Step up to the plate

The food a child eats at nursery might well be their main daily source of nutrition. Charlotte Goddard finds out what support is available to help settings ensure meals are healthy and nutritionally balanced

Child obesity rates soared between 2019/20 and 2020/21, with lockdowns cited as a key factor. In 2021 14.4% of reception-aged children were obese, according to NHS Digital. This fell to 10.1% in 2022 – but that’s still above pre-pandemic levels.

Nurseries are in a unique position to establish good eating habits that will last children for the rest of their lives. September is National Organic Month, which is a great time for settings to help children learn about how food goes from ‘farm to fork’, whether that’s through growing their own vegetables or playing games like ‘where do I grow?’ with real food. Research shows that when children are involved in the growing and preparation of food, they are more likely to try new ingredients.

Settings don’t have to be blessed with acres of land to grow their own food – a balcony or a rooftop garden will suffice. At Kids Inc Clarence Avenue in Ilford, children help nursery chef Marian Ionita to grow organic vegetables on a rooftop garden, which are harvested and used in meals. They also learn about making their own compost. Not only does this educate the children about sustainability, gardening and nutrition, encouraging them to be mindful of their own diets, it also allows Ionita to get to know each child better, understanding their likes, dislikes and dietary requirements.

The nursery chooses easy-growing vegetables like tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber, runner beans and carrots, with explanations given to the children about the purpose and benefits of growing their own vegetables. Eight other Kids Inc settings also grow their own food: Aylesbury, Bluewater (Greenhithe), Chingford, Enfield, Gravesend, Loughton, South Woodford and York Road, which is also based in Ilford.

Children at Bright Little Stars Stanmore also take part in planting throughout the year, growing cress, tomatoes and onions on their balcony. The children discuss during circle times how plants grow and practitioners explain the whole life cycle, which is also displayed on posters in the garden area. Once children have harvested their fruit and vegetables, they have the opportunity to prepare and eat them – they made egg and cress sandwiches with their cress harvest.

There’s help available for nurseries who want to improve their approach to nutrition. The Soil Association’s Food for Life Early Years Award, for example, aims to support nurseries in encouraging positive food and health attitudes that last for life. The award has been developed working closely with early years settings and using learning from the association’s schools award programme. Membership of the Food for Life community, including access to online resources, costs £55 a year and awards packages start at £299.

Many local authorities have their own schemes, some of which are free to access, so it’s worth checking out what is on offer. The Mayor of London’s Healthy Early Years London, for example, has four levels of Awards. HEYL First Steps, Bronze, Silver and Gold can be used to improve and support practice in all early years settings. Southampton City Council has the Healthy Early Years Award (HEYA) which includes awards in Healthy Eating, Healthy Mouth (oral health) and Physical Activity at Bronze, Silver and Gold Levels. Training and awards assessment is free for Southampton nurseries, and can be accessed by other settings at a cost – for example, £40 per person for attending training that has already been arranged for nurseries in the city, or £160 for team training delivered at a setting.

Settings in Birmingham can work their way through the Startwell Awards Scheme. This includes support from a Startwell consultant who will visit nurseries to help assess existing practice and identify areas of improvements. All settings attend mandatory training as part of their award to ensure they feel confident and competent to implement food and physical development activities for all ages, adapt their environment and menus, and support parents.

Bright Little Stars Stanmore was the first day nursery in the London borough of Harrow to achieve the Healthy Early Years London Gold award, with Bright Little Stars Harrow close behind. “We work closely with registered nutritionist Esther Donoff who helps us create seasonal menus,” says manager Ruby Tilley. “The chef creates a menu, we sit down with the nutritionist and we talk about any improvements we can make.”

The nutritionist works across all six Bright Little Stars settings, but menus are specific to each individual nursery. “It depends on what the children like,” explains Tilley. “I always say to the chef if you feel like you are getting a lot of food waste coming back, then change it. We have also incorporated feedback from our parents via our annual parent surveys and input from our highly trained kitchen staff.”

Donoff has also run parent workshops on healthy eating, giving parents ideas around creating well-balanced meals at home, and families are invited to regular tasting sessions. These are so popular that the chef has even been asked if she would cook meals for children to take home with them.

Four weekly rotational menus allow children to taste a wide variety of foods while keeping them excited about mealtimes. Each meal has a vegetarian option, and is accompanied by a detailed nutritional breakdown for parents to view on the nursery’s online parent portal. The nursery uses a system of red, yellow and green plates to keep track of children’s dietary requirements – children with red plates have allergies, those with yellow plates are vegetarian and those with green plates have no requirements.

Not only is September Organic Month, but October includes World Vegetarian Day on 1 October, National Curry Week between 2 and 8 October, National Baking Week between 14 and 20 October and Apple Day on 21 October. With so many opportunities, plus the traditional harvest festivals, there’s no better time for nursery managers to get children, parents and staff involved with promoting healthy eating.

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