Is it time for national menu guidelines for early education services?

Published on Tuesday, 17 November 2020
Last updated on Saturday, 14 November 2020

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In the lead up to the holidays with ‘sometimes food’ more readily available than it might be at other times of the year, it is worth pausing to reflect on whether preschool-aged children are consuming enough of the right types of food.

New findings suggest that Australian youngsters may not be getting the right combination of healthy food, which is crucial for their growth and development.

Researchers from the National Nutrition Network Early Childhood Education and Care (NNN-ECEC) reviewed menu planning guidelines of long day care centres in all states and territories, and found that some did not align with Australian Dietary guidelines, particularly in their recommendations for vegetables and discretionary foods.

Dr Penny Love from Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, which led the study, said they found many similarities, including recommendations for grains and dairy foods, but the inconsistency was glaring in two key areas.

“We found the recommendation for vegetables did not meet Australian Dietary Guidelines in four states and territories, and only three states or territories recommended not feeding children discretionary foods,” she said.

According to the research, only one in five Australian two- and three-year-olds eat the recommended vegetable intake each day, and almost a third of the total energy intake comes from discretionary foods that are high in saturated fated and added sugars or salt.

Ros Sambell, Chair of NNN-ECEC and lecturer at Edith Cowan University, said there were certain disadvantages of providing discretionary foods and beverages, especially to young children.

“Providing less healthy options reduces the opportunity for children to eat more healthy food and, typically, discretionary foods cost more than whole foods, which makes them expensive as well,” she said.

“Not only is early childhood a critical stage of growth and development but poor dietary habits flow into adulthood with associated weight gain and chronic disease.”

In light of the findings, the experts called for national consistency in food provision within Australian early learning centres.

Dr Love said that with two-thirds of one- to four-year-olds attending some form of early education in the country, early childhood services play an important role in ensuring children are eating well and developing good food habits.

“The Australian childcare sector has a national accrediting body (ACECQA) and it makes sense to establish consistent menu guidelines across the country,” she said.

“National menu guidelines would also allow for more consistent and cost-effective support and resources.”

In line with the Australian Dietary Guidelines, the discretionary food choices which should be avoided or limited in early learning settings include:

  • Sweet biscuits, cakes and desserts
  • Processed meats and sausages
  • Ice-cream, confectionery and chocolate
  • Meat pies and other pastries
  • Commercial burgers, hot chips, and fried foods
  • Crisps and other fatty and/or salty snacks
  • Cream and butter
  • Sugar-sweetened cordials, soft drinks and sports drinks.

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