Nutrition, sustainability and affordability on the menu – improving food provision in early childhood care

Learning and development in childcare starts with good nutrition – and dietitians play an important role in helping to set Australian children on a path to better lifelong health.

Research dietitians are uniquely placed across education, health and academic settings to positively influence food environments so infants and young children can thrive.

As a research dietitian, Dr Penny Love aims to improve nutrition outcomes in the childcare sector, where many of our children spend a significant amount of time.

Across Australia, the demand for early childhood education and care (childcare) is growing, with more than 900,000 children enrolled, spending on average 31 hours (or four 7-hour days) a week in care.

“This means that children need to meet almost two-thirds of their daily nutritional needs while in childcare,” said Dr Love, a Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN).

“It’s well known that early intervention is essential to establish life-long health behaviours, so childcare provides the ideal setting for healthy food provision.

“But studies show that this is challenging for the childcare sector, with centre menus frequently not providing enough vegetables and wholegrains and providing too many discretionary foods high in fat and sodium.  Our research has identified perceptions regarding food cost and food wastage as the main barrier to healthy food provision.”

Dr Love believes this presents an opportunity to integrate human and planetary health into solutions.

“We all wish for our children to live long and healthy lives, but they will need a healthy planet to do this.  So, we need feasible strategies for families and childcare centres that support them to provide healthy, environmentally sustainable and affordable food that children will love to eat,” she said.

Research regarding environmentally sustainable food provision within childcare settings is limited. Studies are mainly focused on reducing food wastage, which Dr Love says isn’t surprising.

“Food waste adds to food costs, so it’s important to determine where the waste is occurring. For example, is it serving waste, where too much food has been prepared and isn’t served to the children?  Or is it plate waste, where food is served to the child and left uneaten? Understanding this will help form waste mitigation strategies, such as using daily attendance data or checking the acceptability of recipes,” she said.

Such strategies must strike a balance between health, environmental sustainability and cost.

“Removing healthy foods that aren’t frequently eaten, like vegetables, might reduce waste but it won’t create a healthy menu.  And offering the same foods all the time because you know they’re liked and will be eaten isn’t a good idea either as we need to expose children to new and different varieties of foods to develop their tastes and food experiences,” Dr Love explained.

Food budgets are another complication to providing healthy and environmentally sustainable food in childcare centres.  While limited data exists, food budgets within Australian childcare centres have been found to be as low as AUD2.50 or less per child per day.

“It’s unlikely that a healthy menu, including morning and afternoon snacks and a main lunch meal, is feasible on such a low budget in today’s climate of rising food prices,” Dr Love said.

Dr Love emphasised that it takes time and training to plan a menu responsive to nutrition recommendations, seasonal food availability, and restrictive budgets.

Fortunately, Australian childcare centres have access to dietitian-led resources and expertise through Nutrition Australia and Dietitians Australia.

But Dr Love said more is needed to coordinate national childcare food provision guidance for this sector.

“Through the National Nutrition Network (NNN ECEC), dietitians, nutritionists and health practitioners across Australian states and territories are working together to develop and implement evidence-based healthy eating services, interventions and resources, which are responsive to diverse local needs,” she said.

“At the moment, jurisdictional differences make it difficult for childcare services to meet national accreditation criteria. Through the NNN ECEC, we are striving for greater consistency and alignment of childcare food provision guidance across the country, with appropriately trained and remunerated staff.

“There has never been a better time to address these issues, with so much focus on the childcare sector through the Early Years Summit, a Productivity Commission Inquiry into Early Childhood Education, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

“Dietitians are experts in providing evidence-based dietary and nutrition advice across age groups and settings.  Dietitians are therefore well placed to provide equitable support to the childcare sector and families to enable healthy, environmentally sustainable and affordable food provision to children in care.”