Nursery Food: Top Tips - Hide the peas?

How can we make nutritious food appealing to children? Some early years experts offer advice.

Stephanie Molnar, director of Elmscot Day Nursery, Altrincham, Cheshire
  • Ask favours of your local butcher. Ours (Taylors of Sale) makes sausages especially for us, with a high-meat content and specially formulated mix of herbs and spices, so that we can include sausages in our menus, safe in the knowledge that they are low in fat, salt and preservatives.
  • Enhance the flavour of low-salt dishes with fresh herbs, garlic, spices and - our favourite - a small amount of gastric. This is a mixture of sugar and white vinegar cooked until the caramel turns a golden brown, and it adds a rich flavour to sauces and casseroles.
  • If you are struggling for vegetarian sandwich fillings and are sick of Quorn slices or cheese, try the Vegetarian Society's 'Beanie': mashed butterbean, mint, olive oil and lemon juice.

Penny Tassoni, early years consultant
  • Serve frozen peas, slightly thawed, and tell the children that they are like ice-cream - nice, icy and sweet.
  • Grate some cheese on to the least liked vegetables and make them into a gratin.
  • Take children to meet a friendly greengrocer and let them choose one vegetable each to pay for then help to prepare.
  • Make up superhero stories about each of the least liked vegetables - it worked for spinach and Popeye.
  • Provide tiny pots of condiments, such as olive oil, soy sauce and mayonnaise, for each child, so that they can play chefs and dip different vegetables in them.

Lisa Morrison, head cook at Caring Kindergartens chain of nurseries, Northamptonshire
  • Add fruits to a main meal - for example, ginger and mango chicken, or broccoli and cheese pasta with apple slices.
  • Include grated vegetables in cakes, along with some wholemeal flour and reduced sugar.
  • Start with small portions when introducing new foods to children. Big portions are off-putting and children can feel proud if they clear their plates.
  • Use as many different tastes, textures and colours of food as possible to keep meals bright and appetising.

Kimberly Munro, owner, Blue Grass Purple Cow Nursery, Stockport, Cheshire
  • Change the menu regularly, so that children are not faced with fish every other Tuesday.
  • Don't be afraid to offer strong flavours.
  • Add tinned pineapple with its juice to a standard cake recipe to add sweetness and goodness.

Claire Rick, spokesperson, Children's Food Trust
  • Give dishes interesting names. 'Wiggly Worm Soup' sounds much more fun than plain noodle soup.
  • Provide individual-sized portions in smaller dishes, as they can make children feel like the food was made especially for them.
  • Add cooked and mashed carrots, butternut squash, sweet potato or swede to normal mashed potato.
  • Include carrots, peppers and onions in bolognaise sauce.
  • Try our secret ingredient for chocolate cake - beetroot. It keeps cake beautifully moist, and children will never guess what is in Chocolate Surprise Cupcakes.
  • Make smoothies. They use the whole fruit, unlike fruit juice, so are high in fibre. Add add yoghurt or milk for a good source of dairy.
  • Put fruit in puddings - our Tutti Fruity Crumble goes down a treat.
  • Chop ripe banana into bite-sized pieces and freeze it. Frozen banana chunks look and taste great and make a healthy alternative to ice-cream or lollies.

June Graham, early years practitioner, Cowgate Under 5's Centre, Edinburgh
  • Provide popcorn as a snack. It contains twice the antioxidants of any fruit, while a single serving contains more than 70 per cent of the daily recommended intake of whole grain. It is worth investing in a hot air popper, as popcorn made in this way has half the calories of microwavable varieties.
  • Make the most of vegan dishes, as they are perfect for children with dairy or egg allergies. I have adapted most of our recipes to make them vegan and have been pleasantly surprised by the results. The baking has been superb, as the vegan versions are moister and tastier. The cakes have less fat, as oils cook at a higher temperature than butter or margarine, so less is needed. I use mashed banana, apple puree or peach puree instead of eggs as a binder, which adds taste, sweetness, fibre and nutrients and means that I need to add less, or no, sugar.
  • With fruit and vegetables, plan your menus around six colours, as well as five portions. The six colours are red, yellow, orange, green, white and purple, with each containing different phytonutrients.
  • Mainly offer babies and young children sweeter and creamier kinds of vegetables, such as carrots, peas and squash. They can find some fruit and vegetables quite bitter.
  • In hot weather, offer children ice-lollies from well-diluted fruit juices and fruit teas to help prevent them becoming dehydrated.
  • Provide children who have had a long day at nursery and face a long journey home with an end-of-day energy boost to keep them going until dinner time.

