Nutrition at the heart of early years settings


Nutrition at the heart of early years settings



A balanced diet is essential for children in the early years to help them achieve their energy and nutrient requirements, which supports their growth, development and learning. Research shows there’s a strong connection between early eating habits and future eating habits. In other words, what children eat today will shape how they eat for the rest of their lives.

With childcare settings providing children with an increasing proportion of the food they eat across the day (up to 90% for children in full day care),  it’s vital the food and drink choices on offer are sufficient in meeting children’s nutritional needs. All staff should have an awareness of the key healthy eating principles for young children and settings should ensure they follow the Eat Better Start Better Guidelines.

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Meeting Children’s Nutrient Requirements

To help toddlers meet their energy and nutrient requirements, they should be offered 3 mains meals (breakfast, lunch and tea) and 2-3 healthy snacks across the day (mid-morning and mid-afternoon). Meals and snacks should be offered at a similar time each day as this helps children to establish a routine and allows them to manage their appetite. Ideally, there should be around a 2-3 hour gap between meals and snacks.

Key considerations

Children’s meals and snacks should be based on the 4 main food groups:

  • Starchy Food

  • Fruit and Vegetables

  • Iron Rich Foods

  • Dairy and Alternative Foods

Starchy Foods

Foods such as bread, pasta, rice, potato and breakfast cereals, provide children with energy and fibre for healthy digestion.

Your early years setting should provide:

  • A starchy food at every main meal (breakfast, lunch and tea)

  • A starchy food as part of at least one snack every day

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables provide children with a range of vitamins, minerals and fibre. Children should be offered 5 portions of fruit and vegetables every day. A portion is roughly what fits into a child’s hand.

Your early years setting should provide:

  • A portion of fruit and/ or vegetables at each meal and with some snacks

  • A variety of fruit and vegetables, aiming to offer at least four different types during full day care, and two different types during sessional care

  • Dried fruit at meal times only rather than at snack times, as it can stick to and damage children’s teeth.

Iron rich foods

Food such as bean, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and chicken provide children with protein and iron.

Your early years setting should provide:

  • A portion of meat, fish, meat alternative, eggs or pulses as part of lunch and tea each day

  • Iron rich foods as part of snacks once or twice each week.

Dairy and alternatives

Food such as milk, yoghurt and cheese provide children with calcium and protein.

Your early years setting should provide:

  • Three portions of milk and dairy foods each day (including those they have at home)

  • Full-fat milk, yoghurts and cheese for children up to the age of two. Children over the age of two who are growing well and eating a healthy balanced diet can have low-fat varieties.


  • Provide children with milk and water in your setting

    • Avoid serving fruit juice, smoothies and other sugary drinks.

Portion sizes

It’s important to remember that children will eat as much as they need. Practitioners may have unrealistic expectations as to how much food they feel a child should eat, which can resort in trying to coax or bribe the child into eating more. However, these strategies are likely to create a stressful mealtime environment which can have a negative impact on future food acceptance. For example, toddlers may altogether refuse the food you tried to coax them into eating or they become distressed at mealtimes. For guidance on portion sizes visit:



If you want to learn more about nutrition for toddlers or support in improving your settings menu you can explore our range of online training here: