The voluntary menus for nurseries and childminders have been jointly developed by the Department for Education (DfE), Department of Health and Public Health England (PHE), with advice from a panel of early years and nutrition experts, including the Children's Food Trust and Action for Children.
The menus, which are free to download from the PHE website, and accompanying resources, published today, form part of a wider package of support and advice from the Government to help providers run high-quality childcare in a sustainable, cost-effective way.
It is also hoped that by following the example menus, early years settings will help contribute towards the Government's Obesity plan to reduce childhood obesity over the next decade by providing a health, balanced diet early on in life.
According to the latest statistics from the Child Measurement for 2016/17, almost a quarter of reception children in England are overweight or obese.
The menus, which have been brought in line with the new food standards, follow and update the Children’s Food Trust’s voluntary food and drink guidelines for early years settings, published in 2012.
Unlike the previous guidance, the new early years menus include examples for younger children from six to 12 months, covering weaning, including finger foods, and breastfeeding, as well as children from age one to four. There is also a reduction in seasonal menus from four in the Children's Food Trust guidelines to two in the early years menus. Each seasonal menu covers a three-week period.
For example, the autumn/winter menu for children aged seven-12 months includes wholemeal toast fingers with boiled egg and tomato for breakfast, haddock (or lentil) and ratatouille with pasta shapes for lunch and cous cous and chickpea salad and brocolli florets for tea.
To accompany the menus, Action for Children, which took over the work of the Children's Food Trust after its closure in September, has put together guidance and an information pack for early years settings, which costs £15.99 to buy. The guidance, 'Eat Better, Start Better', and information pack includes advice on packed lunches and meeting children's special dietary requirements, as well as a bundle of nutritional cards explaining how to read food labels.
Minister for Children and Families Robert Goodwill said, 'A good early education is vital to set every child on the path to fulfilling their full potential, and getting healthy, balanced food during the day is an important part of high-quality childcare.
'Providers can use these menus to create appealing meals for young eaters - which any parent with small children knows can be a challenge. I have seen for myself what an important role caterers and kitchen staff have in the settings I’ve been able to visit, so I’m pleased that these new resources can now help them in their work.'
Sir Tony Hawkhead, chief executive of Action for Children, said, 'Action for Children supports parents, carers and practitioners by providing tools and guidance to ensure that children receive the very best start in life.
'We are seeing too many starting school overweight, which often leads to long-term health issues. This is avoidable, and we are looking forward to working with early years practitioners to help support young children in learning good food habits, laying the foundations for a healthy future.'
Early years sector organisations welcomed the introduction of the menus.
Michael Freeston, director of quality improvement at the Pre-school Learning Alliance, part of the initiative’s expert review group and a founding partner of the Early Years Nutrition (EYN) Partnership, said, 'Good nutrition is a vital part of both learning and development, and we are confident that these menus, which were based on a thorough review of early years nutrition and took into account the viewpoints of settings and experts across the sector, will prove welcome additions to the excellent food already being served in the majority of settings.
'These menus will support settings with either practiced chefs or novice cooks and should help providers put quality nutrition at the heart of what they do, something becoming ever more challenging in the current funding climate. Nutrition in the early years is so important to ensuring young children go on to live healthy lives and is a vital part of cognitive development. We hope that these menus will become a cornerstone of the daily life of settings across the country, something the Alliance will be working to support member settings to achieve.'
Liz Bayram, chief executive of PACEY, said, 'PACEY helped to develop the guidance and sample menus because we know our members recognise the importance of good early nutrition and have said they want more help and advice on how to provide this to the children in their care. So we are delighted the guidance has finally been issued but recognise it will only go so far in improving children’s early nutrition. This is because many settings face the implementation challenges of 30 hours of funded childcare. This funding doesn’t include the cost of meals and snacks and, whilst some settings are providing these freely, many are having to charge families. Some families facing financial constraints could be forced to choose a packed lunch instead, an option that evidence suggest is less nutritious than a regular cooked meal.'