The new voluntary guidance, launched on 16 January by the School Food Trust, provides early years settings with a nationally recognised source of information about what food and drink they should serve to young children to help instil healthy eating habits and tackle childhood obesity.
To help settings plan healthy meals and snacks, the guidance includes information about what types of food and drink should be served to children and the correct portion size for their age. How to read food labels and observe food safety and hygiene practices are also covered, along with advice about what different religious and cultural groups can eat and ways to tackle fussy eating.
A voluntary code of practice has also been launched by the School Food Trust, which encourages settings to consider whether they provide children with a positive and welcoming eating environment and to consult with children and their families about the food they offer.
Training for early years providers on how to use the guidelines is taking place in Stoke, Southwark, Gateshead, Hertfordshire and Gloucestershire and will be rolled out in other areas.
While the guidelines have been positively received, child health experts have criticised the Government for failing to make them obligatory. Some say that only nurseries which already serve healthy meals to children will follow the guidelines, rather than underperforming settings that really need them.
Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum told Nursery World, 'The guidance may be brilliant, but it won't achieve what it needs to unless it is made mandatory. The School Food Trust states in the guidance that it was produced to "ensure" that the nutritional requirements for children aged one to five are met but, being voluntary, it is very doubtful this will be achieved.
'Certainly, many nurseries are doing a fine job with catering, but the Government knows that many aren't. Crucially, they are the ones where the guidance is most needed but least likely to be implemented.'
Nutritionist Annie Seeley also expressed concerns that not all nurseries and childminders will follow the guidelines unless they are made statutory.
Writing on her blog, she said, 'In my line of work I am lucky enough to see excellent providers in action. I have heard of poor food provision, though - but I don't get invited to visit these nurseries. We need these standards to be statutory, like the school food standards, to provide a safety net so that all children attend a nursery or go to a childminder where the food provision meets these guidelines. In short, they need to be standards rather than guidelines.
'It seems a missed opportunity to me that the most crucial age in a child's development is not protected by law. And while the lack of nutrition standards in academies is undermining school standards, they are still in place for state schools run by local authorities.'
Victoria Taylor, the British Heart Foundation's senior dietician, has suggested that following the launch of the nutritional guidelines, food and drink provision should be closely monitored in early years settings. If standards slip, she said, the guidelines should become mandatory.
According to Mr Fry, another problem with the guidelines is the cost to nurseries if they decide they would like a printed copy. For a printed copy of the guidelines and recipe books, early years settings have to pay £12 for the guidelines and £10 each for the two recipe books, or £20 for all three documents. Special offers exist for nurseries that want to buy the guidelines in bulk, at 60 or more copies.
The documents can also be downloaded for free from the School Food Trust's website. But Mr Fry said that their large file size could prevent some settings with basic computers being able to download the documents.
CASE STUDIES: PILOTING THE GUIDANCE
Julia Deakin, a childminder from Doncaster, South Yorkshire, and the Old School House Day Nursery in Stetchworth, Cambridgshire, were chosen to pilot the nutritional guidelines last summer.
Ms Deakin said, 'I was serving nutritionally balanced meals before I received the guidelines. I didn't think I would find the guidance useful. However, it has opened my eyes.
'The information about portion sizes has been most helpful and highlighted that I was over-feeding the children I care for. I also wasn't aware that you should dilute pure fruit juice when giving it to children because of its high sugar content, until I read it in the guidance.
'The table which details what foods children from different religions can eat is also really useful and has meant I don't have to "Google" everything.'
She added that the recipes have helped her to provide the children in her care with a more varied diet, and that the advice on fussy eating has proved invaluable.
Ms Deakin is now hoping to teach families at her local children's centre how to cook the recipes in the guidance.
Linda Baston-Pitt, director of the Old School House Day Nursery, said, 'Piloting the nutritional guidelines enabled us to reflect, evaluate and improve upon the food and drink provision that we already made for young children.
'The information in the guidance about reading food labels was a very useful tool and acted as a reminder about what we need to look for when buying products. We used this to check all of our ingredients, and although this took a little time initially, we will only need to repeat this again when we buy new products.'
Staff at the nursery have reported that since using the guidelines, they feel more confident in their practice and in communicating with their colleagues and parents. Another benefit has been exposing children to unfamiliar foods.
Ms Baston-Pitt said that the challenges ahead would be providing funding and support for ongoing training, as well as ensuring that the guidelines become a part of daily practice, rather than seen as an extra administrative burden.