Nursery Food: Nutrition advice - Asking the experts

Nicole Weinstein
Monday, October 19, 2015

Nurseries are using external specialists to ensure they are offering food that meets nutritional standards. Nicole Weinstein looks at the options.

It has never been more important for nursery providers to ensure that the food they offer meets the nutritional needs of the children in their care. Since 1 September, Ofsted inspectors have been checking the quality of food in settings as part of the new Common Inspection Framework (see feature, page 4).

Many nurseries are already using external specialists to help make sure their food provision meets the Eat Better Start Better (EBSB) Voluntary Food and Drink Guidelines for Early Years Settings in England, devised by the Government-commissioned Children's Food Trust (CFT). Some local authorities or NHS services run healthy eating award schemes or offer the services of their children's nutrition advisors; other nurseries are using dieticians to check their menus, and accessing the CFT's menu checking service or excellence award scheme.

Claire Wall, nutritionist at the CFT, says, 'These years are absolutely crucial for children's nutrition, which is why we're always looking at new ways to help you monitor how you're doing on the food you offer. The CFT's menu checking service not only offers reassurance for you that you're hitting the mark for children's nutrition, but also offers reassurance for parents of your commitment to helping children eat well.'


Toad Hall Nursery Group, which has 16 sites across Hertfordshire, Surrey, London, Bedfordshire and Berkshire, became the first nursery chain to receive the CFT seal of approval for its menu this summer. Nutritionists from the CFT looked at the menus to check that they met the EBSB national best practice guidelines for healthy food for toddlers and pre-schoolers. They also looked at the variety and nutrition of meals and snacks, confirming that portion sizes were appropriate for the age groups and that the ingredients were chosen to keep children's salt and sugar intake down.

Ruth Pimentel, Toad Hall Nursery Group chief executive, says, 'We see it as our moral duty to ensure that we are giving children the best meals, with the best range of nutrition and the best ingredients that we can realistically manage. We have always been very passionate about making sure our food is locally sourced and we've worked with our food supplier, Creed caterers, to ensure that all our food contains low salt and is traceable. We also have Food for Life accreditation from the Soil Association, which means that we have seasonal menus, freshly prepared meals and our food is free from undesirable additives.'

Previously, the nursery group used a software package called Saffron to check its menus against the EBSB guidelines. However, this 'proved difficult', Ms Pimentel explains, 'because the software was not sophisticated enough to cope with the range of products. And, when you check your menus yourself against the guidelines, it's hard to know if you've got it right.

'We wanted the assurance that our menus were meeting the guidelines and the CFT's menu checking service did just that. We're aware it's not an exact science and you can't work out how much a child is eating at any one time. But it has given us a certain level of confidence when communicating with parents because our menus have been checked by dieticians.'

This has been particularly useful when dealing with some parents' ideas of what constitutes a good, nutritionally balanced diet. Ms Pimentel says, 'There's so much conflicting information about what children should be eating, so when parents come into a setting with their own views about what their children should be having, problems can arise. For example, we've experienced middle class families who don't want their children eating puddings and want them to drink skimmed milk. Having this approval from the CFT helps us to better communicate our menus with the parents because we are able to explain that the children have busy, active days at nursery and they might need the carbohydrates that are contained in the puddings.'

Toad Hall Nursery Group is able to use the CFT's Menu Checked logo for up to 12 months to show parents and regulatory bodies, including Ofsted, that the nursery food meets the standards and reflects best practice. Ms Pimentel explains, 'We got an 'outstanding' judgement at our Hitchin nursery for the contribution our setting makes to children's well-being largely because of the quality of our food. And with the new inspection framework, it's now something that would add weight to getting a good Ofsted judgement so it's well worth the investment.'


The Children's Nutrition Team from Stockport NHS Foundation Trust, who provide community services in Tameside and Glossop, offer ongoing support to childcare providers within the area as part of their Nutrition and Oral Health Award for Carers of the Under-Fives.

To achieve the award, nurseries need to provide meals and snacks of a good nutritional standard which meet evidence-based healthy eating and oral health guidelines. The nutritional guidelines are based on the recommendations in Eating Well for Under-Fives in Childcare, produced by the Caroline Walker Trust.

Emma Meredith-Shone, catering manager at Clockwork Day Nursery, a 110-place setting based in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, says, 'We have been involved in the scheme for over five years. The nutrition team regularly check our menus to ensure that they meet local and national guidelines and are nutritionally balanced and help us with any questions we have about special diets for allergies or religious purposes.

dieticians'Their support, which doesn't cost the nursery any money, has been invaluable to us and we've got a lot out of it. Not only have we been awarded the Nutrition and Oral Health Award for Carers of the Under-Fives, previously known as the Gold Healthy Choice Award, which we can use on our website and marketing material to show to prospective parents that thought and care goes into the food we provide, but it also give us the confidence that we are doing the right thing.'

All the meals are cooked on site by Ms Meredith-Shone, a former professional chef. She says, 'When I first started here ten years ago, the meals were all very traditional children's meals like sausage, mash and vegetables. Now the children are enjoying meals like fruity Caribbean curry and liver stroganoff and we invite parents in regularly for taster sessions. We use fresh ingredients and local produce where possible. For example, our fishmonger from Grimsby picks up the fish straight from the market and we have a local butcher.'


Cliff Nursery Silkstone, a 114-place setting in Barnsley, has had its menus checked by a parent who works for NHS Barnsley as a children's dietician. Manager Helen Shepherd says, 'We developed a food committee, which enables parents and carers to become involved in our menu choices. As a result, one of the parents who is a dietician (her children have now left the nursery) offered us support and advice in giving our children a healthy balanced diet.

'The only improvement highlighted was to include more protein for our vegetarians. Following her advice and suggestions, Quorn was added to our menu. To help all children feel included we try to ensure that those with specific dietary requirement have a meal that replicates the others. We achieve this by use of Quorn and Free From foods.

'All our foods are locally sourced, with meats from the local butchers, milk from the farm and fruit and vegetables from a local supplier. It's a big selling point and parents love the idea that their children are having fresh produce and that all our foods are made fresh on a daily basis.

'This also has an impact on any dietary requirements as we can cater for individual needs. The cost is more than it would be from a supermarket. However, as we are a very busy nursery and the fresh produce is a big selling point, we continue to maintain the high standards of food as parents expect the best for their children.'

Barnsley's Early Start and Families service also provides the setting with support, information and training courses. These come in the format of The Healthy Early Years Award and a food and nutrition guide.

Ms Shepherd adds, 'Fortunately we have not had to pay for the services, but do believe in investing in good quality food.'

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