What is a balanced diet for children?

16th August 2018

Ever since nutrient-based standards were introduced for school food in 2006, the food served to children in nursery settings has been a hot topic. Momentum has grown behind campaigns to introduce legal standards within the early years sector, attracting significant media attention and causing many parents to demand greater information regarding the food served to their children at nursery.

Until such requirements are brought in, Action for Children and the Early Years Nutrition Partnership offer simple, voluntary guidelines for early years settings, to help early years providers meet the EYFS welfare requirement for the provision of nutritious food.

So what should a healthy, balanced meal for toddlers actually look like?

Checklist for nursery lunches

Nursery lunches for children aged 1-5 should specifically:

  • Contain a portion of starchy food (such as bread, rice, potatoes or pasta) each day – with a variety of at least 3 different starches served across the week. Wholegrains (i.e. brown rice, bread or pasta) should be served as an alternative to refined (white) starches at least once a week.
  • Include a portion of fruit and/or vegetables as part of every lunch, with a good variety across the week. Aim for a selection of different coloured fruits and vegetables to ensure a good variety of nutrients (‘Eat a Rainbow’).
  • Provide a portion of protein in the form of meat, fish, meat alternative (i.e. Quorn or Tofu), eggs or pulses as part of lunch every day.
  • Ensure that one lunch each week uses a meat alternative or pulses as the main protein source – i.e. try a Meat Free Monday.
  • Provide a portion of oily fish (salmon, anchovies, mackerel, sardines, herring or fresh – but not tinned – tuna) at least once every 3 weeks. Try fish curry or a fish pie!

Additional guidelines are also provided regarding appropriate portions and ingredient choices - limiting products containing added salt and sugars (such as tinned foods and condiments), reducing meat products (such as meatballs and burgers) to once a week and banning fried starchy foods, pastries, crisps and others highly processed convenience foods.

Pudding policy

Sugary foods and confectionery should be avoided between meals, but are not banned altogether. In fact, a sweet pudding after lunch is encouraged, in order to provide a sufficient intake of calories, fat and nutrients to meet the relatively high needs of this age group.

Many parents will request just fruit as a dessert option for their child, believing this to be the most balanced choice. However, by supplying fruit alone, children often don’t receive enough calories, carbohydrate or nutrients (such as iron and calcium), which a variety of different dessert options can help to provide. It is therefore suggested that additional desserts (such as jellies, homemade cakes with calcium-rich custard, flapjacks or fruit crumble) are also offered to children over 1 year as part of a balanced lunch menu.

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