Last reviewed 1 June 2012

By Elizabeth Walker

Introduction

Following recommendations by the Advisory Panel on Food and Nutrition in the Early Years and the Tickell review of the Early Years Foundation Stage, the School Food Trust has launched new national, voluntary guidelines for nutrition in early years settings.

For the first time, childcare providers have a nationally recognised source of information about the foods they should offer young children, portion sizes, sample menus and recipes, advice on tackling fussy eating and involving children in food and cooking activities.

The new guidance, The Voluntary Food and Drink Guidelines for Early Years Settings in England, forms part of the School Food Trust's Eat Better, Start Better project which helps young children to eat well by working with families and early years health and education practitioners.

As part of the guidelines, a voluntary code of practice has also been launched by the School Food Trust, which encourages settings to consider whether they provide children with a positive and welcoming eating environment and to consult with children and their families about the food they offer.

Importance of 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. 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 being found in overweight children

  • poor dental health

  • an increase in the number of cases of rickets

  • iron deficiency.

The nutritional requirements of the under-fives differ from the rest of the population and the new guidance focuses on the particular needs of children aged one to five. 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 portion sizes across meal and snack times are very important. In recent years, children's diets have changed with a trend towards 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.

The guidelines

The School Food Trust has published a practical guide to introduce the new guidelines, which offers clear recommendations to all early years providers when planning and providing meals, drinks and snacks in their settings. The guide will help all early years settings to meet the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) welfare requirement for the provision of healthy, balanced and nutritious food and drink.

A healthy balanced diet for children aged one to five is based on the following four food groups.

  • Starchy foods such as bread, potatoes, rice, pasta and cereals (four portions per day).

  • Fruit and vegetables (five portions per day).

  • Meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy forms of proteins (two portions per day).

  • Milk and dairy foods (three portions per day).

These four food groups provide a range of essential nutrients that children need to grow and develop. 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. As well as detailed information about each food group, the guidelines also cover the following areas.

  • Drinks.

  • Desserts, puddings and cakes.

  • Fat.

  • Salt.

  • Sugar.

  • How to read food labels.

  • Iron and zinc.

  • Food additives.

  • Ready-made meals and takeaways.

  • Fortified foods.

  • Portion sizes for different ages.

It is important that food and drink provided for children is balanced across the day and the guidelines 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 in the evening. Early years providers can use the "at a glance" information to check the food and drink guidelines are met for all meals and snacks.

Planning menus

Using the food and drinks guidelines to plan meals and snacks will help to ensure that all children eat a healthy, balanced diet whether they attend full daycare in one setting or attend several settings throughout the week. 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 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 according to the food and drink guidelines. 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.

  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.

Sample menus

Seasonal sample menus, recipes, photos and portion size information which meet the guidelines can be downloaded from the School Food Trust. The following is the one week spring/summer menu which meets the energy and nutrient requirements for children aged one to five.

Spring/summer menu for early years settings

Meal

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

Breakfast — planned to provide 20% of a child’s daily nutritional requirements

Cornflakes with whole milk and raisins

Toasted crumpet and spread

Water

Pear and hard boiled egg with wholemeal bread and spread

Water

Rice crispies and whole milk with dried apricot and banana

Water

Plain yoghurt with malt loaf and spread

Diluted apple juice

Wheat biscuits with whole milk and mixed berries

Toasted teacake and spread

Water

Mid-morning snack — planned to provide 10% of a child’s daily nutritional requirements

Rice cakes and banana

Water

Toasted muffin with spread and melon

Water

Toasted bagel and spread with strawberries

Whole milk

Wholemeal toast and spread with apple and grapes

Water

Sugar snap peas and houmous

Water

Lunch — planned to provide 30% of a child’s daily nutritional requirements

Beef bolognaise or vegetarian bolognaise

Carrot cake

Water

Chickpea and vegetable curry with brown rice

Raspberry puree with fromage frais

Water

Pork and apple casserole or mixed bean casserole with new potatoes and carrots

Pineapple upside down pudding with custard

Water

Lamb burger or bean burger with homemade tomato sauce, potato wedges and garden peas

Banana buns

Water

Salmon and broccoli pasta or broccoli and lentil pasta with sweetcorn

Eve’s pudding with custard

Diluted orange juice

Mid-afternoon snack — planned to provide 10% of a child’s daily nutritional requirements

Strawberries and plain yoghurt

Water

Breadsticks with mozzarella balls and cherry tomatoes

Whole milk

White bread and spread with grapes

Water

Pitta bread with tsatziki and carrot sticks

Water

Sliced peach with fromage frais and rice cakes

Water

Tea — planned to provide 20% of a child’s daily nutritional requirements

Beef and vegetable enchiladas or bean and vegetable enchiladas

Fresh fruit platter

Water

Ratatouille with mozzarella cheese and a jacket potato

Ginger biscuits with sliced apple

Water

Tuna and sweetcorn wholemeal pasta or chickpea and sweetcorn wholemeal pasta with red pepper sticks

Blueberry muffin

Water

Chicken and vegetable couscous salad or QuornTM and vegetable couscous salad

Rice pudding with sultanas

Water

Savoury omelette with potato salad and cucumber

Crunchy summer crumble with yoghurt

Water

A one week autumn/winter sample menu can also be found on the School Food Trust website.

Developing a food policy

An early years food policy helps staff, parents, carers and children to understand the setting's key aims on food and drink provision and learning about food. It helps to ensure that the setting has a consistent approach to healthy eating and it can include information on the following areas.

  • Food and drink provision for meals, snacks and drinks.

  • Communicating with children and families.

  • The eating environment and social aspects of meal times.

  • Rewards, celebrations, special events and birthdays.

  • Catering for cultural, religious and special dietary requirements including allergies.

  • Fussy eating.

  • Food and drink brought in from home.

  • Learning about food.

  • Cooking with children.

  • Food safety and hygiene.

  • Staff training.

  • Sustainability.

Staff, parents, carers and children should all be involved in developing the food policy and it should be reviewed on a regular basis.

Practical support tools and the voluntary code of practice

The School Food Trust has developed practical support tools to help early years providers to understand and use the new food and drink guidelines and these can be downloaded for free from their website. The new resources include the following support tools.

  • Early years code of practice for food and drink. Displaying the code of practice is a clear way to show staff, families and visitors that the setting is following national best practice as detailed in the new guidelines.

  • Code of practice checklist.

  • Menu planning checklist.

  • Step-by-step guide to developing a food policy.

  • Example template food policy.

Conclusion

Research suggests that there was some confusion among early years providers about the particular nutritional needs of young children and there were some substantial gaps in information in previous guidance. These new guidelines will provide a clear source of information and support on providing healthy meals for young children. While the guidelines have been positively received, some child health experts have criticised the Government for failing to make them obligatory. There are concerns that not all nurseries and childminders will follow the guidelines unless they are made statutory, so close monitoring of food and drink provision in early years settings will still be necessary.

Further information

  • School Food Trust (www.schoolfoodtrust.org.uk) is the national charity and specialist advisor to Government on school meals and children's food.

  • Caroline Walker Trust (www.cwt.org.uk) provides nutritional and practical guidelines for vulnerable groups including the under-fives.

  • Pre-school Learning Alliance (www.pre-school.org.uk) is an educational charity specialising in early years.

  • National Day Nurseries Association (www.ndna.org.uk) is a national charity which aims to enhance the development and education of children in their early years.

  • Department of Health (www.dh.gov.uk).

  • The Food Standards Agency (www.food.gov.uk).

  • NHS Choices — Live Well (www.nhs.uk/livewell).

  • British Nutrition Foundation (www.nutrition.org.uk).