Researchers from Deakin University’s Institute of Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) found that most child care centers were feeding children too much refined food, such as pikelets, cakes and muffins, and not enough fruits and vegetables, and nearly two-thirds of the staff who plan their menus have no nutrition training.
Lead author, doctoral candidate Audrey Elford, said it was concerning that only one of the child care centers in the study met standard food guidelines.
“We know there is concern among child care providers that ‘healthy menus’, which include more fruits and vegetables, will cost more due to the rising cost of these foods,” said Ms. Elford.
“Many people also believe that healthy foods will simply go to waste due to the mistaken belief that children prefer to eat less healthy food options.
“Healthy menu planning support and advice is available through tools such as FoodChecker on Nutrition Australia Vic’s Healthy Eating Advice Service.
“But only half of the centers we surveyed use this free service funded by the Victorian government, despite the fact that it offers training, sample menus and an online menu planning tool.
“We need to increase use of the Healthy Eating Advisory Service because staff who use the service feel more equipped to plan healthy menus than those who don’t.”
Ms Elford said recent Australian research found that the average budget for food in childcare centers was just $2 a day per child.
“Around half of Australian children between the ages of two and five are in some type of center care for an average of 31 hours a week, or nearly four eight-hour days,” said Ms Elford.
“While in care, children should receive about half of their daily nutritional needs during morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea, and even more if they eat breakfast and a late snack in long-day care. .
“At this stage of their development, preschoolers are establishing their preferences for different foods, so what they are eating is not only important for their current nutritional needs, but will potentially influence their lifelong eating habits.” .
For the study, 89 Victorian nurseries were surveyed and 18 provided their two-week menu and recipes that the researchers evaluated against current healthy menu guidelines. Daycare centers were also asked what helped or hindered them in planning healthy menus.
“Some of our findings were more pronounced in private nurseries compared to community-run nonprofits, but the lack of consistency in our findings means we can’t say the problem is simply profit-seeking.” Mrs. Elford said.
“More research is needed to better understand the factors that affect healthy menu planning, including cost pressures, lack of time or training, or other factors in the workplace.
“Understanding what it takes for child care centers to provide healthy menus to children is a public health priority, as the foods provided to children in these settings have a major impact on their nutrition and well-being, both now as in the future”.