A study by the University of Liverpool, funded by the Liverpool Institute for Health Inequalities Research on behalf of the local Primary Care Trust, found that nurseries struggle to provide an appropriate diet for children due to a lack of specialist training, limited guidance and tight budgets.
It follows a study by the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services (LACORS) that found despite good intentions, nurseries are giving children the wrong foods (News, 15 April).
The aim of the study was to explore food provision in Liverpool nurseries in both affluent and deprived areas and develop a package of interventions to promote healthy eating in deprived communities.
Lead researcher Dr Ffion Lloyd-Williams from the University of Liverpool said, 'Nursery food is an important issue. There is statutory guidance for primary and secondary schools but not early years.'
The researchers compared the types of foods consumed in the nurseries and looked at children's experiences of eating, the way staff enabled the provision of healthy food and any potential barriers.
They found that while nurseries aimed to use fresh produce, many relied on packet sauces high in salt. Meals also lacked sufficient carbohydrates and polyunsaturated oils and fats.
The study also found that nurseries who made mealtimes fun for children hugely improved their eating habits.
However, the quality of a nursery's food did not depend on its socio-economic status but the level of experience of the nursery manager and cook.
The researchers are now recommending that the Government work with the Department of Health to develop clear statutory guidance outlining budget levels and provide funding for staff training on healthy eating for the under-fives.
The findings have also been relayed to the School Food Trust Advisory Panel on Food and Nutrition in Early Years.