Specifically, children’s nutrition while they’re in childcare, and the experiences of food and cooking that they’re able to have whilst they’re there.
Taking a step back for a minute: we’ve been heading in absolutely the right direction on food in early years settings. England now has nationally-approved food and drink guidelines on what under-fives should be eating during a day in childcare: these are underpinned by free online resources and a national early years food and nutrition training programme backed by the Royal Society for Public Health; an Early Years Foundation Stage which demands that the food nurseries serve is healthy, balanced and nutritious and a Government which says "nurseries play a vital role in getting children from all backgrounds to develop good eating habits".
So would the proposed change to staff-child ratios – now described as ‘dead in the water’ by Nick Clegg, - have affected your ability to provide food that meets the welfare requirement and to deliver food activities, including cooking with young children?
Because, let’s be honest, many of the things childcare providers are working so hard on when it comes to food do take an investment of staff time: planning menus, cooking nutritious and tasty meals and snacks, making the time to sit and eat with children; to talk with children about what they’re eating, asking questions and playing games; to get them cooking and growing fruit, vegetables and herbs; practising with cutlery and the social skills of eating together. Just encouraging children to eat at all can be a major exercise in diplomacy.
Would a change in staff-child ratios have meant some settings having to rely more on parents sending in food from home? Our pre-school food survey shows lunches from home often don’t pack the nutritional punch under-fives need to need to grow and develop - adding to the pressure to help parents find good advice on what to put in a lunchbox.
Some might say it’s easy, when you look at the huge scope of the EYFS and all of the experiences nurseries work so hard to give children, to deprioritise food as one of the incidental parts of a child’s day. A tick box exercise: getting them fed regularly.
But early years food and nutrition are so important.
We all agree that if we want children to grow up healthily, with a far better understanding of how to eat well than that of the generation before them, we’ve got to get started early. Nurseries, childminders and other early years settings have a unique opportunity to influence children’s eating habits – getting them on the right track for the rest of their foodie lives.
The experts who recommended the national guidelines on food for early years settings – paediatricians, leaders of national organisations representing early years practitioners and providers, dietitians – said there was a clear call from nurseries, children’s centres and childminders for more support to help children to eat well.
Their report concluded: "Evidence strongly suggests that healthier eating before age five plays a vital role in developing good nutritional health."
If the ratios plans hadn’t been dropped, would nursery staff members and childminders have had just too much on their plates to ‘do’ food well?
- Dr Tricia Mucavele leads the Children’s Food Trust’s early years programme, Eat Better, Start Better – see www.childrensfoodtrust.org.uk/eatbetterstartbetter