January is Veganuary! A time to adopt a vegan diet and explore the many, exciting plant-based dishes available to us. Veganism can be good for our health and have a positive impact on the environment, so what's not to love? Let's explore veganism in the early years!

In veganism, animal-derived foods are not consumed, in favour of plant-based foods. As a result, vegans tend to consume more fibre and less saturated fats, both of which support cardiovascular health. Plant-based diets are also less likely to lead to metabolic conditions such as Type 2 Diabetes and vegans tend to have lower body weight.

What foods are removed on a vegan diet?

Many of the foods above provide essential nutrients in our diets, which means that a vegan diet should ideally include these nutrients from plant-based sources, or even from supplements. There are tonnes of plant-based options available to us, which means following a nutritionally balanced vegan diet is becoming much easier.  It’s also been well documented that there are many environmental and health benefits to a vegan diet but it is important to highlight that most of the health studies have been based on adults.

So what impact does a vegan diet have on very young children?

When making a decision about a diet or lifestyle choice it's advisable to enter into it with all the facts and considerations. This should help to ensure that it will have a positive impact on your health, physically and mentally, and especially that of a child. We'll outline some studies to consider below.

Early years vegan diet studies

Early childhood is a time of vast nutritional need due to the rapid pace of physical and cognitive development that takes place. Amongst young children and adolescents on a vegan diet, various studies have raised some cause for concern in relation to nutritional deficiencies during this time of rapid development.

Researchers at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health steered a study into formative nutrition and vegan diets and reported that: -

“Children following vegan diets were on average 3cm shorter, had 4-6% lower bone mineral content and were more than three times more likely to be deficient in vitamin B-12 than the omnivores.”

A different peer reviewed journal in Pub Med on vegan diets in young children states: -

“A vegan diet can be potentially critical for young children with risks of inadequate supply in terms of protein quality and energy as well as long-chain fatty acids, iron, zinc, vitamin D, iodine, calcium, and particularly vitamin B12. Deficiencies in these nutrients can lead to severe and sometimes irreversible developmental disorders”

Should my family explore a vegan diet?

There are so many reasons to say YES to Veganism! And there are certainly lots of tasty dishes to tickle your taste buds and support the environment. The important thing to remember is to plan a vegan diet around obtaining all the essential nutrients that we need in our diets. This may mean that supplementing with key nutrients is necessary. Ultimately, it is crucial that we never underestimate the role that food plays in early development.

And if you don't fancy going all out vegan just yet, why not try swapping just some of your meals for vegan alternatives? This can still have a positive effect on your health and the environment!

At Nursery Kitchen, our team of nutritionists and development chefs create tasty dishes that meet the nutritional needs of early years children with different dietary needs. This includes a range of wholesome vegan dishes, such as our brand new squash and seed roast dinner.

 

Silver Nourish Award

This mild curry dish with omega rich fish, provides a good introduction to Thai spices. With the addition of antioxidant rich pineapple, this dish has a natural sweetness and is an excellent source of vitamin C.

Ingredients

- pineapple
- coconut milk
- pak choi
- salmon
- ground cumin
- courgette
- red pepper
-green pepper
- thai green curry paste
- pineapple juice
- green beans
- broccoli
- sugar snap peas
- vegetable stock
- ground coriander

Download the full pineapple and salmon thai curry recipe, HERE.

Gold Nourish Award

Our award winning pea and paneer curry is super, super tasty! It's perfect for vegetarians as it’s meat free but as it contains cheese, it’s not suitable for vegans or children with milk allergies. This is the first time that paneer has featured on our menu, and it really is a superb addition. It is very mild tasting and holds texture and flavour really well. Paneer is also high in protein and is classified as a ‘complete protein’, which means it holds all 9 essential amino acids. This dish is also packed with veg and lentils for vitamins and minerals.

Ingredients 

- sunflower oil
- onion
- paneer
- garlic puree
- ginger puree
- mild madras curry powder
- garam masala
- tomato paste
- ground cumin
- chilli powder
- passata
- coconut milk
- water
- red lentils
- vegetable stock
- mixed peppers
- frozen peas
- spinach

Download the full pea and paneer recipe, HERE.

