The example menus were jointly developed by the Department for Education, Department of Health and Public Health England, drawing on advice from a panel of early years and nutrition experts.
It is hoped that by following the menus and accompanying guidance – which 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 – settings will help to reduce childhood obesity over the next decade.
Recommendations include limiting cakes, biscuits and desserts, offering just milk and water to drink, and not giving dried fruit or popcorn as snacks.
Tips for providing cost-effective meals include:
- Plan menus in advance to control ingredients cost.
- Buy ‘value’ brands, especially for staple foods such as dried pasta, rice, canned tomatoes.
- For smaller numbers of portions, consider using a slow cooker to cook main meals.
- Batch-cook and freeze additional portions.
- Minimise food waste.
The menus are effectively an update on the Children’s Food Trust’s food and drink guidelines for early years settings, published in 2012. Unlike the latter, the new guidance also caters for younger children, from six months to a year – covering breastfeeding and weaning – and notably recommends avoiding diluted fruit juice.
The Children’s Food Trust’s guidelines stated, ‘Fruit juice should be provided only at meal times (not with snacks), and should be diluted (half juice and half water).’ The new Government guidance is that settings should provide just water and plain milk to drink in order to reduce children’s intake of ‘free sugars’ (sugar that has been added to food or is naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices).
On the provision of desserts, cakes and biscuits, the new guidance differs from that of the Children’s Food Trust by providing more information about what types of desserts could be included with main meals. The new advice is that settings should provide a dessert from each of the following groups each week in order to create variety: hot fruit-based desserts; milk-based desserts; yoghurt/fromage frais; cakes and biscuits containing fruit; and cold desserts.
The guidance also includes food safety advice. To avoid the risk of choking, for example, it recommends:
- cutting sausages into strips rather than chunks and removing the skins for infants
- cutting cheese into strips rather than chunks
- avoiding popcorn as a snack
- avoiding giving children jelly cubes from a packet as part of messy play activities.
- There is also a reduction in seasonal menus from four in the Children’s Food Trust guidelines to two.
Each seasonal menu in the new guidance covers a three-week period. For example, the autumn/winter menu for children aged seven to 12 months includes wholemeal toast fingers with boiled egg and tomato for breakfast; haddock (or lentils) and ratatouille with pasta shapes for lunch; and couscous and chickpea salad with broccoli florets for tea.
The spring/summer example menu for children aged one to four includes berries and yoghurt with toasted oats and cornflakes for breakfast; toasted crumpet with spread and strawberries for snack; Thai chicken curry (or Thai tofu curry) with white rice for lunch; a blueberry sponge cake for dessert; and a pea and asparagus frittata with new potato salad for tea.
The Mulberry Bush in Southampton
While Rachael Thomson – co-owner of this year’s winner of Nursery World’s Nursery Food award – welcomed the example menus, she said that for some settings they could be hard to achieve.
‘The guidelines are good, solid, clear and concise. There is a great deal of fear, ignorance and a lack of confidence around food – we see it with our own staff,’ she commented.
She added, ‘It’s good that the example menus include finger foods for babies, as there is a lot of fear among practitioners surrounding this, mainly because they are worried about choking, but also because it creates extra work in the kitchen and tends to be messy.’
However, she said the example menus could prove challenging for some smaller nurseries and childminders.
She said, ‘The main issue with the menus is that settings would need a cook with them for a significant portion of the day. In smaller settings and for childminders, this could prove challenging, particularly with breakfast.
‘The example menus include options such as sliced or mashed hard-boiled egg and tomatoes with wholemeal bread and spread for breakfast, which would mean a cook starting early in the day, which some settings couldn’t afford, or practitioners coming out of ratio to make.
‘It’s a nice idea, but for lots of settings it would be very hard to achieve.’
British Nutrition Foundation (BNF)
The charity, which is part of the Early Years Nutrition Partnership, called the example menus a useful resource for early years settings, which are under much pressure.
A BNF spokesperson said, ‘It’s vitally important that children learn to eat well in early life, and early years settings can play a key role in supporting good health through the foods and drinks they provide.
‘However, we know that early years settings are under many pressures, from funding to all the statutory obligations they have to fulfil, and so getting food provision right is one of many competing priorities. Putting together a healthy menu for young children from scratch is a big challenge, and so example menus that can be adapted to meet the needs of a setting should be a really useful resource.
‘We know from our work with nurseries within the Early Years Nutrition Partnership that, while early years professionals are really keen to provide healthy food, they don’t always have the confidence and training to develop menus including a wide range of foods in balanced proportions that will be accepted by the children.’
HENRY (Health, Exercise and Nutrition for the Really Young)
Kim Roberts, chief executive of HENRY, a charity concerned with giving children a heathy start in life and helping prevent obesity, and which was on the Government’s advisory panel, said, ‘We greatly welcome the updated guidance. The early years menus are a good tool for nurseries and childminders. Settings can further benefit from training to help them put the guidance into practice.
‘We know from the settings who attend our training that providing healthy food is often at the forefront of their mind. However, staff often think less about how food is served, routines, their attitudes and behaviours. It’s important to make eating meals a social experience for children and for staff to practise responsive feeding and help children to recognise when they are full.’
- Accompanying guidance Eat Better, Start Better has been developed by Action for Children. The guidance and information pack costs £15.99 and is available at https://www.foundationyears.org.uk/eat-better-start-better