Jan 27, 2010

Nursery food debate

How many of you managed to catch Panorama on Monday evening this week? It was much trailed and was all about diet and nutrition of pre-school children, but I couldn’t help but feel it jumped around the subject rather a lot, without presenting a lot of very clear conclusions. I certainly felt for Annabel Karmel, whose very expensive ‘toddler meals’ appear to have high levels of salt and sugar in them, which hardly promotes the nutritionally balanced diet which her cookery books have made so accessible to new parents.

However, the programme did raise the very real issue of how little information is out there for many parents, to help them make the right choices about diet. We may know that a toddler’s diet should be low in salt, but unless we know how much salt they can tolerate in a day and how much salt is in each foodstuff, it is hard to make a balanced judgement.  We have always provided home cooked meals at our nurseries, but I was occasionally concerned by the variation amongst sites, which might depend on the cook or the manager’s preferences. Therefore, last year we undertook a project with 2 seperate groups of students from Oxford Brookes University, who looked at what we currently provided, compared it to nutritional guidelines for under 5s, and then advised us how we could improve the menus.

Not surprisingly, the recommendations included offering ‘5 a day’ of fruit and vegetables, low salt and low refined sugar, but more surprisingly, reminded us that children of this age do need a high calorie, high energy diet but obviously cannot eat huge volume. Therefore, many of the things that we as calorie-conscious adults might cut out, such as fats and carbohydrates, are actually essential for young children. Our new menu cycles include more fructose (fruit sugars) and less refined sugar, and we are constantly looking at ways of reducing salt levels – although frustratingly one of the worst offenders is bread and bread products, which we do rely on for teas and which are very popular. Overall we are now confident that we are offering a balanced diet across the day and the children have certainly been enjoying some new and exciting dishes.

Do have a look at the menu cycles in your nursery and let your nursery manager and/or cook know what you think. We are still seeing how the current plan beds in and I am keen that each nursery has its own local variation and favourites, which is only right. However, I hope we have raised the level of nutritional awareness and stimulated some debate and thought about what everyone is eating. There are some great recipe sheets for each week of menus, so if you’d like to try some at home, just ask.

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