Healthier foods served at nurseries in nutritional training trial

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The first training sessions to help early years practitioners deliver the nutritional guidelines have led to 'big improvements' to the food served at settings, finds new research.

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More than 800 early years and health professionals in five local authorities - Hertfordshire, Gateshead, Gloucestershire, Southwark and Stoke-on-Trent - were chosen to pilot the Children’s food Trust’s Eat Better, Start Better programme in 2011.

Through the integrated food, nutrition and healthy cooking programme practitioners received training on how to use the national guidelines on healthy food and drink. They also ran practical cooking sessions with families to help them provide healthier food at home.

An evaluation of the two-year programme, funded by the Department for Education, found that overall food and drink served in the settings early years and health professionals worked with became healthier, more balanced and nutritious.

Settings also offered a wider range of food and changed to using more foods lower in sugar and salt. A larger number were also giving children more appropriate portion sizes.

The research, which included audits of food provision in 184 settings in the five pilot areas before and after training, revealed that the number of nurseries, children’s centres and childminders giving children a portion of fruit or vegetables with their breakfast more than doubled, from 26 per cent to 64 per cent after the training. Most settings (93 per cent) also began serving cereals that contained low or medium levels of sugar.

Settings started giving children snacks to help protect their teeth and fewer gave children dried fruit to eat between meals.

In light of the findings, the Children’s Food Trust makes a number of recommendations for future roll-out of Eat Better, Start Better nationally, including:

  • Local authority Health and Well-being Boards to consider incorporating the programme into their joint heath and well-being strategies as part of the universal and targeted offer within their early years and health services programme.
  • Local authorities to explore opportunities to extend and embed the Eat Better, Start Better programme by increasing awareness and use of the food and drink guidelines amongs settings and encouraging them to sign up to the Early Years Code of Practice for Food and Drink.
  • The Department for Education, Department of Health and local authorities to incorporate the food and drink guidelines and delivery of Eat Better, Start Better into the roll out of national initiatives.
  • Local authorities to consult and build links with parents wherever possible in regard to food provision, and to consider expanding cooking sessions into the wider community.

The cooking sessions practitioners held for parents were also found to have a small but significant impact, with families eating fewer ready meals, takeaways and less healthy drinks.

Parents who were surveyed as part of the evaluation reported feeling more confident at understanding food labels, cooking food in large batches and shopping to cook from scratch.

    Tricia Mucavele, the Children’s Food Trust’s head of nutrition, said, ‘Early years settings have such a unique opportunity to influence the food that young children eat, the habits they form and what they learn about food and cooking at an early age. We’re delighted to see the training and guidelines making such a difference for children so quickly. This is about low-cost, practical steps that early years practitioners and families can take.

    ‘Since the first phase of the programme, we’ve rolled out the training to a further 24 local authorities and we’d love to hear from others who want to join this growing movement of early years professionals who are dedicated to getting children off to a great food start.’

    According to the Children’s Food Trust, the nutritional guidelines have been downloaded 17,000 times since their launch last January.

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