Does your child’s Nursery Menu make you worry?

How do you feel about your child’s nursery food? Is it nutritious or do you feel there is an over reliance on processed foods? And what about puddings? Does your nursery offer sweet treats, yet you know that sugar should be kept to a minimum in children under 5.

I hear lots of interesting views on nursery food from parents and opinions are mixed. Food served can vary, from one nursery or childcare setting to another. 

This article will explore nursery meals, what the guidelines say and what to do if you aren’t happy with the food that’s provided.

There is a lot of information in this blog that you may want to share with your child’s nursery, if you would like a PDF version delivered directly to your inbox, pop your details below.

Does your child's nursery menu make you worry? By Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

Do nurseries have a responsibility to provide healthy food?

Yes. The Government’s Department of Education’s Statutory Framework For The Early Years Foundation Stage (5)
, defines standards that nurseries and other childcare providers have to meet. These are vague and simply refer to (5)
;  

  • Healthy, balanced and nutritious meals and snacks

  • Fresh drinking water at all times

  • An area adequately equipped to provide healthy meals 

Without a qualified Dietitian or Nutritionist advising, this super vague statement can be interpreted in whichever way the nursery likes, which is why we hear of such variability between nurseries.

However, in addition there are detailed voluntary guidelines that nurseries and childcare settings can use to help them interpret the standards and get nutrition right.

What are the voluntary guidelines for nursery food?

The voluntary guidelines have been available since 2012 (1)
but nurseries have the option to choose to use these as a guide for the meals they serve, or not. 

In addition there are example menus and recipes published by the Government in 2017 (2)
that nurseries can choose to follow. 

Because these guidelines are optional, it explains the varied experiences parents have with nursery menus. 

Does your child's nursery menu make you worry? By Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

If I don’t think my child’s nursery provides healthy food, can I do anything to help?

You are well within your rights as a parent to have a say on nursery food and if you’re concerned about your little one’s nursery menu, you are not alone. 

A Government survey in 2018 found that 90% of parents believe it’s important that their nursery understands their child’s nutritional needs (4)

However a 2016 survey identified that 79% of childcare providers don’t seek nutrition advice when it comes to menu planning, despite many Registered Dietitians and Registered Nutritionists offering these services (7)
.  

Why is nursery food important?

Nutrition in the early years plays a key part in children’s health, development, growth and well being (3)
. I’ve written more about this in my blog on the first 1000 days

Some little ones have the majority of their weekday meals at nursery and therefore what they are served really matters. In their early years, children start to build relationships with food. For many children, their nursery meals, how they are fed, the meal environment and perspective of the nursery staff on food and feeding, play a huge part in their food experiences. 

You can read more about developing food relationships here.

What do children need from their food?

Aside from building healthy relationships with food, children also need some important nutrition for growth, development and health (6)
.

Does your child's nursery menu make you worry? By Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

Important nutrients for children

Protein

Where’s it found? Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, pulses, tofu, milk, cheese, soya mince.

Carbohydrates

Where’s it found? Cereals, pulses, bread, rice, pasta, potatoes.

Fibre

Where’s it found? Fruit, vegetables, wholegrain cereals, wholegrain bread, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, pulses, wholegrain crackers.

Fat

Where’s it found? Oils, dairy food, nuts, oily fish, avocado, meat.

Calcium

Where’s it found? Dairy products, tofu, milk alternatives with fortified calcium, tinned sardines or salmon, egg yolk, breads, crumpets and muffins fortified with calcium.

Iron

Where’s it found? Red meat, poultry especially darker meats, sausages, tinned fish, pulses, offal, breakfast cereals with added iron, dried fruit, green leafy vegetables, creamed coconut, eggs

Does your child's nursery menu make you worry? By Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

Zinc

Where’s it found? Lean beef, lamb, pork, liver, sausages, hard cheeses, eggs, wholegrain breakfast cereals, canned sardines, pilchards or tuna.

Vitamin A

Where’s it found? Spinach, carrots, red pepper, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe melon, mango, dried fruit, tomatoes, watercress, nectarine, peaches, apricots, dark green cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts.

Vitamin C

Where’s it found? Citrus fruits, berries including blackcurrants and strawberries, grapefruit, mango, kiwi, green and red peppers, spring greens, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower.

What should you expect from your nursery food menu? (1)
;

  • The right nutrients needed to support growth, development, health and wellbeing.

  • The right energy and calories for children appropriate for their age.

  • A varied menu that encourages children to eat a wide range of food and develop healthy eating habits. 

