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Healthy Nursery Foods: What Should They Look Like?

Nursery Foods

You just picked up your children from their pre-schools and nurseries, and they start telling you about their day.

They get to the part where they gush about the yummy pizza they had for lunch, the crunchy popcorn they had for snacks, and the colorful fruit bowl they were given for dessert.

Then it hits you:

  • You haven’t seen their nurseries’ lunch meal plans.
  • You don’t know what they put in the lunch meals your children eat.
  • You are unsure if the meals the nurseries cook and create have enough nutrition for their early years.
  • Or maybe, you are not yet aware of what a good nursery dinner plan for the week is supposed to look like?


In this article, we tackle EVERYTHING there is about nursery food:

  • The voluntary guidelines the government has set
  • What important foods nursery children should be eating
  • The essential nutrients every nursery meal should contain

Let’s dive right in!

Table of Contents
Table of Contents

Standards and Guidelines for Healthy Nursery Food

The guidelines that the government in England has released for nursery menus are a bit broad and generalized.

Here are some of them:

  • Nursery menus should be rotated every week or once every three weeks for variety.
  • In a childcare setting, it is also encouraged that every intellectually-challenging meal is a combination of different tastes, textures, and colors.
  • The guidelines only specify that the meals must include one each of all the main food groups within the entire week.

We’ve listed down here the main foods that are essential to children’s health and development, in the order of quantity that they must be consumed:

1. Starchy Food

Baby eating noodles

These include bread, brown rice, potatoes, whole-wheat pasta, etc.

The recommended amount of this food group is 5 portions a day, which means it SHOULD be part of the day’s nursery menus EVERY SINGLE DAY of the week.

2. Fruits and Vegetables

Kid touching food

The recommended amount for fruit and vegetables is also 5 portions a day for their early years.

Like starchy food, nursery kids should eat this for their EVERYDAY lunch meals.

The fruit and vegetable intake does not necessarily have to be fresh fruit or vegetables all the time. It could also be frozen fruit turned into smoothies or vegetable drinks.

3. Dairy (Or Its Alternatives)

Kid with dirty mouth

The necessary daily intake for the dairy food group is 3 portions a day, so it does not have to be included in everyday nursery food.

However, it should still be part of the nursery menu a few times a week.

There are many ways to include dairy in what your child eats, from milk, butter, cheese, and chocolate, to flavored milk drinks.

If your child is lactose intolerant, alternatives like fromage frais and yogurt can be offered as healthy snacks. They also have lower sugar content than other kinds of dairy food.

4. Protein

Spoon-feeding baby

Protein has the least required food intake of all the food groups, with only 2 portions required daily.

This includes nuts, oily fish, salmon, red meat, eggs, etc.

Protein can also be provided a few times a week.

5. Drink Guidelines

Baby sucking on baby bottle

Fresh tap water should be available at all times. Milk can also be made available daily.

Everyday nursery drinks should not include artificial juice in tetra packs, sodas, and other similar juices to encourage healthy eating habits.

Are There Guidelines on What Food Should Be Limited?

Parents and nurseries are advised to keep sugar, salt, and saturated fats to a minimum.

This can be done by avoiding eating food like:

  • Pudding
  • Any type of canned food
  • Condiments like ketchup. These contain a lot of preservatives and salt.
  • Microwave popcorn. These contain harmful chemicals and have lots of additives that are not good for children in their early years. Just stick to regular kernel popcorns cooked in a pan as snacks!
  • Other snacks that contain a lot of salt. Always check the labels!
  • Sodas and artificial fruit juice. These have a lot of sugar, food coloring, and artificial flavoring.
  • Highly processed honey.
  • Processed meat like hotdogs and luncheon meat. Again, this kind of food has too many preservatives harmful for nursery children.
  • Store-bought pudding. Home cooking is always the best!
  • Any other sweet foods, dessert, or snack with added sugar

While it can be difficult to stop your child from craving these types of food, try your best to encourage them to eat HEALTHIER food instead!

Healthier food doesn’t automatically mean it tastes any worse.

Implementing proper habits and dieting early on will make it easier for your child to enjoy the right food for them and their taste buds!

Do All Nurseries Enforce These Guidelines & Responsibilities to Serve Healthy Food?

The short answer is NO.

These food and drink guidelines set by the government in England are voluntary guidelines, so pre-schools are NOT REQUIRED by law to follow them.

If your child’s nursery chooses to abide by these voluntary guidelines, then good for you!

If the food served in your child’s nursery does not, don’t fret!

Here’s what parents can do:

1. Get in Touch

Woman on the phone and laptop with kid beside

Connect with your child’s nursery and ask to see their weekly lunch menu. You can check and see how it measures up against the food and drink guidelines.

Even just one week’s worth of nursery food will give you an idea of just how nutritious and balanced day-to-day nursery menus are.

2. Ask Questions

Question marks

Here are some questions you could ask your childcare provider:

  • Are the nurseries aware that there are food and drink guidelines for the food served to children attending nursery school?
  • Do the nurseries have their own set of house guidelines that they follow when making lunch and other meals?
  • Would the nurseries be open to consulting a registered nutritionist to supervise the creation of nursery menus?
  • Do the nurseries create a positive eating environment during meals and eat the same food as the children to set an example for them?
  • Do they make sure that fresh tap water is easily accessible at all times?
  • Do they have safe and non-toxic highchairs for infant feeding?
  • How does your childcare provider source their nursery food?
  • How can they ensure food safety guidelines are followed through the entire process?
  • Does the childcare provider staff do all the preparation and cooking in-house? Or is that outsourced by the nursery?
  • Do they use safe and non-toxic baby food containers?
  • Perhaps your child’s nursery food provider is aware of the voluntary guidelines and follows them themselves?
  • Maybe they have their own registered nutritionist that plans their nursery menus every week?

