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Influencing healthy eating habits through early years settings

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Obesity is one of the biggest health problems facing our country. Levels of childhood obesity in England are amongst the highest in the developed world, with almost one in four children being overweight or obese before they start school. Therefore, reducing childhood obesity is a key PHE priority.

Children’s food preferences and eating habits are formed early in life and the time that they spend in early years settings provides an ideal opportunity to shape healthy behaviours.

It is evident that young children’s diets are providing more energy than they need, and consumption of fruit, vegetables, oily fish and fibre are still lower than recommendations.

Children who are overweight or obese in childhood are more likely to become obese adults; this often leads to long-term health issues, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers

Early years settings in England provide an estimated 3 million childcare places across all provider types, with many settings providing meals and snacks.  This offers a unique opportunity to help build good eating habits and influence longer term health.

We know that the experience of a variety of different foods at an early age increases acceptance of new foods, and provides a more diverse diet with the range of nutrients, vitamins and minerals needed for health.

So helping early years settings, including nurseries and childminders, to take positive steps by providing appropriate amounts of energy and nutrients while encouraging the development of healthy eating habits is important.

Revised dietary recommendations for children

In the last few years the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) have published updated reference values for energy requirements for the UK population (2011), the report on carbohydrates and health (2015) and vitamin D (2017).

Each of these reports led to changes in government advice, such as energy recommendations being lower than previously for 1 – 5 year olds, maximum (lower) sugar levels have been set, and recommendations for vitamin D intake have been re-endorsed.

What we’re doing with these updated recommendations

Last year, as part of the Government’s Childhood Obesity Plan, PHE commissioned the development of a series of example menus for early years settings in England.

The menus and accompanying resources bring the updated dietary recommendations to life. They illustrate how early years settings can provide meals and snacks for infants and children (aged six months up to their fifth birthday) in keeping with government advice. Parents can also use them for ideas to help them introduce their child to new foods and textures.

The recipes are not a cookbook dreamt up by government officials, nor are they the next best seller for the high street bookstore or stocking filler for Christmas. Rather, they are real recipes sourced from a range of people already working in early years settings. This means we know that they work for the settings, for parents and carers, and more importantly for children themselves.

Incorporating the menus into early years settings’ catering plans

We know that it can feel difficult to cater for a range of food preferences and age groups, which is why these example menus provide helpful information to make it easier to plan meals and snacks that meet the dietary needs of children.

It isn’t intended that our example menus should be used as the standard menu for any given day  with  every Monday being turkey Bolognese and every Friday being fish – rather they are designed to help early years settings consider how best to plan for the needs of the children they are taking care of.

The Department for Education has developed a set of 6 graphics summarising key elements of the example menus.

Setting our children on the right path for future health is of course every parent or carer’s wish. Taking action to ensure children are not entering primary school overweight or obese will be key to supporting the future health of UK children, and the new example menus highlights the role early years providers can deliver now.

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  1. Comment by Holly doyle posted on

    Why are these not mandatory? We need to get really firm and stop our children being exposed to such appalling food. It's a cultural change too as unhealthy foods are being used as prizes; 'party' food......jam sandwich??! What about other settings like soft play centres and cafes. Our environment is so obesogenic it really is. My son's infant school, finally, stopped parents bringing sweets in for the class on people's birthdays. There are alternatives and it is not about demonising such foods. My son gave everyone in his preschool some stickers when he left instead of sweets. So much to do and I praise the work of public health England and the likes of the British nutrition well as utilising the skills of such professionals as Dietitians. I will read the full report and resources with great interest.

  2. Comment by Isabella Smith posted on

    This is really essential. Staffordshire County Council had just started a Nurturing health award in 2010, I was an assessor and was well aware how much support, encouragement and appropriate advice was needed. Jam sandwiches for tea, some qualified nursery nurses frightened to give raw fruit to children because of choking/gagging, birthday cake treats everyday were just a few issues that needed addressing. Sadly in 2011/12 the funding for me to assess and support ran out and the whole scheme was withdrawn anyway. Lucy Gratton and Nicola Day were the lead on the award, their project. It was excellent and could have gone from strength to strength. Something like this could really work. The idea was to educate and support the early years settings whilst they in turn by their policies, planned menus on display , helped to promote good ideas to parents. The award went further than food, physical activity, outdoor play and nurturing were also included in the criteria. Start early, getting children to try new foods in a peer setting can only be to the good.