What should my child be eating at nursery?
A guide for parents on eating at nursery
Nursery food is one of the biggest considerations parents have when choosing which nursery to send their child to. This is of little surprise, since good nutrition ensures that children get the correct amounts of energy and nutrients to grow and develop well. Good menus - alongside regular exercise - also foster children's positive attitudes towards eating, with a view to developing lifelong healthy habits.
But what should this diet actually look like? Many nurseries claim to have nutritionally balanced and freshly prepared meals, and many do, but what does this actually mean in practice? Here we explore some of the key things to look for in your child's nursery menu.
Because young children grow quickly and use lots of energy, they have a disproportionately large requirement for nutrients than older children and adults. However, young children also eat less at traditional meal times. The most effective nursery food practices should therefore allow for four or five eating times that provide around 90% of the child's daily nutrition.
This may vary on the circumstances of individual children and families, but children attending for a full day of nursery should expect breakfast (20%), a mid-morning snack (10%), lunch (30%), a mid-afternoon snack (10%), and dinner (20%). This can then be supplemented at home with supper before bedtime, roughly equating to a small glass of milk and a portion of fruit.
One of the key factors of a healthy nursery menu is its variety, as this provides the best balance of nutrients. Nurseries should be aiming to provide food in all of the following categories:
- Potatoes, rice, bread, pasta and other starchy foods containing carbohydrates
- Fruit and vegetables
- Meat, eggs, fish, pulses, beans and other foods containing protein
- Cheese, milk, yoghurt and other dairy foods
A varied menu also introduces children to a wider range of good food, broadening their early experiences and helping to establish a lifelong desire for variety. Nurseries should therefore aim to have at least a 3-week rolling menu which should be changed at least twice per year.
The following are examples of what the mealtimes each day could include. These are for illustrative purposes but give an idea on what each mealtime should look like throughout a week. Remember that variety is a key ingredient, and the best nurseries will avoid giving the same things (such as breakfast cereals and toast for breakfast) every day. Instead they should be aiming to mix it up with other items from the breakfast menu in order to meet each child's nutritional requirements. These illustrations were taken from the HM Government's Examples for Early Years Settings in England (2017).
- Cereal with slices of banana / crumpet and spread
- Cornflakes with milk, raisins and kiwi fruit quarters / white toast and spread
- Hard-boiled egg and tomatoes with wholemeal bread and spread
- Wheat disks with milk and mixed berries / half a slide of fruit bread and spread
- Crisped rice cereal and milk / half a bagel with spread and melon
- Breadsticks and mixed vegetable sticks / milk or water
- Toasted crumpet, spread and strawberries / milk or water
- Yoghurt and sliced grapes / milk or water
- Wholemeal toast with spread and mange tout / milk or water
- Banana slices / milk or water
- Thai chicken or tofu curry with white rice / seasonal fruit salad
- Lamb or lentil moussaka with garlic bread and mixed salad / rhubarb fool
- Pork or soya rage with new potatoes, broad beans and courgettes / pineapple upside down pudding with custard
- Salmon or bean and pea risotto / blueberry sponge cake
- Bean and veggie sausage wholemeal pasta bake / plain Greek yoghurt with raspberry puree
- Cheese slices or sticks and tomatoes / milk or water
- Pineapple slices / milk or water
- Mashed avocado and pitta break / milk or water
- Mixed chopped seasonal fruit / milk or water
- Cucumber and carrot sticks with crackers and cream cheese / milk or water
- Bean and tomato gnocchi bake with bread and spread / frozen strawberry yoghurt
- Tuna fishcakes with tomato relish / seasonal fruit salad
- Pasta with beans and peas / rice pudding with peach puree
- Wholemeal English muffin pizza with various toppings / banana slices
- Crustless quiche with potato salad and pepper sticks / apple slices and raisins
Advice on Vitamin Supplements
While it remains the parents' responsibility to provide supplements to their children, nurseries should be able to offer additional guidance on government advice so be sure to ask. The recommendations in England are as follows:
- Breastfed infants from birth to one year of age should be given a daily supplement containing 8.5 to 10μg of vitamin D.
- Babies who are fed infant formula should not be given a vitamin D supplement until they are receiving less than 500ml of infant formula per day since infant formula is fortified with vitamin D.
- 1 to 4 year olds should be given a daily supplement containing 10μg of vitamin D.
In addition, it is recommended that children aged 6 months to 5 years are also given a supplement of vitamin A (233μg) and vitamin C (20mg).
Although not a requirement and not practical or safe for every setting, the best nurseries will invest in their facilities to allow children to be involved in the process of preparing healthy food. For example, the nursery might have chickens where the children can collect fresh eggs, or a vegetable garden where the children can plant and grow their own vegetables before harvesting for the nursery kitchen. Pizza bases can be topped, softer vegetables and fruit can be cut (with adult help) and recipes can be mixed together.
The whole experience of eating together should be a learning one rather than a nursery chore breaking up segments of the day. Pre-school children in particular enjoy helping to set the table, monitoring hand-washing, and serving up food. This extra time spent can be a very fun and valuable learning experience, so be sure to ask your nursery what it does to allow the children to be involved in delivering the nursery menu.