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.

What should my child be eating at nursery?

Eating Times

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.

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Menu Variety

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:

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).


Mind-morning Snack:


Mid-Afternoon Snack:


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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:

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).

Child Involvement

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.

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