As free childcare is extended, nurseries and pre-school settings provide an increasingly vital route to help get children off to the best start with food and nutrition. So what should hot meals and packed lunches be specifically based around, and which guidelines should parents and nurseries follow?
The Eatwell Guide
Public Health England has this year revised its healthy eating model for the UK, updating its previous reincarnation the 'Eatwell Plate' to form the 'Eatwell Guide'. It is suggested that between the ages of two and five, children should gradually move to eating the same foods as healthy adults, in the proportions outlined in the Eatwell Guide.
As per its predecessor, the Eatwell Guide translates government recommendations into clear pictorial form, to help support the general public in making informed food choices to promote good health.
So what are the main dietary messages?
• Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables each day
• Base all meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates (choosing wholegrain versions where possible)
• Consume some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks), choosing lower fat and lower sugar options where possible
• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of sustainably sourced fish every week, one of which should be oily)
• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads (vegetable, rapeseed, olive and sunflower oils) but eat only in small amounts
• Drink 6-8 cups of fluid a day to stay hydrated
The guide has been refreshed to reflect up-to-date dietary recommendations, including those on sugar, fibre and starchy carbohydrates from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) report on Carbohydrates and Health in 2015. The updated ratios therefore place additional emphasis on fruits, vegetables and wholegrain carbohydrates (with the recommended amount of starchy foods increasing from 33% to 37%) but advise limiting the consumption of added sugars - newly quantifying these foods outside of the main plate and removing them from the overall 'balance'. This helps clarify consumer understanding of the minimal role these foods and drinks should play in the diet.
Furthermore, specific advice is now provided on fruit juice and smoothies - confirming that whilst these count as one of the 5 a day target, they should be limited due to their free sugar content (defined as any sugar added to foods by the manufacturer, plus that naturally present in honey, syrups, and fruit juices - rather than from whole fruits).
Animal foods vs plant food
The guide features less dairy overall and a reduction in processed and red meats is encouraged. Instead, plant-based options feature prominently in all food groups - suggesting that at least 76% of our food comes from plants rather than animal sources. Despite a commendable nod towards animal welfare and sustainability, this move has attracted criticism - since meat, fish, eggs and dairy are so nutritionally dense.
How does the Eatwell Guide translate for parents and caregivers?
Generic guidelines such as the Eatwell Guide provide a useful starting point for parents and caregivers to begin to educate children on what a balanced and nutritious diet should look like. It is crucial that children grow up with an understanding of the need for nutritional variety and the assurance that following government dietary recommendations can help them to feel healthy, strong and full of energy. It also helps to illustrate the importance of minimising foods high in fat, sugar and salt, and provides a useful starting point to further explain to children how these foods can negatively affect their health when consumed in excess.
Early years education is an important investment in children's long-term mental and physical health, and food served to children under five in childcare has never been higher on the political, media and parental agenda. Since nutrient-based standards for school food were introduced in 2006, momentum has grown behind campaigns to do the same within pre-schools.
In the absence of mandatory guidelines, voluntary resources such as the Eatwell Guide are essential tools for nurseries and parents looking to make sure they are doing the right things, at the right times, to get children off to the very best start in life.