Q: Have you had concerns over the food that a child is eating outside of nursery?
A: 'Our nursery is in a children's centre in a deprived area. When we first opened, the children brought in packed lunches and we were shocked by what some of them had. One boy brought in a Pot Noodle every day, another three packets of crisps, and one child would have cold McDonald's or leftover takeaway from the night before. It used to break my heart.
'We now have an outside catering company provide the meals to make sure the children get a good diet. The effect this had on the children was amazing. Their behaviour improved and one child's skin and hair improved almost overnight because she had a more balanced diet.'
'Many of our parents who feed their children unhealthy food are doctors!'
'One of the reasons parents come to us is because of the good food we serve and how we get the children involved with meal preparation. However, it is often obvious that children do not eat the same things at home from the way they react to different foods. All the children tend to develop good eating habits while at nursery due to good role modelling by staff and other children. We try to instil these habits at home, but we cannot insist that parents give them good food at home.'
'Generally, we have not had concerns over the food that our children may be eating outside of nursery. Our parents seem very well informed.'
'It is common for a child to come in eating biscuits and their parent report that they hadn't had breakfast. It's difficult to know whether the child refused to eat, or they'd simply run out of time.'
'Some parents do try to bribe their children out of the nursery with sweets and often children tell us they get sweets at home.'
Q: Has your nursery received odd food requests from parents?
A: 'One parent, when we did the registration visit, said that they did not want their child to eat red meat or tomatoes. The mum was vegetarian and admitted that her partner only ate junk food. The mum had a fear over these foods,so the child's keyworker worked with them both. She gradually introduced these foods into the child's diet,which helped the mum's confidence and the child now happily eats tomatoes and red meat.'
'A couple of parents have said that their child can't eat lumpy food and have to have it pureed. I think this may be because they have concerns with choking, but it also makes the life easier for the parent. Also, I think sometimes they want to keep babying their child.'
'A mother insisted that her child was allergic to all vegetables apart from potatoes. It turned out that she herself did not like them, and her child had once been sick after eating cabbage.'
'Occasionally we have requests not to give some foods. This is often due to prejudice and lack of knowledge and due to a parent not liking some things, or being on a "diet". Sometimes parents are quick to say a child does not like something without giving them a chance to try it again. They can also attribute food to making their child ill, but often this is not the cause. It is important to assess if it is a true allergy, because we don't want to deprive children of a balanced diet. We always ask if they have spoken to their doctor about it, and if they haven't we suggest they get professional advice.
'It is also concerning if a child is denied essential nutrients due to their parents' dietary fads. For example, it is known that children need essential fatty acids for optimum development, including brain development, but I have known parents to think they shouldn't allow their child to have any fat, saturated or non-saturated.'
'A lot of parents say "They won't eat it" when they see the week's menu, but the children invariably do.'
Q: How do you try to encourage children to eat a varied and healthy diet?
A: 'We have a snack bar open during the morning where the children are encouraged to access a selection of fruit and cheeses, milk or water.We offer a wide variety of these to encourage them to try to taste the unfamiliar as well as the familiar. Although the children access this independently, staff are deployed to ensure that adults sit with the children to encourage eating and talk about healthy eating. Children also prepare their own fruit and pour their own drink.
'We have a vegetable garden and the children plant vegetables and fruit in the spring. Some is harvested during the summer and put on the snack bar and more is harvested in the autumn.'
'All of the children are encouraged to try all the food on offer, dietary and allergy requirements taken note of, of course.'
'We always have a selection of fresh fruit in the nursery for snack time and we do a lot of cooking with the children and food tasting.'
'We try every trick in the book - runner beans will make you run as fast as Dash from the Incredibles, carrots will make you see in the dark like Batman, if you eat two spoonfuls you can be my special helper, disguising the food the children dislike in a sauce, or simply ignoring it. If a child is really hungry they will eat, and sometimes if they aren't receiving any attention then they will get bored and just eat up.'
