The under-fives are unprotected by the national nutritional standards, but responsible nurseries have set their own high standards. Janet Harmer profiles four of them
The transformation towards healthier school meals is such a hot issue at present that one would expect the Government to take steps to ensure that good quality, nutritious food is being fed to our youngest children.
It's, astonishing, therefore, to discover that nurseries, which feed babies as young as three months up to children of four or five, don't have to comply with the new national nutritional standards that became compulsory in schools across England last September - unless it's attached to a primary school.
It could be argued that the feeding of the right food to babies, toddlers and young children is even more important than children of primary and secondary school age, as this is the time that rapid bone and brain development is taking place.
The reality, though, is that some children, who may be receiving all of their meals at a nursery, five days a week, while their parents are in work full-time, may not be receiving a nutritionally balanced diet.
The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) is responsible for inspecting the full provision of nurseries, which include all private and maintained establishments, children's centres and preschool offerings for the under-fives. When it comes to food, it's expected to evaluate and report on the Department for Education and Skills' (DfES) national standards for under-eights day care and child minding, which states that "children are provided with regular drinks and food in adequate quantities for their needs. Food and drink is properly prepared, nutritious and complies with dietary and religious requirements".
Such a general statement can be open to interpretation in many ways, particularly when there's no legal requirement for nurseries to comply with the standards. The DfES says it's putting together new guidelines for nursery education - due for publication this spring - which will include information on healthy eating, but they will be voluntary.
Jo Brock, owner of The Ark, a private nursery near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, says that nurseries should be expected to comply with compulsory nutritional standards.
"Babies should be fed a healthy, balanced diet from the age of six months when they're weaned from a milk-only diet," she says. "If children eat rubbish from a young age they'll suffer from deficiencies in minerals and vitamins which will affect their physical development and behaviour at a later stage."
Encouragingly, a survey produced by Ofsted last March reported that most child-carers have a good knowledge of healthy eating and provide a nutritious and balanced diet for young children in their care. However, the findings were based on inspections carried out in 110 establishments, which is a tiny proportion of the 36,400 nurseries and preschool provisions looking after 1.2 million children throughout the country.
The food in nurseries is generally prepared by in-house catering staff made up of a mix of qualified chefs and cooks who have trained on the job. Very few contract catering companies provide catering for nurseries, unless it involves a facility attached to a primary school where they run the contract. Harrison Catering Services (see panel on Balham Nursery School, page 52) is one exception.
While it's difficult to give a general assessment of the quality of food and its nutritional content served in nurseries across the country, many establishments are adopting good practice, a few of which Caterer features here.
Orbital House, Park View Road, Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Tel: 01422 200060
Part of the independent Asquith Nurseries group which runs 115 nurseries and crèches throughout the UK, about one-third of which are situated inside David Lloyd leisure and fitness centres.
Asquith Nurseries believes that children's eating habits start long before they reach school. This, together with the fact that many of the babies and children who attend an Asquith nursery may eat three meals a day outside the home, resulted in the company rethinking its food policy.
The result was the launch in September 2005 of freshly prepared, nutritionally balanced menus which are intended to be tasty, exciting and fun for the children. Best-selling author and child nutrition expert Annabel Karmel worked alongside Maurice Beck, chef at the Asquith nursery in Milton Keynes, who's also responsible for developing the menus across the group, to put together a rolling four-week cycle of menus.
About eight of the dishes - including salmon and cod fish pie, sweet and sour chicken with Chinese rice, and pasta with hidden vegetable tomato sauce - are Karmel's, with the rest provided by Beck and other chefs and cooks in the company. Ingredients for all dishes are provided by Brakes.
"We make sure all the nutritional requirements that a child needs in a day are met by every nursery," says Beck. "That way parents can take their child home confident that they need to provide only a simple snack before bed."
One of the most important factors in devising dishes, believes Beck, is to make sure the children will eat them. "That's why we did a lot of testing of the dishes before we formally introduced them. There's no point cooking healthy food the children won't eat," he says. For instance, the children particularly love the sweetness provided by the dried apricots and mango chutney that goes into the Moroccan lamb dish served throughout Asquith nurseries.
There are plans to adapt the menus in some areas to meet the needs of local children. The Asquith nursery in Hounslow has a high percentage of Asian children and therefore more spices will be used in some dishes. "The most important factor, though, is that the food is healthy and is enjoyed by the children," says Beck.
Dean Hay Farm, Cragg Vale, Mytholmroyd, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire
Tel: 01422 882010
Private day-care nursery for 150 children from three months to four years, with after-school facilities for children up to 14.
