The Voluntary Food and Drink Guidelines for Early Years Settings were introduced by the Children's Food Trust to provide a nationally recognised source of information to childcare providers about what food and drink they should serve to children to help instil healthy eating habits and tackle childhood obesity.
The guidance, launched in January 2012, includes recipes and sample menus for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks for five days of the week (pictured right).
The Children’s Food Trust has also published findings from a study it carried out a few months after the launch of the guidelines, which analysed the food intake of nearly 1,500 children attending early years settings in Oldham, Coventry and Suffolk.
While the Department for Education-funded research found that most settings are meeting many of the food and drink guidelines, it shows that on average the levels of iron and zinc in food were substantially lower than the recommended standards.
In contrast, the sodium content of food was higher than the maximum set by the standards, with the average teatime meal served by early years settings containing nearly double the recommended amount.
On average, full daycare settings were also found to provide less than the recommended level of energy at 979 calories. It is thought the reason for this is because portion sizes were generally too small.
The recommendation for children aged one to four is 1,290 calories a day at nursery, comprising five meals and snacks. The estimated average daily requirement for children of this age is 1,160 calories, equivalent to 90 per cent of children's estimated average daily requirements.
The guidelines recommend that dried fruit is not provided at snack time as it contains sugar that can stick to and damage children’s teeth, however one-third of early years settings surveyed provided dried fruit at one or more snack occasions per week.
Nearly 40 per cent of settings gave children squash, which the guidelines advise against, or fruit juice, recommended to be avoided at snack times. A greater proportion of childminders than nurseries provided squash or fruit juice at snack time.
Most settings (82 per cent) did not provide a variety of wholegrain starchy foods every week, or none at all. The guidelines state that wholegrain starchy foods should be given to children once or twice per week. Fewer than half of the settings involved in the study provided a source of protein every day
The report says that the eating environment in early years settings was generally used effectively to encourage children to eat well, however only two-thirds of settings encouraged children to try new foods.
Dr Patricia Mucavele, research and nutrition senior manager for the Children’s Food Trust, said, ‘Childcare providers tell us they really want to nail this, making sure they’re giving children in their care nutritious food which sets them up for a healthy start in life.
‘Early years settings are doing a good job, they just need to make a few tweaks to the food they are providing. There’s lots of good practice out there already and these findings highlight the key areas for improvement, which is exactly why the guidelines are needed.
‘Our research found that the food provided by the early years settings was not as diverse as it could be. This could be because of a lack of confidence among settings about how to cook different foods, cost and wanting to give children familiar foods that they know they will eat. The best way to introduce new foods is to give children tasters.
‘A key message is that the more colourful a plate, the more nutritious it is and more appealing to children.’
She added, ‘If you’re a childcare provider or a parent of a child at nursery, now is the time to get involved with this incredible movement of early years professionals and parents working together on great food for young children.’