As parents, we know how tough it can be feeding toddlers and preschoolers. We also know how important it is to establish healthy eating habits for kids at this young and impressionable age.
I have two young boys, aged three and four, who currently attend daycare four days a week.
That means for the majority of the time, their nutritional needs are actually being met by their childcare service.
Fortunately, my kids attend a wonderful centre that prioritises nutrition and I know they are provided with health balanced meals three times a day and are instilled with positive messages around eating.
Hell, I'm happy to admit the beautiful educators basically helped teach my eldest how to use cutlery as he started when he was just eight-months-old. And that my little cherubs eat better there than at home most of the time!
Let's face it, it's one less thing I need to feel guilty about it at the end of a very long week.
According to new Australian research, just 50 cents per child per day is all it would take to improve the nutritional value of food at long daycare centres.
The team from Edith Cowan University (ECU), surveyed menu offerings from 30 long daycare centres in Perth and found that by increasing their food expenditure by just 50 cents, they were four times more likely to meet food provision recommendations and make a big difference to the nutritional value.
Lead researcher Ros Sambell from ECU's School of Medical and Health Sciences is now calling for food expenditure recommendations for long daycare services.
"This sector is highly regulated, and for good reason, however current regulations relating to the food being provided for our children are overly broad," she said. "We're calling on the sector to adopt recommendations that adequately outline appropriate spending on food."
While this study is clearly based on a very small sample size and daycare services around the country implement different approaches to feed children in their care, the fact remains, the type of food kids are offered and their experience with food can be critical for their future health and wellbeing.
In 2019, nearly 1.4 million Australian children attended some form of Early Childhood Education and Care service, including long daycare, family daycare or out of school care - with some having in-house chefs, others having food supplied by external catering companies, and some having parents supply their own food.
According to dietitians Anna and Alex from The Biting Truth, who provide nutritional advice to organisations such as Only About Children, small changes in childhood nutrition can lead to huge results.
"While additional money spent on food can make a difference and it's great to see research in this area, education and support to daycares would allow for educators to make better choices and improve overall offering," they told Essential Baby.
"Daycares have a responsibility to provide your child with healthy and nutritious foods. Work with your daycare by asking questions, talking about your concerns and getting to know the types of foods available on the menu."
it's a topic that some parents can be very sensitive about, particularly if their child has a food allergy or intolerance. Although some parents take it to the extreme, with one mum recently admitting she was considering changing her child's daycare because they offered cake for dessert.
Interestingly, many kids eat better at daycare (mine included), which is often due to daycare routines.
"Routines such as the pre-meal, sit down routine, serving routine and group eating help children to unpack emotions or disengage from the take that they were doing immediately before taking on the task of eating," explains Anna and Alex.
"When a child has an abrupt transition from one activity to the next, they struggle to mentally take the leap. Additionally eating with other children can help encourage more fussy eaters to try new foods."
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if you're currently in the process of choosing a daycare for your kids, Anna and Alex recommend looking for a daycare that works closely with an accredited practising dietitian.
"We encourage parents to request a copy of the weekly menu so you know what your child is eating," they say. "Ask who created the menu plans and if they are following the nutrition guidelines for daycares."
The menu should feature a variety of foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein (chicken, meat, fish), dairy. Foods and drinks that should not feature on the menu include:
- Cakes, biscuits, lollies, chocolates
- Juices and cordials
- Processed meats
With data showing more than a quarter of Australian children are overweight or obese and most are eating too many processed foods, while 99 per cent are not eating enough vegetables, experts agree its important you find a supportive daycare environment.
"The early years are a time when food habits are being developed, many of which will be retained throughout life," say Anna and Alex.