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Planning Nutritious Meals in Your Setting

June 17, 2021
4 minute read

There is a whole host of research available to us which identifies links between the food children eat and the way in which they learn and develop. Providing healthy, nutritious and balanced snacks, meals and drinks is part of our every day routine in early years settings, however, understanding how to do this, whilst managing the unique dietary needs of children can be a minefield.

So how can early years leaders ensure children are getting the very best nutrition? Apetito’s resident Dietitian, Emily Stuart, explains more....

Ensuring and building quality

‘We work with talented Chefs, which means that our food is not only nutritious for children but also delicious and with exciting flavours to help develop their palettes,’ says apetito’s resident Dietitian Emily Stuart.

Emily works alongside the trained Chefs to ensure that all of apetito’s food is high quality and all the ingredients used comply with the Eat Better, Start Better voluntary food guidelines for early years settings developed by the Children’s Food Trust and endorsed by the Government.

‘Nursery owners and parents should be reassured that the food that nurseries serve not only tastes great but also delivers good nutritional value for young children. By following the Eat Better, Start Better guidelines you can be confident that dishes contain appropriate levels of key nutrients and that children are receiving enough energy and a great variety from their food. Additionally, you can also provide dessert options that are fruit based so that children do not get accustomed to very sweet foods,’ says Emily.

Emily encourages nurseries to include all the main food groups across a week through a range of meals.

‘Crowd pleasers’

‘When planning meals for young children it is important to think of a variety of factors from whether they are nutritionally balanced, to whether children are receiving a positive food experience – is the food well-presented and does it look appetising?’ says Emily.

‘Dietitians often say that it is good to eat a colourful diet because it gives variety and looks appealing, which makes children want to try it. It also tends to indicate that it contains lots of fruit or vegetables, which is the best way for children to get micro-nutrients and also helps to boost their fibre intake.’

Emily encourages nurseries to include all the main food groups across a week through a range of meals. Importantly, nurseries should include dishes containing oily fish, such as salmon or mackerel, because it is  a good source of Omega-3 which supports good brain development and vision. Vegetarian children or those who cannot eat fish can get omega-3 fats from foods such as flaxseed, chia seeds, green vegetables, edamame beans and using rapeseed oil for cooking. .

‘We are also keen to support people in trying more plant-based meals – built around beans, lentils, vegetables and whole grains - even if they are meat eaters, because of the benefits of including more of these foods,’ she adds. ‘These meals can also be more environmentally friendly and expose children to different tastes and textures.’

We also encourage meals to be a social time with staff and children sitting down and eating together

When planning the recipes, our Chefs work with Emily to consider what the ‘crowd pleasers’ are for children and then think about how to make them more nutritious . They also understand that while young children are often in the process of learning to eat with cutlery, which is actively encouraged, they also enjoy finger foods. Therefore, foods that they can hold, such as long-stemmed broccoli, potato wedges or slices of quiche, are also offered.

Nurseries can change their menu as often as they like to give flexibility and to react to children’s changing palettes. In fact, apetito actively encourages settings to try new dishes so that children can be introduced to different foods.

 ‘We also encourage meals to be a social time with staff and children sitting down and eating together,’ says Emily . ‘Talking about the food, what it is and where it comes from and simply enjoying the different flavours, colours, textures and aromas are all part of a positive eating and learning experience.’ 

By making food exciting, settings can engage with children, not only developing their pallets, but also encouraging new language, communication, emotional development and self regulation. By providing an engaging food experience and promoting positive attitudes at meal times, children will enjoy food, be more adventurous and learn about health along the way!

For more information on providing nutritious and exciting meals in your setting, take 15 mins to watch our healthy meal planning podcast with Emily and Simon, or visit the apetito website

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