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Why do we need national guidelines on food for children at nursery?

Because professionals working in nurseries, in children’s centres and as childminders had been asking for them for many years. The best way to help children grow up with a healthy diet is to start early, so what they eat in childcare is crucial. By following our national guidelines, anyone feeding under-fives can be sure they’re giving children a great start with food, and parents know what to look for.

Who are the national voluntary food and drink guidelines for?

Anyone feeding children between the ages of one and five. That means children’s centres, registered childminders and nannies, private, voluntary and independent nurseries, local authority maintained nursery schools, nursery classes within primary schools, pre-schools and sessional care like playgroups. We also encourage anyone organising activities for little ones of this age to use the guidelines if they’re providing food, and they’re a great way to help parents know what to expect from food in childcare.<

Are there guidelines on food in childcare for children under the age of one?

Great sources of information are:

Birth to five:

Are the national guidelines compulsory?

No – but they were commissioned by the Department for Education and represent national best practice. They were developed with national professional organisations like PACEY and the National Day Nurseries Association, and are an easy way to show how you meet the Early Years Foundation Stage welfare requirement on providing ‘healthy, balanced and nutritious’ food and drink. Using the guidelines is also a way to show parents your commitment to helping children eat well.

By law, maintained nursery schools and nursery classes within maintained primary schools need to meet Schedule 5 of the national school food standards. By using the national guidelines on food in childcare, you’ll hit the mark.

Do early years settings have to follow our menus and recipes?

No – but these offer great ideas on how to use the guidelines, and how to use seasonal ingredients in your menu.

How were the guidelines tested?

18 different nurseries, children’s centres, pre-schools and childminders tried out the guidelines to make sure they were clear and easy to understand and use.

The guidelines were also reviewed and are supported by the Department for Education, Department of Health, national early years organisations and nutritionists.

How do the guidelines differ from the national standards for school food?

The guidelines are voluntary, while the national school food standards are a legal requirement for most schools. But there are similarities: both the guidelines for food in childcare and school food standards set out what types of foods and drink should be on offer; how often they should be offered and in what quantities. If nurseries and schools follow the relevant guidance for the children they cater for, they’ll meet children’s nutritional needs.

We only provide snacks/drinks – can we still use the guidelines?

Yes – there are great ideas for snacks and drinks in the practical guide.

We don’t have the facilities to prepare hot food. Can we still follow the guidelines?

Yes – the guidelines work with any sorts of meals, snacks or drinks – including cold meals and packed lunches. There are lots of ideas for cold meals in the guide.

Should the guidelines apply to packed lunches sent in by parents?

One way to use the guidelines is to share ideas on what makes a good packed lunch with parents. That way, you can help parents make sure the food they send into childcare is as healthy as the food you provide..

We provide a snack tea, rather than a light meal as included in the example menus. Should we be providing a light meal for children before they go home instead?

Our example menus are planned to provide 30% of children’s average daily energy requirements at lunchtime and 20% at teatime. However, we know some of you provide a main meal for tea, while others offer a light meal and others only a snack, so children can eat with their families when they get home. The key thing is to follow the most appropriate guidelines for the meal or snack and make sure families know how you organise your meals – so that they can give their child a meal or snack as appropriate when they get home.

Why does the practical guide state that food provided in early years settings can provide 125% of the recommended maximum salt intake for young children?

Current salt targets can be tough to meet for young children when you’re trying to include foods which are good sources of nutrients like iron and calcium, and when you’re trying to meet other targets for a balanced diet. So the advisors working on our guidelines agreed the target could be higher. However, it’s really important that children don’t have too much salt in their diet. Cooking from scratch, checking product labels to choose lower-salt options and using the guidelines to plan meals all helps.

The food and drink guidelines state that starchy foods which have been fried should not be provided more than once a week at lunch or tea – which foods do these include?

This group includes starchy foods which have been cooked in oil in the kitchen (like roast potatoes, potato wedges, chips and fried rice) and also bought potato products which have been fried during manufacture (like potato waffles, smiley faces and other processed potato shapes). These foods can be high in fat and saturated fat. Limiting them is also a way to get children trying different sorts of starchy foods instead. When you are serving fried starchy foods, it’s also much healthier to make them from scratch rather than using processed versions (e.g. make your own roast potatoes rather than heating up ready-made frozen ones).