We are thrilled to launch our new Summer menu, which has been lovingly created by our new Food Innovation Team! Consisting of creative development chefs and specialist nutritionists, this talented team work together to ensure that our menu is tasty, full of variety and meets the specific nutritional and dietary needs of young children of different ages.

There’s a lot that goes into planning our menu and creating new meals but in just a few months, we’ve added 8 incredibly delicious and healthy dishes.

We’ve also given our Lamb Hot Pot recipe a nutritional makeover! It’s now packed with vitamins, minerals, and protein, which also make this dish tastier than ever.

Another change to our menu is the removal of Fish Fingers and Chicken Goujons. We believe that this is a step in the right direction to providing children with the most nutritionally balanced meals while at nursery.

We are super excited to already be working on the new Winter Menu 2022, where there will be even more new dishes, offering exciting taste adventures and enhanced nutritional qualities for the early years.

Download our Summer Menu Guide 2022, to discover all the new dishes and their ingredients, and explore the fantastic range of nutritional benefits that these provide to the children in your care.

Download the full Summer Menu 2022

When it comes to nutrition and autism, issues with food can be sensitive and sometimes complicated to manage. But we want every child to be able to enjoy food, whatever their individual preferences may be. We also want to ensure that where there are any specific ‘preferences’ or ‘limitations’ to a child’s diet, that they do not go without the essential nutrients they need and that they still have an enjoyable relationship with the foods they eat. There’s a lot to feeding children, and at Nursery Kitchen, we take every element of it seriously. We understand that no two children are the same and that each child will have their own food journey ahead of them.

There are some practical steps that can be undertaken when helping autistic children embrace a healthy relationship with food but first let’s look at some of the frequently identified food concerns that some children may experience: -

GI Disorders

First and foremost, many eating issues experienced by children on the autism spectrum may be as a result of a gastrointestinal disorder. These may hinder the enjoyment of foods, the ability to sit at a table for any length of time, or cause anxiety around foods.

Food routines and expectations

Most children thrive on routines but for children within autistic populations, routines can be especially important and any change to the routine can be upsetting, or even distressing. Having a menu visible for the week is helpful as the child (and parents) know what to expect. Try to minimise any changes to this especially any last-minute changes! If you have a special event or a theme meal planned, please try to plan this in advance rather than springing a surprise on the children. Some may love a surprise but in others, it could cause some anxiety and upset. Fear and anxiety will ‘shut down hunger’ so ensuring transition to mealtimes is fun and relaxed will help children feel at ease.

New tastes

Introducing new foods can be challenging but it is important to keep trying. Try offering a food that remains familiar looking while building tolerance to small and incremental changes. And remember a lot of praise goes a long way with food acceptance!

Sensory issues

Many children have some sensory issues around food, not just those who are autistic. Some may not like foods to touch, foods that look, smell, or feel a certain way or perhaps may not want a sauce to blend into any other food on their plate. It is difficult striking a balance between a child who is being selective over a child who feels genuine distress over their food sensory issues. Some practical steps for a child could be to let them guide on how their food is presented or to ensure that they have the cup/plate/place setting they are used to and comfortable with.

Taste expectations

Some children within autistic populations may have extreme taste sensations, for some this may mean very bland foods yet for others they may be over-zealous with seasoning, and desire overly spiced or salty foods. It’s great when children embrace spicy foods but we need to be careful they are not causing any digestive disturbances and monitor this carefully. Our menu is designed to have a range of more dynamic meals and snacks that would suit a more complex palate (and an enquiring one!) without any adverse digestive issues.

Behaviour around food

Many children with autism may also have postural issues that interfere with eating. Low muscle tone, for example, can make it difficult to maintain an upright seated position, so if a child is particularly fidgety at the table or seems to experience discomfort, this may be the reason why.

