Catherine Lippe, Registered Nutrition Professional, Early Years Nutrition Partnership
In November last year the Department for Education and Public Health England (PHE) published new example menus and recipes for early years providers to support them in providing nutritious and varied food for children in their care.
We were pleased to see this step being made towards improving nutrition for young children because establishing healthy eating habits early in life is fundamental to improving future health outcomes. The publication of these materials reinforces this evidence and highlights the growing responsibility of early years settings in improving the future health of the nation.
Whilst the example menus and associated guidance are a very helpful step to supporting early years providers I believe that more assistance is needed to implement it successfully. Having worked with nurseries for many years I have seen, first hand, how challenging providers find it to implement such guidance in a practical and sustainable way.
Challenges implementing nutrition guidance
Some nurseries may not even be aware that such government guidance exists. Others are aware and have studiously downloaded all the resources with the intention to read and make sense of them when they have time. Unfortunately, as the guidance is voluntary rather than mandatory, finding the time to implement it isn’t prioritised and with so many other areas to focus on, nutrition slips further and further down the priority list.
You could argue that the nurseries should simply copy the menus and recipes published in the guidance. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy and although settings might find some meals or recipes to suit them there is still work to do in assessing the menu as whole. PHE have acknowledged this in the publication stating that ‘overall the menus should be checked by the setting to ensure they remain varied and meet dietary requirements’. This adds additional workload for the nursery. Without relevant training or experience how will they know their menus are varied and meeting the recommended dietary requirements?
Nursery managers have told me how they’ve tried to adapt their menus themselves in order to make it fit with the guidance. In reality what they ended up with was menus that didn’t suit their cooking facilities, their chef’s skills or capabilities and were too expensive to sustain. There are many elements to menu planning. It’s not just about meeting the nutritional guidance. Menus must also fit the demographics of the nursery, meet all dietary requirements, suit budget, food availability, waste, chef’s ability, kitchen equipment and sustainability policies.
If we want to see real and sustainable change it is paramount that we support nurseries with each of these elements and help them overcome potential challenges along the way. Can we really expect early years practitioners to have the expertise to achieve this successfully? In my experience no. Resources are tight (and becoming tighter) and time is precious. Early years practitioners may realise the importance of nutrition but without any expertise in the area it becomes incredibly challenging to make the necessary changes.