Source: Times Online UK

When nursery chef Marcia Girvan makes sardine pâté with crème fraîche and dill for children at Luton Street Nursery, in West London, they wolf it down. “Children are more open-minded than people realise,” she says. “As long as it tastes nice, they’ll eat it.”

At the nursery, tucked behind housing estates, just off the Edgware Road, Girvan cooks for 40 children aged from six months to four years. Most of the fresh produce in her kitchen — fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy — is delivered by a farming co-operative in Kent. In the children’s playrooms, fresh fruit is always available.

The nursery charges £50 a day (although parents on low incomes are subsidised), with about £5 of that spent on food for each child. It is exactly how a nursery should be but, sadly, it is rare to find somewhere like this. By chance, I landed on my feet with my son’s nursery. The woman who runs the kitchen has no training in child nutrition but is competent and serves up balanced home cooking, with no sign of processed foods.

When I check out four other nurseries in my London borough, under the pretence of looking for a place, the picture is not so rosy. I find a hotchpotch approach to healthy eating, depending on whether managers take it seriously. In only one do staff eat the same lunch as the children — eyebrows are generally raised at the idea. None of the nurseries serves seasonal or locally produced food and one dishes up almost the same food as the neighbouring primary school — even though under-5s have different nutritional requirements from older children.

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The Department for Children, Schools and Families has admitted that there is a problem, and last week announced plans to review food standards in nurseries. It will report in September. Whether compulsory standards will result remains to be seen.

It is a small victory for the Better Nursery Food Now campaign, set up by the Soil Association and funded by the Organix Foundation. In 2008, its report Georgie Porgie Pudding and Pie showed that some nurseries were spending as little as 25p per day per child and were serving up foods, such as cheap sausages and cakes, that are banned or restricted in primary and secondary schools.

Since then, it has acquired a Facebook following of 6,000 parents. “Most people aren’t even aware that nurseries have been overlooked,” says Pamela Brunton, nursery food campaign manager and policy manager at the Soil Association. “They assume they have had the Jamie Oliver treatment — but in fact, one in four children are starting primary school already obese or overweight.”

A Mumsnet survey, commissioned by the Organix Foundation, and released today, questioned 1,000 parents and found that only 34 per cent were happy with food at their nurseries; 82 per cent would like foods that are restricted or banned in schools to be also banned in nurseries.

Take 33-year-old Lucy Gregory, who works full time for a heating system company. She is appalled by the fare that her son is offered at a nursery in Sutton, Surrey. Chips, tinned ravioli, sausages, arctic roll and sugary cereals are among the foods that two-and-a-half-year-old James tucked into before his mum complained. The manager agreed to give James substitutes for highly processed items, but hasn’t taken them off the menu. “I told staff that I didn’t want him to eat highly processed meat and they asked if it was because I was Muslim,” says Gregory. “They seem to have no understanding of the importance of eating a healthy, balanced diet.”

Another parent, Rachael Barkham, an NHS analyst, with two sons aged 3 and 4, used to leave them at a £40-a-day nursery in Hampshire until she found out that they were being given tinned sausages and baked beans for lunch almost every day. When she complained, she was told that the nursery was a business and had to make money. “I decided to look for a new nursery, but I worried that taking my sons somewhere new would be unsettling,” says Barkham. “Nursery school owners play on the fact that it is an emotional time in a parent’s life — you’re constantly thinking ‘Am I doing the right thing?’.”

The aim of drawing attention to nursery food, says Brunton, is to highlight the need for greater guidance and regulation from Government. “At the moment, to be a nursery chef, you don’t need any qualifications. Cooks require basic food hygiene training, that’s it,” she says.

The London Early Years Foundation, a charity that runs 19 nurseries in the capital including Luton Street, summarised this problem in its January food report, Glorious Food: “With no national standards in the sector, the crucial work carried out by nursery chefs simply goes unchecked and largely unsupported.”

The problem with neglecting eating habits in pre-schoolers is that it has a knock-on effect. “Before the age of 2, you can modify a child’s tastes,” says Gillian Harris, a senior lecturer in psychology at Birmingham University and a consultant at Birmingham Children’s Hospital. For older toddlers and pre-schoolers, what matters is that they see other people — children and adults — eating healthy foods, so nursery is a perfect setting. “From 2, children start modelling themselves on others, so if they sit with others who are eating vegetables, they will imitate them.”

Back at Luton Street Nursery, it’s spicy lentil soup and vegetable curry for lunch and there’s not much evidence of leftovers, even the Times photographer has tucked in. Girvan says that the children’s favourite is homemade fishcakes; she’s trying them on sustainable species such as pollock and coley. She believes the key to encouraging healthy eating is to provide variety – and to do it with enthusiasm. “When I serve salad, I talk about rabbits and how lots of animals eat lettuce. Children love being rabbits.” If only all nursery chefs were so committed.

The questions parents should ask

Is food made from scratch using fresh ingredients?

What do the children eat at snack-time? Nurseries often fall down on what is offered between meals.

Do staff eat with children, and eat the same food?

Do children help with the cooking or with growing vegetables?

Is oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel or sardines, on the menu?

Does the nursery comply with the highly regarded guidelines for feeding under-5s in child care, from the Caroline Walker Trust?

For more information, go to nurseryfood.org

The best nursery food

A balanced toddler lunch should provide a starchy carbohydrate for energy, some fibre and B vitamins and a serving of lean protein food for growth and development and to provide important minerals, such as iron for concentration, and one to two vegetables for fibre, vitamins and super-nutrients.

The aim is to have two fruits and three vegetables during the whole day. A dilute fruit juice counts as one serving. Toddlers should also be having 2 -3 dairy foods in a day for the growth and development of strong bones and teeth.

Healthy nursery lunches could include:

Baked potato with tuna, sweetcorn and cucumber filling, rice pudding with apricots, a cup of water.

Home-made pizza topped with chicken and tomato, plain yoghurt with stewed apples, a cup of water.

Pitta bread with hoummos and coleslaw (shredded cabbage, carrots and yoghurt), a baked banana with custard, a glass of water.

Pork and bean casserole with vegetables such as carrots and mushrooms, a glass of dilute orange juice and a fromage frais.

Pasta bolognese (using lean beef or Quorn and containing tomatoes and onions) followed by mango and pineapple pieces and a soya yoghurt, a cup of water.

Amanda Ursell

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