Things best avoided

Things like to work in partnerships and in harmony in the body. If we stick to the right food, we will get the right nutrients to do the right jobs; supporting immunity, a healthy gut microbiome, manufacturing neurotransmitters to balance mood, sleep and behaviour. We will metabolise food and fuel and eliminate waste etc. When we eat the wrong food, this can all fall out of synch. There are certain foods which are worse culprits than others:

• Artificial ingredients including sweeteners, trans-fats and too much sugar
• E numbers particularly the ‘Southampton Six; E110, E104, E122, E129, E102, E124

At Nursery Kitchen, our menu is free from ingredients that would cause a negative biological reaction and full of foods that support optimal formative nutrition.

Blood sugar regulation

For any child, managing a stable blood sugar level is beneficial for mood and behaviour. Dips can cause increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which increases feelings of fear/anxiousness. Our menu is designed to ensure that all children get a stable and sustained release of energy with each meal and snack provided.

Nutrients and essential fatty acids (EFAs)

Many children can easily become deficient in EFAs. There’s lots of evidence around how EFAs impact on overall health but they can have a huge influence on neurological health. For some time, Omega 3 supplementation and Omega 3 diets have been used in studies to assess depression, anxiety and behavioural issues. If we consider that a deficiency in EFAs would worsen stress and anxiety, it’s very important that children with autism get their intake either via foods or often via supplementation if the diet is too limited.

At Nursery Kitchen, we currently offer several dishes with EFAs, but we continuously strive to evolve our menu to further enhance the range of essential fatty acids available as menu options.

Evolution has given infants an innate preference for things that taste sweet, as it helps identify highly calorific foods. Children then develop a reluctance to taste unfamiliar foods as they approach the age of two. ‘Food neophobia’ protected children from ingesting harmful substances when they became more mobile and able to explore their environment independently. This gave a child the best chance of survival when food was scarce and it wasn’t a problem later because the family diet consisted of fresh fruit, vegetables and some meat or fish.

Now, more than half of all the food bought by families in the UK is ‘ultra-processed’, extremely high in saturated fat, salt, and sugar. Our evolutionary background means the availability of these foods make it more difficult to develop a liking for more healthy food such as vegetables, which often have a bitter taste. As a result, a third of children are now overweight or obese before they start school.[2] Worst of all, this sets their food preferences for the rest of their lives.

So, it couldn’t be more important to help children develop a taste for healthy food. Of course, this isn’t always that simple but there are several techniques and best practices that you can follow to help encourage healthy eating habits.

Involve children in the process

Allowing children to understand the process of what goes into a dish and seeing these different ingredients can help familiarise a child with a wider range of food. Plus, children love to help with cooking.

Introduce new foods slowly

If children are unsure about trying new foods, try to make the food familiar first. Children need to be familiar with a food with all their senses. So, seeing it, smelling it, and touching it may all be needed before a child is willing to have a bite or even a lick.

Keep mealtimes calm, happy and relaxed

If you are more relaxed around mealtimes, children will be too. Sitting together at a table and modelling a healthy attitude towards eating and trying a wide range of foods can have a big impact on how children will perceive eating and mealtimes in general.

Make healthy foods fun and positive

The way we talk about different foods can have a huge impact on a child. Often, we talk more positively about less healthy ‘treat foods’ than fruit and vegetables. Using words such as ‘yummy’ and ‘delicious’ when discussing a new food can make it seem like a more appealing option.

Praise even the tiniest achievement

Even if a child has just tasted a tiny amount of food for the first time, it is so important to encourage them by praising this effort. Use positive praise rather than using bribes such as, ‘eat your vegetables and then you can have dessert’.

It can take up to 15-20 exposures before a child accepts a new taste, so don't give up too easily in trying to encourage healthy eating habits. Children's palates and experiences with food are constantly shifting and evolving.

There’s significant research to indicate that the first 1000 days (conception to age 2) is a critically important phase in a child’s life. Many claim that this is where the foundations of a child’s development lie. This means it’s the perfect time to build a healthier future.

There are many influences in this time that impact on the child’s future health but one of utmost importance is that of formative nutrition. We often refer to ‘building blocks’ in nutrition and we can certainly use that term in relation to the first 1000 days.