Ever since they opened The Ark five years ago, owners Jo Brock and Heidi Bingham have made it a part of the nursery's remit to offer babies and children a healthy, balanced, varied diet. While local unqualified cooks initially prepared the meals, last summer Dan Rowe, former chef and catering manager for Sodexho at the Halifax Bank of Scotland, was appointed to develop the food further.
"I was asked to provide the children with the best food and as a result was given no food cost," says Rowe, who is supported in his job by two full-time cooks.
"After working within the constraints of a large contract catering company, it has been wonderful to come here and be able to concentrate on buying produce on the basis of the best quality I can find, rather than the best price."
As a result, Rowe has built up a network of local suppliers which provide him with milk, fruit, vegetables and meat produced mainly in the surrounding area.
"I cook according to what's available seasonally and apply the same rules at the nursery as when I'm cooking for myself and my own family - I have a four-year-old son and a daughter who's nearly two," says Rowe. "I don't use any salt, just some herbs, garlic and chillies for seasoning, but because the quality of the produce I buy is so good there's little need for seasoning."
Lunch dishes include fish stew made from fresh pink bream, tuna, cod and prawns combined with a fresh tomato sauce flavoured with garlic and mixed herbs, or a chicken tagine with dates and apricots, accompanied by couscous. A typical tea might be pasta provenale followed by fruit yogurt made using a natural live yogurt produced on a nearby farm into which Rowe mixes freshly cooked and purŽed fruit.
From six months, babies start to be weaned from a milk-only diet and are introduced to purŽed fresh fruit and vegetables. Then from about 10 months they start to eat the same food as the older children, albeit in a mashed form.
Rowe rarely experiences a nursery-age child refusing to eat his food. "We're in the middle of the country and the children spend a lot of time out exercising," he says. "So they're hungry at meal times and they eat very well."
Balham Nursery School
72 Endlesham Road, London SW12
Tel: 020 8673 4055
Balham Nursery School is a state nursery for 32 full-time and 38 part-time children, aged three to four, in Wandsworth, where Harrison Catering Services provides meals at 65 schools in the London borough.
The meals served by Harrison at Balham is similar to those produced for all the primary schools in the borough and therefore conform to the national nutritional standards.
Head teacher Helen McAuley explains that a key element in the success of the school's food policy is the enthusiasm and willingness of school cook Kay Hamilton to think creatively in order to produce healthy food the children are eager to eat.
For instance, where the nutritional standards expect an oily fish to be served once every three weeks, Hamilton makes either a salmon pie, salmon fish cakes, or a pasta dish containing salmon, which she knows the children will enjoy.
"It's important in a small school where we have a maximum of 32 children per day eating lunches to work as a team, and this we do with myself, the admin officer and Kay liaising closely on menus," McAuley says. "We have no packed lunches. Our efforts have resulted in Balham becoming one of the few nursery schools to achieve the Heartbeat Award."
Home-made bread is regularly served alongside main-course dishes of lamb and sweet potato korma, and roast chicken and baked penne with chicken and broccoli. Seasonal vegetables such as courgettes, cauliflower and Savoy cabbage are served every day as well as salad. There are no baked puddings, but there's always a fresh-fruit platter, fruit yogurts and cheese and biscuits. The only bought-in item is a whole breaded fish.
Parents pay £1.95 per meal. The food cost here of 76p per meal is the same as at all primary schools in Wandsworth, a figure believed to be the highest spent on ingredients in London schools.
Mapledene Early Years Centre
54 Mapledene Road, London E8
Tel: 020 7249 8139
Children's centre providing integrated education, care, family support and health services including nursery facilities for up to 60 children a day, aged from six months to five years
Open from 8am to 6pm, 48 weeks a year, the nursery facility could provide the majority of some children's food for the first five years of their lives. Such a major responsibility led head teacher Jan Turner to start searching for a supplier of organic food to the school.
Backed by Waitrose, Mapledene began serving organic meals in 1999. Support from the supermarket has come in the form of discounts on produce, visits from nutritionists and dietitians to help train the centre's cooks, advice on themed days, and food workshops for parents and children.
A garden has also been developed, which provides the centre with vegetables which the two full-time and one assistant cook use for the children's lunch and tea. Breakfast and two snacks are also served daily.
"We don't claim to be 100% organic, but we try to use as many organic ingredients as possible, alongside good quality local produce," says Turner. "Waitrose has recently cut back on its discounts, so we now have to look elsewhere for expensive organic items, such as chickens."
Lunch dishes served include the likes of freshly prepared cottage pie, chicken and rice, and fish pie, while for tea the children may enjoy home-made pizza fingers, tomato soup and rolls, or cheese, biscuits and apples.
Turner explains that the parents of the children, who between them speak 17 different languages, are delighted with Mapledene's meal service. "The problems arise when their children move on to primary school and find that the quality of the food isn't always as good as they've been used to."