Jane Harrison, director, Red Hen Day Nursery, Lincolnshire, Nursery World Nursery of the Year 2013
  • Involve children in meal preparation from soil to plate.
  • Reduce sugar content in puddings, cakes and biscuits by adding naturally sweet foods, such as bananas, dates, sweet potatoes and parsnips.
  • Make the dining area look appealing, with attractive tablecloths and flowers.
  • Add vegetables to savoury snacks. For our savoury flapjack, mix together well: 150g rolled oats, 175g carrots, 175g grated mature Cheddar cheese, one beaten egg and a pinch of mixed dried or fresh herbs. Press into a 20cm square flapjack tin base-lined with baking parchment. Dot 50g of butter on top and bake for 25 minutes in a moderate oven (180degsC/gas mark 4).

Janis Crutch, chef and co-owner, Little Monkey's Nursery, Windsor
  • Replace sugar with coconut palm sugar, brown rice syrup, agave nectar or maple syrup - they will all help to keep children's blood sugar at an even level throughout the day.
  • Replace cocoa and chocolate with super food cacao.
  • Turn an unhealthy treat into a healthy one by making chocolate spread with cacao and sunflower butter. This version is also suitable for children with a nut allergy.
  • Make a tomato sauce with about seven different vegetables, blend, and pour over haricot beans to create your own version of baked beans.

Ann Ross, Your Child Matters Childminding Service, Kent, Nursery World Childminder of the Year 2012
  • Cook with the children. I have not yet had a child who didn't want to eat what they had made, and grown, in our garden and allotment.
  • Let children handle food as much as possible, as it encourages them to eat well. We have an organic vegetable/fruit/meat box delivered every week so the children get to handle and help clean the fruit and vegetables. Try to use real fruit and vegetables in role play too.
  • Use shape cutters to make sandwiches more interesting.
  • Use fun cutlery and plates. Try Fred and Friends Food Face Plates, Constructive Eating Utensils Set (shaped like diggers) or Chew Chew Train Kids Meal Time Table Set (all available at

Jo Strover, area manager, and Tristian Strover, chef, Tootsies Private Day Nursery, Farnham, Nursery World Nursery Food Award winner 2013
  • Add sweet potato to thicken sauces and gravy.
  • Make watermelon ice lollies with spinach - our children love them.
  • Make home-made sorbet as an alternative pudding for children with dairy allergies.
  • Add vegetables to cakes to cut sugar by up to 40 per cent.
  • Consult and involve the children in drawing up menus.
  • Let older children serve themselves.
  • Make mealtimes a pleasant and social experience.


From June Graham:
  • Eat 5 by Helen Foster and Mange Tout: teaching your children to love fruit and vegetables without tears by Lucy Thomas. Useful information and recipes.
  • Infant, Child and Adolescent Nutrition by Judy More.
  • Finger Food for Babies and Toddlers: delicious nutritious food for little hands to hold by Jennie Maizels.
  • Yummy! Every parent's nutrition bible by Jane Clarke.
  • 5-a-day for Kids Made Easy by Karen Bali and Sally Child.

From Ann Ross:
  • Handstand Kids series by Yvette Garfield.
  • 1-2-3 Cook: recipes for young chefs using only three ingredients by Rozanne Gold and Sara Pinto.
  • I Can Cook by Sally Brown and Kate Morris.
  • The Baby-led Weaning Cookbook: over 130 delicious recipes for the whole family to enjoy by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett.
  • Can't Eat, Won't Eat: dietary difficulties and autistic spectrum disorders by Brenda Legge.

From Jane Harrison:
  • They Are What You Feed Them by Dr Alex Richardson.
  • French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon.
  • Dr Ali's Nutrition Bible by Dr Mosaraf Ali.

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