Good nutrition during this time is the foundation for early cognitive abilities, motor skills and emotional development. This is all largely due to the incredibly impressive rapid growth and development of the human brain.

Brain development

During pregnancy, the brain grows at an astonishing speed. From around the fifth week of pregnancy, neurons begin to form and multiply. These grow at a staggering 250,000 neurons per minute by the middle of the second trimester.

Neurons are crucial for developing connections that help shape development. In terms of energy, half of the calories going into a developing a baby go towards building its brain.

There is a disproportionate amount of energy going into building the brain, as there is a disproportionate amount of activity going on up there! Consider the brain an extremely complicated central computer that’s growing and developing at a truly astonishing pace.

What the baby gets during the prenatal stage comes from their mother, so the prenatal diet is very important but especially when it comes to fats.

A lot of the energy going to build the baby’s brain needs to come from fats. In fact, 40% of our brain is made up of EFA’s (Essential Fatty Acids). The mother needs to ensure that she has enough for her and her baby, as the baby will ‘pinch’ what it needs. This can often leave Mum feeling depleted or with ‘baby brain’.

Once the child is born, they will grow and develop at a rapid pace, which means EFA deficiencies can present in the day-to-day functioning of a child. For example, how well can they grasp new things? Consider a child must learn everything, absolutely everything! They need their frontal lobe to be rich in EFAs particularly DHA, to enable them to problem solve, concentrate, and focus.

“When a baby’s development falls behind the norm during the first year of life, for instance, it is much more likely that they will fall even further behind in subsequent years than catch up with those who have had a better start.” Barnardo’s quote from the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee – First 1000 days of life 13th report of session 2017-19

There are many elements to nutrition for brain development. Fats such as the EFAs (AA, DHA, EPA and DGLA) are key, as is ALA or Omega 3 and Phospholipids. As with many other elements of nutrition, it is often the vitamins and minerals present or lacking in the diet that tell the bigger picture. Many nutrients are involved in maintaining and developing our brain, including Zinc, Iodine, Vitamin C, B vitamins, Vitamin D and Magnesium.

two young children with carrots

Top brain foods

Taste development – pre-conception

When it comes to taste development, you may be surprised to know that some elements of this may be taking shape before the child is even conceived! This is all to do with epigenetics.

As we get half our genes from each parent, we also inherit aspects of their genome. This forms part of the transgenerational epigenetic inheritance or ‘epigenome’. Put simply, these are the nutrition and lifestyle factors that can potentially imprint onto your epigenome. Unlike DNA which we can’t change or influence, our nutrition and lifestyle does influence our epigenome, potentially resulting in your eating habits being passed on to your children.

It isn’t just our habits and preferences that get passed on via the transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, many studies show how experiences and trauma can also be passed on between generations.

However, these epigenetic traits are not set in stone in the same way as our DNA. So, we can change our lifestyle and nutrition to ensure that we are passing on ‘healthy heritable traits’ via out epigenome. It’s also worth noting that a child born having inherited ‘unhealthy heritable traits’ is by no means set to become unhealthy. The way they live their life can change their own gene expression to be healthier. They may be more likely to get certain things or more predisposed to be obese, but they don’t have to be.

Whilst epigenetics is fascinating, it’s a fairly new area of study and the influence of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance is still being discovered.

toddler eating strawberries

Taste development – prenatal, birth and onwards

Prenatal nutrition checklist

It’s worth mentioning that mum’s taste preferences may become the babies taste preferences. (Linked to the epigenetic inheritance above). This is particularly relevant in the third trimester so if mum likes sweet foods. The third trimester is certainly not the time to over-indulge, as this would very likely influence a sweet tooth in the baby.

Sugar

It’s advisable not to introduce free sugars too early into a child’s diet, for example, via cakes, biscuits, chocolates or often even some yogurts and savoury foods such as pasta sauces.

Sugar offers zero nutritional benefit, and it affects taste development. This means it may be considerably more difficult to get a baby/child to eat vegetables if they develop a likening for sweet foods, as the savoury foods will simply not be as appealing!

