14 April 2010

Northamptonshire County Council is hoping to fill a gap in healthy eating guidelines by issuing advice to nurseries about the nutritional needs of small children.

The lack of clear guidance about a good diet for the under fives means that even the best-intentioned nursery schools are sometimes providing small children with an unbalanced diet, Northamptonshire County Council trading standards warned today (14 April) following the publication of national research.

Trading Standards is also advising parents and carers of children attending nurseries to talk about healthy eating with their nursery school. In the East Midlands, trading standards teams took samples of a week’s menus from twenty-two nurseries to be analysed as part of this research.

The nurseries were all trying to provide a good diet for their very young customers but were not always getting the balance right. However, it was hard for them to know how well they were doing as there are no official guidelines for the under-fives age group. So Trading Standards along with dieticians have offered a helping hand.

Recommendations varied across all the nurseries involved but included:

  • Reducing levels of salt found at all nurseries
  • Controlling portion sizes, mainly too large but sometimes too small
  • Increase carbohydrates to give children energy because some were giving fruit instead rather than in addition
  • Increase iron-rich foods

A common problem was applying healthy eating principles for adults and older children to the under-fives, despite their very different needs.

For example, some concerned parents mistakenly asked for skimmed milk or no red meat thinking it was healthy for their child. But this too could cause an imbalanced diet if not managed carefully.

The national research is recommending that all nurseries reduce the reliance on packet mixes, gravy, soup, bread and processed meat to reduce salt levels. The project showed that food nutritional standards improved once childcare providers had accurate information about their menus, and were given better information about how to give very young children the right diet.

Paul Maylunn, food and health manager at Northamptonshire County Council’s Trading Standards Service said: “School meals already have nutrition standards that must be met and we want to extend improved nutrition to the under-fives too.

“Building on this research, we’ve been able to develop some helpful guidance for nursery schools. The children are often there for most of the day so it’s important that nurseries are able to provide the right nutrition. We want to pass on, through the council’s children & young people’s service, what has been learned.”

All of the nurseries involved in this project were already committed to offering children a healthy and enjoyable menu and welcomed the extra support offered by trading standards and dieticians to help them achieve this.

Colin Evans, development director for Caring Kindergartens Ltd said “We were delighted to be asked to take part in the survey, as we were actively reviewing our menus across all our nurseries as part of our focus of healthy eating and activity. We found there were certain areas we could improve on, through amending the food we offer to different age groups; and this information has been invaluable in helping with formulating new menus across the group. Our parents are delighted to know we have taken these findings on-board, and are looking forward to sampling the new menu when it is launched!”

Maureen Radwell, nursery cook at Thorplands Children’s Centre said “We were very pleased to be asked to take part in this study as there are very few guidelines available for nursery menus. We were very happy with our feedback which confirmed we were providing a well balanced menu throughout the nursery. Following the recommendations that were given we now include more pulses into the weeks’ menus to help improve iron intake and we have reduced the milk that the children drink daily.”

Additional information:

The research findings are the result of an extensive two-year study coordinated by LACORS, (Local Authorities Coordinators of Regulatory Services) the local government central body responsible for overseeing local authority regulatory and related services.

The national press release and report findings are available on:

The study found that none of the nurseries which volunteered to be involved were managing to meet all of the current guidelines on food for this age group, despite many putting a lot of effort into providing healthy menus.

Nurseries were recommended to reduce the reliance on bread at tea time and use lower salt alternatives such as jacket potatoes or pasta.

Children attending nursery often consume a large proportion of their food there, with some attending from 7am- 6pm. It is therefore important that the food offered by nurseries provides children with the correct amount of energy and a good balance of key nutrients. There are currently no regulations for food served in nurseries as there are in schools and although there are a number of guidance documents available they are often very general in their approach or not widely publicised to nurseries.

The council’s Trading Standards team was pleased to be able to work with the Department of Health East Midlands on this project as it was imperative to have councils and health professionals on board to make sure that practical guidance could be given to nurseries.

All nurseries that took part in this project have been given ‘Nutrition in Nursery Schools’ Regional Guidance. Once Trading Standards staff gave the nurseries the extra information and support which was part of this research, nursery staff were able to make rapid improvements to the diets of children in their care. This guidance will be disseminated to all nursery schools in the East Midlands region.