3. Offer Help

Three people meeting

Here are a few things we as parents can do to help childcare providers help us too!

  • If your child’s nursery isn’t aware of the food and drink guidelines, get them acquainted with them!
  • After looking at their nursery menus, you could also start by giving them a few items to start with.
  • For example, you could suggest removing fried food and sugary foods the first week, then advise replacing white rice with brown rice the next week.
  • Suggest a regular meeting with the staff and other parents so everyone is involved and can work together.
  • You could also offer to save them the trouble of getting a nutritionist and recommend one yourself.

Most childcare providers are open to feedback. After all, everyone’s primary concern is the children’s health and well-being.

So don’t be shy and give them a helping hand!

Why Having Good Nursery Food Is Important for Your Child

Group of kids eating

Nutritious food is vital to the early years of your little one.

From breakfast to dinner, healthy meals are essential for their proper growth and development and give them enough energy to power through the day.

Balanced and nutritious food in their early years will also instill healthy eating habits, bringing long-term benefits to your children’s health.

And when healthy snacks and lunch menus are provided in childcare settings like nurseries and preschools, it will further encourage children to eat healthily for ALL of their mealtimes.

Consistency will teach them that nutritious meals are not limited to their parents’ home recipes and that eating healthily is a lifestyle!

Important Nutrients That Children Need

Here are the 9 necessary nutrients parents must provide their little one and what childcare providers should also be serving:

1. Protein

Protein Icon

Protein is the body’s “building block!”

It is the nutrient that builds and repairs bones, muscles, hair, and nails. It also helps tissues and organs work properly.

Protein also functions as an energy source, something little children need a lot of!

Food rich in protein include:

  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Beans
  • Dairy products like milk and yogurt

2. Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates Icon

Carbohydrates are another essential nutrient that gives children energy to play and learn for the day.

Food that is rich in carbohydrates includes starches, fibers, and sugar. Fruit, vegetables, and whole-grain products are also rich in complex carbs.

Children can get this nutrition by eating these kinds of foods:

  • Whole grains and its products, like whole-wheat pasta and bread
  • Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Cereals
  • Rice
  • Crackers
  • Potatoes

3. Calcium

Calcium Icon

Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body. Along with protein, it is essential for strong bones, teeth, and the overall growth of children.

Parents can supply this nutrition by serving these foods:

  • Milk
  • Chocolate
  • Cheese. Fromage frais with lower sugar content is an excellent choice.
  • Yogurt
  • Ice cream
  • Tofu
  • Eggs (especially the yolks)
  • Broccoli
  • Spinach
  • And other vegetables

These foods are also perfect as snacks!

4. Fats

Fats Icon

Fats come in different forms. It is essential to their nutrition as it is a good source of energy.

Serving children these kinds of foods will give them enough of this essential nutrition:

  • Butters
  • Oils
  • Fish
  • Dairy products
  • Meat

5. Folate

Folate Icon

This nutrition can be found in different foods and is one of the most important nutrients for expecting moms to prevent birth defects.

Little children need lots of this nutrition too!

Folate is crucial for making robust red blood cells and prevents anemia. Most vegetables are rich in folic acid.

Foods rich in Folate include:

  • Whole-grain cereal
  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • Asparagus
  • Spinach
  • Black or kidney beans
  • Brussels sprouts

6. Fiber

Fiber Icon

Human enzymes can not fully digest fiber, but it helps children pass stool easily and helps regulate sugar in their bodies.

Incorporate fiber in their lunch menus by putting these foods on your table:

  • Whole-grain breakfast cereals
  • Chickpeas
  • Lentils
  • Kidney beans
  • Seeds
  • Avocados
  • Dried Fruit
  • Popcorn
  • Apples
  • Berries
  • Beans

7. Iron

Iron Icon

Children need iron for their growth and development. This nutrition also carries oxygen from the lungs to all the cells in their body.

Eating these foods will help children get enough of this nutrition:

  • Red meat
  • Liver
  • Poultry
  • Fish and Shellfish
  • Whole grains
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Spinach
  • Potatoes
  • Cashews
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Whole grain bread

8. Vitamin A

Vitamin A Icon

Vitamin A is vital for normal vision and maintains good skin health.

Give your children their daily dose of Vitamin A by having them eat these for lunch or snacks:

  • Carrots
  • Red peppers
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Squash
  • Apricots
  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Oily fish (such as salmon and sardines)
  • Eggs (especially the yolks)
  • Cheese
  • Milk and yogurt

9. Vitamin C

Vitamin C Icon

Vitamin C is popularly known as a nutrient that protects from common sicknesses like the cold.

It works by protecting your children’s cells from the effects of free radicals, which may play a role in chronic diseases in the future.

This nutrition also enhances calcium absorption in the body, is good for cell health, and helps wounds heal faster.

Encourage children to eat food rich in Vitamin C by incorporating food like these into your recipes:

  • Citrus fruits and drinks (oranges, lemons, grapefruit, etc.)
  • Strawberries
  • Blackcurrants
  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Melons
  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Brussel Sprouts
  • Cauliflower
  • Papayas
  • Mangoes

Final Words

We hope this article enlightened some parents on what comprises good nursery food and how to ensure your children are getting all the proper nutrition their growing bodies need.

Get in touch with your kid’s nursery now, and get some peace of mind knowing your kids will grow happy and strong!


July 11, 2022 – Minor content edits

About the author

Angelica Graham

A few years ago, Angelica found out about all the plastic and toxic ingredients that got into most children’s products. And this worried her to no end. Because of this, she began to research what the best ingredients and materials were for children and made it her mission to share this information with other mothers.