Are there standards for nursery food?
First up it’s important to address that there are NO mandatory food or nutrition standards for pre-schools & nurseries in England. However there are best practice voluntary guidelines for early year settings in England, which are called – the “Eat Better Start Better” guide.
These guidelines are held by the charity Action for Children & have been developed to help early year providers meet the nutritional requirements of children aged 1 to 4 years (& up to their 5th birthday).
Who enforces the food & drink guidelines?
79% of childcare providers admit they are not receiving external nutrition advice (National Survey on Early Years Nutrition, 2016), so it is unlikely that your nursery will be employing a healthcare professional such as a Registered Nutritionist to check and see that these guidelines are followed. Many nurseries may not even be aware of their existence.
If your nursery is following these guidelines or is getting support from a Registered Nutritionist – that’s pretty fantastic news!
What do the food & drink guidelines say?
In this blog, we’re going to focus on what’s recommended at nurseries for LUNCH TIME. The standards are lengthy and cover breakfast, lunch, tea and snacks, but we’ll just look at lunch for now.
The guidelines really encourage variety through mixing up the types of food from each of the main food groups offered each week, these include starchy carbohydrates, protein, dairy, fruit & vegetables.
When it comes to the main food groups, this is what the guidelines specify:
- Carbohydrates (e.g. bread, rice, pasta, potato, couscous)
A portion should be offered at lunch each day with at least 3 different types over a week to increase variety. A mixture of white & wholegrain carbohydrates should be offered & it’s good practice to include a serving of wholegrain once per week at lunch, e.g. brown rice or whole-wheat pasta.
Starchy, fried food & pastry should be offered no more than once per week, due to the high fat content.
- Fruit & Vegetables
At least 1 portion of fruit or vegetables should be offered at each lunch & should be varied across the week.
- Protein foods
At least 1 portion of protein-based food should be offered at lunch each day, e.g. beans, eggs, pulses, fish, meat (e.g. red meat or poultry) or meat alternatives. This should be varied each day & across the week.
1 lunch each week should be provided for all children which uses pulses (beans, chickpeas or lentils) or meat alternatives as the main protein source.
Oily fish (e.g. mackerel or salmon) should be provided at least once every 3 weeks for lunch or tea. Perhaps in the form of fish pie or salmon pasta.
- Dairy foods
It is best practice to provide 3 portions of milk & dairy foods each day (including those provided at home). This could include milk, cheese or yoghurt. One of these can be provided as part of snacks.
- Choose yoghurt & fromage frais with a lower sugar content, so those which are labelled as ‘low’ (green) or ‘medium’ (amber) in sugar.
- Fresh tap water & fresh milk should be the only provided drink options. Children should have access to drinking water throughout the day.
- Avoid fruit juice (neat & diluted), fruit juice drinks, squash, fizzy drinks & flavoured water.
N.B. – Nursery menus should ideally be on a minimum 3-week cycle, so there is plenty of variety.
What can we do if we’re not happy with the food on offer at nursery?
- First and foremost…communicate!
- Make sure you have a copy of your nursery menu. See how lunch compares with the above guidelines? If it doesn’t conform, flag it up with the staff!
- Check if your child’s nursery or childminder is aware of the food & drink guidelines? If not, make them aware! Hopefully they’ll be open to suggestions, as ultimately we all have our children’s health at the forefront of our minds.
Other things you might want to find out/ask about if you’re concerned or simply want to know more:
- Check to see who is producing the food. Is it made in house by a cook or is it produced by an external catering company?
- Is there a possibility to see the food, would your nursery put on a taster evening? Or provide photos of example meals.
- How does your childcare provider monitor or judge portion sizes? Do they utilise the food & drink guidelines or First Steps Nutrition for this information? Or is it guessed?
- Check whether staff are sitting with children at mealtimes & eating the same food. This is a great approach that encourages positive role modelling & should be followed at home too as much as possible.
- Does your childcare provider need help with a wider variety of recipes & more inspiration? If so, go to First Steps Nutrition for a variety of useful resources. Also Start4life (NHS advice) provides recipe meal ideas for pre-schoolers.
- Does your childcare provider need nutrition training so as to put nutrition & healthy eating at the heart of their setting? So that they are more confident in ensuring the food menus meet the food & drink guidelines. If so, Early Start Nutrition offers this service as do other independent nutritionists, including Lau Matthews Nutrition & SR Nutrition (when not on mat leave!).
Other things that nurseries could do when it comes to their menus or healthy eating messages:
- Host events with parents and ask for opinions and advice
- Be aware of the voluntary guidelines
- Have menus readily available for parents so they know what’s on offer
- Provide feedback on mealtimes and how children eat at nursery as standard
- Have a lunchtime policy for all parents so that there is a level playing field for lunchtime rules for everyone
- Provide advice to parents about healthy eating, either via newsletters, policies, workshops or even on pin boards for pick up time
- Communicate between staff and parents
- Train staff on positive mealtimes
Below are two fab examples of balanced nursery menus which are in line with the guidelines. You can use these to compare your own little one’s nursery menus or even to show to a nursery setting (IF they are interested):
N Family Club menu
Early Start Nurseries menu
I hope you found this helpful. If your little one has packed lunches we’ve also written about this, so check out recommendations for what to include in these here.
We’re also writing a blog all about puddings on offer to nursery too, so watch this space for that at the end of the week!
Written by Laura Matthews with support from SR Nutrition.