Crucially, sugar is addictive due to the dopamine response when it is consumed. So, the more you have the more you need, as the satisfaction response is weakened (you need more and more to feel the response, hence why it is addictive, and you can eat a lot of it!).

But that’s not all:

Our Sugarwise Platinum Certification!

Nursery Kitchen is the first early years caterer to achieve Sugarwise Platinum Certification! This means that our menu has been expertly assessed and certified as being low in free sugars. In fact, many of our dishes are contain zero free sugars!

Shaping future health habits

Food does more than simply fill up a child. When we feed a child, we also are shaping their future relationship with food. For example, many adults with emotional eating issues can link this back to childhood.

We can help babies and children shape healthier food habits and a lifelong healthy relationship with food, but to do this we need to appreciate the true significance of the foods we feed them.

At Nursery Kitchen, we create exciting, nutritionally balanced nursery meals made with the best and freshest ingredients. With wholesome menus packed with flavours from around the world, encourage are children to be more adventurous with food. This means they’ll be more likely to develop a varied palate which relishes the taste of healthy food!

References

Switching Genes on and Off – The Health Sciences AcademyEpigenetics – feeding the obesity and diabetes epidemic? Institute of Experimental Genetics - Helmholtz Zentrum München (Neuherberg, Germany) Persistent epigenetic differences associated with prenatal exposure to famine in humans - Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Nov 4; 105(44)How Food Shapes Your Child – Louise Mercieca Public Health England – Sugar Reduction – the evidence for action

This dish is vegan friendly and packed full of nutrients! The humble potato is a great source of vitamins C and B6 which help reduce tiredness and fatigue, while cannellini beans and veggies add antioxidants and protein. Cannellini beans also contain magnesium which helps relaxation and boosts production of neurotransmitters. Additionally, Magnesium helps the body to absorb calcium, which is essential for healthy teeth, gums, and bones.

Ingredients

Method

Pre-heat your oven to 180⁰C

Wash the potatoes and place into a baking tray. Once the oven has reached 180⁰C, place the potatoes into the oven for 35-40 minutes.

Add a dash of sunflower oil to a pan and bring to a medium heat before adding the onions and carrots. Cook until soft.

Add the garlic, tomato paste and smoked paprika, then season with a little ground black pepper. Cook out for 5 minutes.

Add water and vegetable bouillon, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Add chopped tomatoes and drained cannellini beans. Mix well and bring to the boil for 15 minutes.

Add mixed peppers and simmer for 5 minutes.

Remove the mini jackets from the oven and carefully cut open to cool. Spoon the baked beans onto a plate or bowl with the mini jackets and serve.

*This dish will serve approximately two adults and two children depending on age and appetite. Always check that you're serving children the appropriate portion size.

There’s more to feeding a child than simply filling a child. We aim to show all the reasons why a healthy balanced diet is crucial for the formative years. This is why our menu has our special menu key to highlight the foods that support the different aspects of a child’s development, brain health, oral health, bones etc. But one big question we often get asked is:

“How much should we feed our children?”

Children, like adults come in all shapes and sizes and with varied appetites and energy outputs. No two children will eat the same each week, some will always finish and seem to want more whereas others will rarely finish a plate. This is, as you know perfectly normal, but we would like to give you the assurance that our menu has taken into account the general guidance for feeding the different age-groups within your settings.

There are general guidelines for calculating both daily calorie needs, and the macronutrient needs for different age groups – macronutrients are the energy-giving foods, Protein, Fats and Carbohydrates.

We have shown some examples here: -

DCN (Daily Calorie Needs)

< 2 years old1077 kcal
5 years old (active girl)1250 kcal
10 years old (bit active boy)2180 kcal
15 years old (very active girl)2431 kcal

 

One of the most important elements is to ensure that children are naturally full (this goes some way to avoid the constant desire for snacks!).  Of all the macronutrients (foods with calories – Carbohydrates, Fats and Proteins). Protein is the one that helps us to feel naturally full and satisfied from the foods we eat.