What are the voluntary guidelines for nursery food?

The voluntary food and drink guidelines for early years settings in England were first published by the Government in 2012 and updated in 2017 (1)

Action for Children has developed a handy practical guide called ‘Eat better, start better’
for early years settings to use to help them meet the guidelines (3)
. You can look at this too, however we have summarised this for you below:

My child goes to a childminder, are they relevant for them too?

The guidelines are for all early years settings, not just for nurseries but include children’s centres, registered childminders and nannies, pre-schools and nursery classes within primary schools (3)
.

Does your child's nursery menu make you worry? By Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

What should nurseries be doing according to the guidelines?

Nurseries should be planning ahead for all food and snacks to make sure:

  • Each day is balanced and has enough variety. 

  • Menus are planned at least one week ahead. Some nurseries may choose to plan up to four weeks ahead, to help ensure variety.

  • There should be a menu cycle for several weeks so that children attending on the same day each week are not always having the same meal.

  • All food and drink meets the nutrition guidelines (see below). 

  • Food includes a variety of textures, taste and colour.

  • New menu cycles are introduced at least twice a year. 

  • Children experience food from different cultures. 

  • Seasonal food is used where possible. 

  • Meals and snacks are shared with parents in advance so they can plan meals at home. 

What does the nutritional guidance say (3)
?

  1. The four key food groups below must be included on a daily basis to make sure children get a wide range of nutrition. 

  • Potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates

  • Fruit and vegetables

  • Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins

  • Dairy and alternatives

Below is the number of portions of each food group that should be offered each day, including what your child has at home:

Carbohydrates e.g potatoes, bread, rice, pasta, breakfast cereals, noodles, starchy root vegetables

Key Nutrients – Carbohydrate, Fibre, B vitamins, Iron

Recommended servings per day – Four portions per day as part of meals and snacks.

Fruit and Vegetables e.g fruit, salad and vegetables

Key Nutrients – Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Zinc, Iron, Fibre

Recommended servings per day – Five portions per day as part of meals and snacks. These can be fresh, tinned or frozen. 

Protein e.g beans, pulses, fish, egg, meat and vegetarian protein alternatives

Key Nutrients – Protein, iron, zinc, omega 3 fatty acids, Vitamins A and D.

Recommended servings per day – Two portions per day as part of lunch and tea.  Up to three portions for vegetarian children. 

Dairy and alternatives e.g milk, cheese, yoghurt, fromage frais, custard, puddings made with milk

Key Nutrients – Protein, calcium and Vitamin A

Recommended servings per day – Three portions each day provided as part of meals, drinks or snacks.

2. Sugar, salt and saturated fat should be limited where possible.

Nurseries can do this by;

Choosing;

  • Breakfast cereals with the lowest sugar content.

  • Bread and bread products with the lowest salt content. 

  • Tinned fruit in natural juice without added sugar or syrup. 

  • Yoghurt and fromage frais with a lower sugar content. 

  • Reduced salt and sugar baked beans. 

  • Tinned vegetables without added sugar or salt. 

  • Dairy ice cream as it contains more calcium than non-dairy varieties. 

  • Naturally sweet fruit or vegetables to sweeten puddings or other foods.

  • Spreads made from vegetable oil instead of butter. 

Limiting;

  • Ready made pasta sauces, soups, gravy or stock cubes.  

  • Tinned foods such as spaghetti hoops.

  • Meat products once a week including sausages, burgers, nuggets, sausage rolls, pies and canned meat. 

  • Fish products once a week such as fish fingers.

  • Confectionery and chocolate and include only as a small part of a dessert. 

  • Starchy foods which have been fried such as chips. 

  • High oil starchy foods such as roast potatoes to once per week.  

  • Added sugar. 

  • Condiments such as ketchup. 

  • Pastry products to once per week. 

Does your child's nursery menu make you worry? By Sarah Almond Bushell, - The Children's Nutritionist

Avoiding;

  • Flavoured dried pasta, noodles or rice with added salt. 

  • Salty snacks such as crisps. 

  • Adding salt to food. 

  • Sweetened milk drinks such as milkshakes. 

  • Skimmed and skimmed milk products as these do not have enough nutrients for children under five. 

  • Sweet foods including cakes, biscuits, chocolate, pastries as snacks between meals to avoid damage to teeth. 

  • Ready made, purchased snacks or meals.

Serving;

  • Ice cream and frozen yoghurt as a pudding only and not between meals.

  • Homemade food cooked from raw ingredients. 

  • Food grilled or baked instead of fried. 

