The School Food Trust discusses how its new guidelines will help nurseries and childminders provide healthy meals for young children in a bid to reduce obesity in the under-fives.

By Lisa Salmon.

All parents want to give their children the best start in life - and a vital part of that good start is a healthy diet.

But with 66% of mothers now working full or part-time, more under-fives than ever are attending childcare, and responsibility for their diet lies with childcarers as well as parents.

As most parents know, providing healthy food for toddlers is far from easy. But, after an independent report flagged up demand from both childcare providers and parents for clearer guidance on what to feed children under five, the School Food Trust (SFT) has stepped in with new voluntary guidelines that it hopes regulated childcare settings including nurseries, childminders, nannies, pre-schools, children's centres and playgroups, will follow.

Non-regulated settings, such as parent and toddler groups, are also encouraged to use the guidance when providing food and drink for children.

The Eat Better, Start Better guide includes information about the foods childcarers should offer young children, portion sizes, sample menus and recipes, advice on tackling fussy eating, and how to involve children in food and cooking activities.

School Food Trust nutritionist Tricia Mucavele explains: "The guidelines were brought in in response to demand by both childcare providers and parents, who said there was significant confusion about how to feed children well in early years settings.

"It's really important to establish good eating habits early in life - it's critical for children's health."

It's also important that children under five eat a diet appropriate for their age, rather than for older children and adults, as young children are growing quickly and have high energy and nutrient requirements for their size.

They should also eat smaller amounts than older children and adults.

Mucavele points out that more than a fifth of children are overweight or obese by their first year at primary school, and says the guidance will help to address the issue.

She says: "A diet for older children and adults is inappropriate for the under-fives, because an adult diet should be low in fat, sugar and salt and high in fibre, but if you had a low-fat and high-fibre diet for children under five it would be too bulky."

It's hoped that as the guidelines also include information about involving children in preparing healthy food, they'll share this with their parents so a more healthy approach to food is adopted at home as well. The guidance also includes recipes which could be used at home.

Mucavele explains that what childcare settings needed was practical guidance, so the new information explains the types of food children need, the amounts, and the frequency food should be provided.

Finished recipes included in the guide have been photographed on a plate to illustrate the correct portion size, and the recipes feature enough for five servings, which may be appropriate for a childminder, and 20 servings for nurseries.

The guidelines are based on the four food groups of starchy foods; fruit and vegetables; meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein; and milk and dairy foods.

"Planning meals and snacks to include a variety of food and drinks from these four food groups each day will provide children with the good balance of nutrients they need," says Mucavele.

The guidelines include the right amount of the right kind of fat that children need to get enough energy, with limited amounts of saturated fat. Sugary food and drink which can lead to tooth decay and provide 'empty calories' is limited, as is salt which can contribute to serious health conditions in later life.

A typical day's recommended meals might be: Breakfast: Starchy food such as low or medium-sugar content cereal with milk, or toast, and fruit juice or dried fruit.

Morning snack: Half a muffin with spread and a portion of fruit, plus a drink of water or milk.

Lunch: Fish pie with seasonal vegetables, with a dessert such as apple crumble with custard.

Afternoon snack: Low-fat breadsticks with egg, tomatoes and a drink of milk.

Tea: Risotto or a stir-fry, with a fresh fruit salad dessert.

Mucavele points out that some children may be in childcare for 10 hours a day, so 90% of their food and drink is consumed at the setting.

Others may move from one setting to another during the day, for example from a childminder to a pre-school class.

"If all settings use the guidance," she says, "that means that even if a child has breakfast at one setting and lunch in another, they'll still be getting the appropriate amount of energy and nutrients."

Commenting on the new guidelines, Children's Minister Sarah Teather said: "Healthy eating is at the heart of helping every child get the best start in life. Nurseries play a vital role in getting children to develop good eating habits - but many lack the expert knowledge of what is the best food to serve.

"Parents rightly want their children to be eating healthy, nutritional food. Thanks to these voluntary guidelines, we will help nurseries and other childcare providers do just that."

And Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, says: "These new guidelines will help children to get a healthy start in their early years and hopefully instil a healthy eating attitude which will last a lifetime.

"We will be working with our member nurseries to help them to understand and implement the guidelines well in their settings."

:: The guidelines can be downloaded at Ask the expert Q: "Is playing outside in the UK likely to help my kids get enough vitamin D to keep them healthy?"

A: Dr Nick Osborne from the European Centre for Environment & Human Health, who recently led a study into the health effects of sun exposure on children, says: "Low vitamin D in adults has been associated with increased mortality, and diseases such as cancer, bone health and falls, cardiovascular disease and infections.

"In children, it's most commonly associated with rickets, which causes a softening of bones, potentially leading to fractures and deformity.

"Rickets appears to be in resurgence in developed countries after almost disappearing in the 20th century. Infants aged six-24 months are at greatest risk.

"Links to other childhood diseases such as food allergy and eczema are being investigated.

"The amount of sunshine needed to generate vitamin D is fairly small. In the temperate regions (between the tropics and Arctic circles), the sun is strong enough in spring and summer, so for most people 15 minutes a day will be all you need to keep healthy, as about 85% of our vitamin D comes from sun exposure.

"People living in Britain will not make vitamin D during the winter months. But fortunately vitamin D has a half-life of six to eight weeks (the time taken for half of the body's reserves to be used up), so in most places on the planet, by the time we welcome the spring sunshine we're only topping up.

"Luckily, only short bursts of sun are needed to produce enough vitamin D, so long stints in the sun aren't necessary. These, of course, are dangerous as they may increase the risk of skin cancers.

"Most people are able to top up their sun-derived vitamin D with a healthy diet, including food that contain vitamin D such as oily fish, eggs and fortified fat spreads."

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