Healthy eating in the early years

With more than a fifth of children either overweight or obese when they join Reception class, it is vital that healthy eating habits are instilled in children from a young age. A nutritious, balanced diet and sufficient physical activity are essential to a child’s long-term health and development, and good nutrition is also associated with improved learning and behaviour. Elizabeth Walker looks at the latest guidance for early years provisions on providing healthy meals and snacks for the young children in their care.

Nutritional requirements

The nutritional requirements of the under fives differ from the rest of the population and it is important that early years providers offer meals with the appropriate amounts of energy and nutrients to support young children’s growth and development.

Young children are growing quickly and have high energy and nutrient requirements for their size. They also eat smaller amounts than older children and adults so it is important for them to eat regular meals and snacks that contain sufficient energy and nutrients to meet their needs. In recent years, children’s diets have changed with a trend in eating foods high in saturated fat, sugar and salt but low in other vital nutrients. Many children are also failing to eat the recommended five portions of fruit or vegetables per day.

As well as an increase in childhood obesity, there is growing evidence of other health issues arising in young children such as:

  • type II diabetes which usually appears in adulthood is being found in overweight children

  • poor dental health

  • an increase in the number of cases of rickets

  • iron deficiency.

New guidance and menus for the early years

The Government has published new example menus and recipes to illustrate how early years providers can offer food and drink in line with current government dietary recommendations for infants and children aged six months to four years (up to their fifth birthday). The resources have been jointly developed by the Department for Education, the Department of Health and Public Health England.

By following the guidance and using the new menus and recipes, early years providers will be able to demonstrate that they are meeting the Early Years Foundation Stage welfare requirement to provide “healthy, balanced and nutritious” meals for children.

The menus update the Voluntary Food and Drink Guidelines for Early Years Settings in England — A Practical Guide, published in 2012. The new early years menus reflect current government dietary recommendations including revised estimated average requirements for energy, and new recommendations for maximum intakes of free sugars and minimum intakes of dietary fibre applying to children over two years. They also include examples for younger children aged 6–12 months, covering weaning, finger foods and breastfeeding.

The example menus have been developed to meet a nutrient framework to ensure they provide an appropriate amount of energy and a range of nutrients that are important for children’s health and development.

The complete range of example menus can be used by providers, or individual recipes can be included within existing menus. The example menus and recipes have been designed for use by all regulated early years providers including children’s centres, nurseries and childminders.

It is hoped that the guidance and example menus will contribute to the delivery of the Government’s childhood obesity plan and will help providers run high-quality childcare businesses in a sustainable, cost-effective way.

Guidance for children aged one to four years

A healthy balanced diet for children aged from one to four years is based on the following four food groups which provide a range of essential nutrients that children need to grow and develop.

  1. Potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates.

  2. Fruits and vegetables.

  3. Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins.

  4. Dairy and alternatives.

It is important to offer a wide variety of food and drinks from these food groups as this helps to ensure that a good balance of nutrients are consumed. The example menus aim to include a variety of different foods, tastes, textures and colours across each day and across meals on different days in the week, to meet the needs of all children.

The food and drink that is provided for children should be balanced across the day and the guidance divide energy and nutritional requirements across meals and snacks in the following proportions:

  • breakfast 20%

  • mid-morning snack 10%

  • lunch 30% (assuming lunch is the main meal)

  • mid-afternoon snack 10%

  • tea 20%.

This leaves 10% for an additional drink or snack at home (or in the provision if children are attending for extended hours), which is roughly equivalent to a small glass of milk and a portion of fruit.

The example menus for children aged one to four years illustrate three weeks of recipes for breakfasts, lunches, teas and snacks. The menus show how the recipes can be used to provide varied food provision.

Guidance for infants

Unlike the previous voluntary food and drink guidelines, the new guidance includes information on feeding infants. For infants aged 0–6 months there are details on supporting breastfeeding, preparing formula and foods to avoid before six months. For infants aged 6–12 months, there is information on weaning and finger foods, as well as example menus for this age group.

Planning menus

Using the new guidance to plan meals and snacks will help to ensure that all children eat a healthy, balanced diet even if they move between early years providers. There are seven steps for planning healthy menus as follows.

  1. Plan menus for all meals and snacks. This helps to check that the food and drink provision across the day is well balanced and varied. It also helps planning for shopping and food preparation.

  2. Plan menus lasting at least one week. It is important that children attending the setting on the same day each week don’t always receive the same meals.

  3. Plan each meal and snack menu to meet the new guidance. This means that children who attend sessional care or move between providers still meet their nutritional requirements overall.

  4. Plan menus to include a variety of foods, tastes, textures and colours. This will give children the opportunity to try a wide range of foods, and make meals and snacks colourful and tasty.

  5. Ensure that the cultural and dietary needs of all children are catered for.

  6. Introduce new menu cycles at least twice a year to include seasonality and a variety of foods.

  7. Share menus for meals and snacks with parents. This can help parents to balance meals and snacks with the food they provide at home.

Planning menus for meals and snacks in advance helps to reduce time and can also help to control ingredient costs. In addition, standardising tried and tested popular recipes can help to reduce time, sourcing ingredients and keeping track of allergens.

Other advice

The guidance also includes detailed advice for early years providers on the following areas.

  • Food safety.

  • Managing food allergies, intolerances and meeting cultural needs.

  • Providing food allergen information.

  • Reading food labels.

  • Typical portion sizes.

  • Supporting families with healthy eating.

  • Vitamin supplements.

  • Providing cost-effective meals.

  • Minimising food waste.

  • Sustainability of foods.

Used together, the example menus and guidance provide an illustration of how providers can meet the Early Years Foundation Stage welfare requirement to provide “healthy, balanced and nutritious” meals for children, while supporting them to make healthier choices in relation to food and drink.

Further information