  • A dessert as part of lunch and tea every day. 

  • Tinned fruit in natural juice at mealtimes only. 

  • Dried fruit as part of a dessert at mealtimes only and not as a snack. 

  • Whole (full fat) milk for children one-two years to make sure they get enough energy and nutrients. Children over two can have semi skimmed milk. 

  • Full fat cheese and yoghurts for all children under two. Children over two can have lower fat varieties. 

  • Desserts with 40g of fresh fruit or 20g of dried fruit per portion. 

  • Fresh tap water and plain milk only to drink. 

    3. Follow food safety and hygiene guidance. All food should be provided in a safe and hygienic environment.

    Food safety and hygiene regulations should be followed. 

4. Be aware of ‘typical’ portion sizes for children 1-4 years, but acknowledge that appetite varies according to growth and energy levels and so children should be encouraged to eat according to their appetite. 

Portion sizes are available within the guidance.

5. Create a pleasurable eating environment and encourage the social aspect of meals; 

Including;

  • Regular timings for meals and snacks at set times of the day to allow little ones to eat regularly. 

  • Three meals and two-three snacks daily. 

  • ‘Rolling snacks’ where children can choose when to have their snacks (a preferred option by Ofstead) can be implemented but must be monitored as some children will graze constantly. 

  • Allow children to eat at different speeds and ensure this doesn’t mean slower eaters miss out on activities.

  • Allow children to have free access to water throughout the day. Children should be encouraged to help themselves. 

  • Encourage children to wash their hands before eating.

  • The eating area should be clean, warm and bright and free from distractions.

  • Appropriately sized tables, chairs, plates, cups and cutlery so children are encouraged to eat independently. 

  • Allow children to choose the food they are going to eat and try new foods.

  • Not expecting children to eat everything on their plates and not using pudding as a bribe.

  • Not using food as a reward. 

  • Not leaving children alone to eat. 

  • Encouraging children to sit opposite and alongside other children and interact during the meal. 

  • Encourage children to help set up and clear away. 

  • Where possible staff should eat their lunch with the children and allow themselves to be positive examples. 

Does your child's nursery menu make you worry? By Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

6. Providing food for all, appropriate to children’s needs including special diets, food allergies & intolerances, vegetarian and vegan children and cultural and religious choices. 

7. Developing a food policy outlining their food provision, which should be shared with parents and reviewed regularly.

Nurseries can work with Registered Dietitians and Registered Nutritionists on putting this together.

8. Communicating with parents and carers about the food provided and their child’s eating.
Nurseries should have a food policy which you can ask to see.

Why are puddings included when we are supposed to be keeping sugar to a minimum?

Nutritious puddings or desserts can be included as part of a healthy balanced diet. In fact, I view puddings as a second opportunity for eating in order to maximise nutritional intake. 

Children’s taste buds can tire quite quickly and introducing a new flavour reinvigorates them. This is why often parents report that their child always has ‘room for pudding’.

The guidance recommends that puddings and desserts are either fruit based or dairy based to ensure maximum nutrition. 

They recommend limiting foods with additional sugar, chocolate and sugary foods such as ice cream (3)
.

What should you do if you’re not happy about your child’s nursery food?

  • Initially speak to your little one’s nursery or childcare provider. You can ask more questions about their food provision and nursery food menu.

  • All early years providers should have a complaints procedure in place. 

Here are some questions you might want to ask:

  1. Do they have a food policy?

  2. Are they aware of the voluntary food and drink guidelines available and example menus?

  3. Who cooks the food at the nursery? And who decides on the menus? 

  4. Can you see sample nursery menus?

  5. What’s their meal schedule?

  6. Have the staff had training from a Registered Dietitian or Registered Nutritionist on how to provide appropriate nutritious food and drink and ensuring they are good role models when it comes to food and eating?

  7. How do they create the right environment for children when they are eating?

  8. How can they support your child in an area you may be concerned about such as fussy eating or a special diet?

I hope you have found this blog helpful, please leave a comment below to tell me your experiences.

During my career as a Registered Dietitian, I’ve worked with over 45 nurseries in Sussex, Buckinghamshire and Kent and a couple of nursery caterers who supply foods to hundreds of different childcare providers.

I’ve helped them develop their menu’s and create their food policy and interpret the voluntary guidelines. Pre-Covid I even ran training to entire County Councils and helped LACORS (Local Government) produce standards for nurseries to follow.

I think it’s amazing that some childcare settings proactively seek support.

Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc Hons RD  Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc Hons RD

Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

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