The evaluation of the two-year nursery food study, co-ordinated by the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services (LACORS), found that despite nurseries' good intentions, children are being given the wrong portions of food and nutrients.
The report follows the launch last month of the Government review into standards of nursery food and the setting up of the Advisory Panel on Food and Nutrition in Early Years, which is to draw up recommendations on how the food prepared by nurseries and childminders could be improved.
Food samples from 118 nurseries in 29 local authorities were judged against the guidelines of the Caroline Walker Trust.
Standards varied across the nurseries, but the most common problems were that food was too high in salt and too low in zinc and iron, and portion sizes were inappropriate for young children. Some meals also lacked sufficient carbohydrates, energy and fat.
The study found that despite careful menu planning by most nurseries, they were applying healthy eating principles that were for adults and older children. Some settings said they had received conflicting advice from Ofsted and health professionals about what snacks to give children.
Consultant paediatric dietician Sarah Almond, who analysed nursery snacks and meals served over a five-day week at the nurseries that took part in the study, recommended that staff provide children with one portion of oily fish a week to increase levels of iron and zinc, include a starchy carbohydrate food along with their snack and use full-fat rather than semi-skimmed milk.
LACORS found that nurseries who followed the recommendations improved the standard of their food. It is now urging the Government to establish a single source of guidance that can be used as foundation for training staff and shared with Ofsted, the Department of Health, the Food Standards Agency, the Food School Trust and the DCSF.
It also recommends that information on healthy eating be readily available to parents online or through leaflets and/or posters on display at settings.
Nutritionist Annie Seeley said, 'This report supports the call for nutritional standards and training for catering staff at nurseries. It is worth noting that the nurseries surveyed took part voluntarily and would be happy to have their food provision analysed, so the findings do not represent a full picture of food provision. However, overall, the report provides useful evidence for the Advisory Panel on early years provision.'
- Further information
The report is at www.lacors.gov.uk/lacors/ViewDocument.aspx?docID=23562&docType=C
The Caroline Walker Trust guidelines are at www.cwt.org.uk
The main problems found in nurseries were:
- - Excessively high levels of salt
- - Inappropriate portion sizes
- - Shortage of carbohydrates
- - Low levels of zinc and iron
- - Insufficient quantities of fat
- - High levels of fibre
- - Lack of oily fish
Overall, the ten nurseries who took part in the nursery food study in Buckinghamshire were commended for having good food policies in place.
Findings showed that the majority of settings served food that was too low in iron and zinc and too high in sugar. They were advised to introduce more fat into the children's diets by supplying full-fat milk and occasionally introducing treats such as chocolate, biscuits and mayonnaise.
Rebecca Kaya, Trading Standards officer and project co-ordinator for Buckinghamshire, said, 'Providing nutritional food for children is an emotive issue for nurseries and they are all trying really hard to get this right, but have been scaremongered into avoiding fatty foods and are receiving conflicting advice and pressure from some parents.
'All the nurseries were eager to follow the recommendations and expressed an interest in receiving more training to improve the standard of their food. Most were unfamiliar with the Caroline Walker Trust (CWT) guidelines, and we believe this is something that should be more widely publicised. All early years providers in the county and visitors have been given a copy of the guidelines to ensure everyone is singing off the same song sheet.'
New Beginnings Nursery in Bourne End, Buckinghamshire, who took part in the study, scored one of the highest marks in the county.
The setting's food was praised for meeting the correct levels of zinc, as set out in the CWT guidelines, and providing children with the correct portion sizes. The nursery was given one recommendation: to tweak the weekly menus to include more oily fish, which has been taken onboard.
Nursery owner Ruth Bowles said, 'Being an organic nursery, food is high on our agenda. The whole experience was fascinating and has reassured me that we are providing children with nutritious and good quality food. However, I was surprised to learn that organic produce is no more nutritious than non-organic food, and now if organic produce is unavailable I will consider using non-organic instead.'