'It is important to ensure a stress-free atmosphere where children feel happy and secure. It is best if adults eat with the children and this provides good role-modelling.
'It also helps if children have been involved in food preparation. For those who are truly going through a neo-phobic stage, it is wise to hide vegetables and fruit. It is amazing how many vegetables you can hide in spaghetti bolognaise! And it is wise to remember that all children are individuals and have differing appetites. The adults need to ensure the right food is offered, and a suitable amount.'
Q: How do you work with parents to encourage healthy eating at home?
A: 'As many parents work long hours, it can become difficult to prepare and cook fresh evening meals for their children, so frozen food will often be used to create a filling, fast meal. To support the parents in overcoming this we often arrange cooking trials on open days and fun days to allow parents to create fresh nutritional meals that can be prepared in advance and stored in the fridge.
'Menu cards listing the ingredients and methods that go in to the meals cooked at nursery are also available for the parents to try at home.'
'One of the most successful ways is to ask parents in to help with lunchtime preparation. Cookery sessions offer an opportunity to chat and gain an insight into feeding their children as well as imparting knowledge about how to prepare meals, but I have found that parents who lack knowledge are often reluctant to join in. Older children tend to request nursery meals at home and this provokes parents to ask for recipes.
'We also hold parent and baby sessions that provide a chance to chat about healthy eating and weaning in an informal way. Parents are often reluctant to give up the bottle despite the fact their child is eating solids and this can lead to faddiness.'
'Whenever I've had concerns I've spoken to the health visitor and she's dropped some healthy eating leaflets in for me to give out to all of the parents.'
'We have introduced a monthly food workshop to help educate parents and we try to target those who are not giving their children such a healthy diet at home. Sessions have included an Asda representative talking to parents about what should be in a healthy lunchbox, and our caterers have led food tasting sessions.'
'When parents have wanted their child to eat pureed food we have worked with them to build their confidence, gradually making the food lumpier to show them they can eat it.'
AN EXPERT'S VIEW
By Mary Whiting, food writer and author of titles including Managing Nursery Food and Dump the Junk
Two things jump out from these managers' comments: evidence of the inbuilt connection between diet and health, and how it's possible to get children to eat well at nursery despite poor habits at home.
It was fascinating to read how one child's skin and hair improved 'almost overnight' after eating better food. So many problems, including behavioural ones, can simply vanish when all nutrients are adequately supplied. In particular, 'essential fatty acids' (found in oily fish) are so called because they are essential for good health and especially for brain development. Tinned sardines, pilchards or mackerel (not tuna) are good sources and easy to present, perhaps with shredded lettuce on toast or on pizzas or mixed into salads, or served with rice.
Modelling by staff and other children is certainly key to getting children to enjoy health-building food, as is presenting a selection of quality snacks where children can choose and experiment. Similarly beneficial is allowing children to serve themselves at mealtimes from serving bowls on each table. When able to choose freely, children relax, become more willing to try new things and sometimes eat more.
It is encouraging how the mere provision of tasty, healthy food at nursery can impact on food provision at home. And growing food, posting weekly menus, having recipes readily available, involving parents in 'tastings' or workshop sessions and so on can be invaluable for parents with limited cooking skills or who know little about nutrition.
Along with menu and snack details, the nursery's food policy, agreed by staff, also needs displaying. It should be included in the parents' information pack and explained to new parents. The policy can include tactful, basic guidelines for food brought in, such as 'We like the lunch to include a piece of fruit'.
It should also say that in order to provide for any allergy or intolerance, it's essential for the parent to provide written confirmation of it from the child's doctor or hospital.
The importance of breakfast is another aspect worth covering, as breakfast's energy boost lasts, amazingly, well into afternoon. Protein-plus-carbohydrate is the idea.
The Caroline Walker Trust has a wealth of resources and advice on eating for under fives. Visit www.cwt.org.uk