Why Good Nutrition is Vital in Early Childhood Education
Nutrition is a pivotal component of health for people of all ages, from breastfeeding infants to the elderly. Nutrition needs change across the lifecycle, however as children grow and develop in their earlier years of life, their need for nutrition significantly increases to help promote adequate growth and development of their little bodies.
Educating and promoting healthy eating habits at an early age can lay down a good foundation of nutrition principles right from the start and ensure your little ones are able to prevent the onset of chronic illness (e.g., diabetes, obesity, heart disease etc.) later in life, whilst giving them the energy they need now to live, look and feel their best.
What are the Australian Dietary Guidelines for children 1-8 years
For optimal health, the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that people of all ages, especially children, should be eating a wide variety of foods from the 5 core food groups, drinking plenty of water, limiting discretionary foods/fluids and screen time and engaging in regular physical activity every day. The guidelines also encourage and support breastfeeding.
The 5 core food groups include:
Recommended Number of Serves Per Day
Core Food Group
Vegetables, legumes and beans
2 - 3
Grains (cereals) – mostly wholegrain and/or high-fibre varieties
Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives
1 - 2
1 ½ - 2
1 ½ - 2
Lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs and alternatives – including nuts, seeds, tofu and legumes/beans
The demand of Early childhood education
In Australia and throughout the developed world, the demand for childcare services has significantly increased in the past several decades due to the rising costs of living and emphasis on gender equality in the workplace. The benefits of having two working parents are not only economically advantageous for households and families in the current age, but rightfully entices equal opportunity, social connection and leadership in the workforce. This in turn is breaking down gender stereotypes and “stay-at-home parent” prejudice. As a result of this, it is no surprise that a placement at a childcare centre today is hot property!
Most recent statistics from the Childcare in Australia Report (March Quarter 2020) stating 50% of children under 5 years of age used childcare services. The highest level of overall care was amongst the 2–3-year-old age group and long-term care continues to be the most formal type of care for children aged 0-4 years.
With so many Aussie kids spending most of their week in childcare services across the country, it is important to have care centres that provide a safe, nurturing environment that promotes growth, health and wellbeing through their education, exercise and nutrition programs – after all, healthy kids are happy kids!
How do I know if my child getting the nutrition they need when they are in care?
There are many types of childcare options available for children and infants. The most common being long day childcare centres where children will spend at least 8 hours a day. In long day centres, children are usually served a minimum of one main meal and two snacks (usually in the form of a morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea) and therefore, the menu provided should aim to meet the majority of children’s dietary requirements. In some instances, children may also be present for breakfast and/or a late snack.
Australian childcare centres are governed by the Australian Children’s Education & Care Quality Authority who work to provide care centres with guidance, resources and services to improve outcomes for children in care. The National Quality Framework (NQF) provides a standardised, national approach to regulation and quality improvement for childcare. Their 7-step framework highlights Children’s Health and Safety (Quality Area 2) inclusive of healthy eating as a foundation.
Childcare facility menus (particularly for long stay centres) should be planned in accordance with Menu Planning Guidelines from the Healthy Eating Advisory Service which are based on the Australian Dietary Guidelines and other government-run health initiatives such as Get Up & Grow. These guidelines are governed by experienced Dietitians in conjunction with the government and provide support to facilities to ensure their menus meet quality area 2 of the NQF.
Deakin Study finds children missing out on healthy diets at childcare
Alarming research from a recent study conducted by Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition found that Victorian childcare centres with meal services are underproviding our core foods (fruit, vegetables and wholegrains). Instead, overproviding discretionary choices such as cakes and cupcakes. Discretionary foods are often packed with added saturated fats, salt and sugar which can have negative consequences on our overall health, contribute to undesirable weight gain, heart disease and diabetes.
Research from the study found that only 1 in 18 childcare centres included in the menu review met the standards and guidelines for menu planning and only half of them were using these resources in the development of their menu.
Click here to read more alarming results from the study
Get your childcare menu reviewed or development by an Accredited Practising Dietitian
In order to improve this statistic, it is important that childcare centres use and follow the menu planning guidelines; however, we know that knowledge and understanding of the guidelines, awareness and training/skills of staff are barriers that need to be overcome.
It is recommended that childcare centres providing a menu service enlist feedback and support from Accredited Practising Dietitians (APDs). Dietitians, like us, have the training and skills required to assess the current menu in accordance with standards and guidelines and offer recommendations for improvement and alternative options.
Dietitians can help design a menu that is based on the core 5 food groups, including
culturally sensitive foods (where applicable),
lots of variety (menus are usually developed over a 2–4-week cycle to avoid repetition),
exposure to different textures, colours and tastes (e.g. crunchy and soft), and
limitation of discretionary foods and fluids (e.g. juice, soft drinks and packaged treats).
This not only ensures that the menu is nutritious, but delicious, seasonal and appropriate for the children.
Remember, healthy Kids are Happy Kids!
It is also important that mealtimes are often shared in the company of other children and carers which allows childcare workers to supervise eating, recognise eating patterns/behaviours and encourage/model healthy eating behaviours in a safe, calm environment.
If you are concerned about the food service at your childcare centre or would like to know more about your child’s mealtime experience when in care, reach out to the staff at your childcare, ask for a copy of their menu or seek out the advice of a Dietitian, like us!
Our Dietitians are experts at developing, assessing and reviewing childcare menus. We’re here to support and to organise a fantastic and delicious menu for childcare centres all around Australia. Together, let’s ensure all children are being provided a nutrition menu to grow healthy and happy kids!
More information on the NQF can be found at National Quality Framework | ACECQA.
A copy of the Australian Guide for Healthy Eating and the Australian Dietary Guidelines can be found at www.eatforthealth.gov.au
OSCAR Care Group Dietetic Team