We’ve shown below how ‘Molly’ could meet her protein requirements using items from the Nursery Kitchen menu: -

Molly is between 1-3 years old, so the protein (grams per day) = 1.05 x weight in kg

Molly aged 2 weighs 13kg – she would need 1.05 x 13 = 13.65 – Molly would need a minimum of 14g protein each day.

Example Menu

Using Molly as an example and looking at a typical day on the Nursery Kitchen menu, Molly would easily meet her protein requirements having breakfast and lunch in a setting: -

If Molly had tea at home such as an egg (approx. 6g) or a peanut butter sandwich (8g) this can easily add up.

When it comes to calculating carbohydrate and fat intake it’s slightly more complicated as we work out DCN (Daily Calorie Need) and PAL (Physical Activity Level) – the amount of carbohydrates required are then a percentage of the DCN.

The carbohydrate intake range will depend on how active or inactive the child is. An active child will require more carbohydrates, while a very active child will need a higher percentage of protein additionally.

All children require a high percentage of dietary fats in their diet (but it is essential that the dietary fats are from the right sources).

These calculations are approximate as there is no such thing an average child! Gender, height, weight, body composition and activity levels all fluctuate but they are a good general guide.

DCN (Daily Calorie Needs)

< 2 years old1077 kcal
5 years old (active girl)1250 kcal
10 years old (bit active boy)2180 kcal
15 years old (very active girl)2431 kcal

 

Calories from Carbohydrates (range)

< 2 years old50% of DCN = 538 kcal/134g carbohydrates
5 years old (active girl)55% of DCN = 688- 737 kcal/172-184g carbohydrates
10 years old (bit active boy)50%-54% of DCN – 1090-1177 kcal 272-294g carbohydrates
15 years old (very active girl)60%-65% of DCN – 1459-1580 kcal 364-395g carbohydrates

 

Calories from fats

1-3 years oldMinimum of 30-40g fats

270 – 360 kcal from DCN should be from fat (good fats)

4-16 years oldMinimum of 25-35g fats

225-315 kcal from DCN should be from fat (good fat)

 

Should children eat everything we give them?

As we mentioned earlier, children’s appetites vary, some seem to never be full, and others can’t manage much.  As long as we monitor any real concerns about over or under eating this is all perfectly natural.  One thing that children are naturally very good at though (much better than us grown-ups!) is knowing when they are actually full.  Sometimes however, it is in our nature to get the child to clear the plate, perhaps we were trained to do so and it’s natural to not like food waste but, children don’t need to clear their plate!

By instilling the notion of a clean plate each time, we can inadvertently encourage over-eating and remove the child’s natural ability of feeling full. The same applies for the language we use around food, particularly over pudding.  Pudding should not be an incentive to complete the main, this can create an unhealthy relationship with food.  Ideally try not to bribe with phrases like “eat it all up and you can have pudding” or “you have to eat your Broccoli before you can have pudding”.  These both make the main food (the meal, the veg) the most nutritious part of the diet, something to endure to reach the goal of the ‘nice part’, the pudding.  We want the child to enjoy the main part and if, only if there’s room to then enjoy a portion of pudding too.

When we reward a clean plate with pudding, unfortunately this can create over-eating and emotional eating tendencies as grown-ups – a grown up rewarding themselves with food.  When it comes to feeding children, we are not just feeding them to fill them up, but we are creating and shaping the food patterns, habits and even addictions that children can have as adults.

Children have different nutritional needs to adults and as their bodies develop, these needs change. It is extremely important that the diets of young children are planned to be age appropriate to ensure they have the fuel to grow, learn and play.

Having a tasty, varied, and nutritional diet from the outset helps develop a child’s palate, creating healthy habits that will last a lifetime.

So, what makes up a healthy diet?

Don’t be scared of natural sugars - they can be included as part of a healthy diet

While natural sugars should not be over consumed by any age group due to the energy dense nature of the foods (nutrient dense but also calorie dense), they are safe to be included in early years diets, even though they are sugars. Naturally occurring sugars occur in whole foods, such as fruit. Within that food there is also a lot of fibre, water content, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, which have a wide variety of health benefits.