Nursery Management

Healthy eating and nutrition – Creating a plant-based menu in early years

  • Healthy eating and nutrition – Creating a plant-based menu in early years

Portland Nurseries’ nutritious plant-focused menu has proved a hit with children and parents, says Michael Murphy…

Nutrition is vitally important in aiding children to learn and develop, so at Portland Nurseries – an Ofsted ‘outstanding’ group with four settings in Huddersfield – we teamed up with leading dieticians in a bid to create the UK’s healthiest kids’ menu.

We’ve always had healthy menus for nutrition as well as education, the idea being that if children are exposed to healthy foods at an early age, they’re more likely to make better choices later in life.

We change our menu twice a year and try to create the healthiest we can by using the latest nutritional information. We follow government guidance, the Eatwell Guide and the Healthy Plate, but strive to go even further.

Guided by research

Statistics show that fruit, vegetables and fibre are worryingly low in children’s diets, so our idea was to have the recommended daily amounts in the two meals, two snacks and breakfast we provide the children at nursery each day.

It not only keeps the children healthy but also gives parents peace of mind that their children have already met those requirements. This takes the pressure off when they’re preparing the evening meal, particularly those who struggle to provide well-rounded meals.

This was the basis for creating the menu, but what was different was the move towards it being almost wholly plant-based. We do have dairy in milk and cheese, so it isn’t vegan, but it’s definitely the most plant-based menu we’ve had. This wasn’t necessarily our predetermined plan; it’s what the guidance and research showed.

For example, animal protein content has shrunk with every revision of the Healthy Plate. The list of recommended proteins now starts with beans and pulses, rather than meat and fish, which is now at the bottom of the list.

Once we knew that plant-based would provide the healthiest menu and we became focused on nutritional value, we set about creating the menu based on our previous plant-based dishes, which, in turn, created its own set of questions.

How would we make it tasty? How could we get variety? How would our cooks manage across four sites? What would the cost implications be? Would the parents accept it? And, crucially, how would we make sure we were meeting all the nutritional requirements for the children? That’s when we looked for professional help…

Expert support

We found a really good dietician, Lisa Simon, who used a plant-based approach. I’m pleased to say she was astonished by what we had produced and said that it was the best menu she had seen in any school or nursery.

We even got the thumbs up from Dr Shireen Kassam, the founder of Plant-Based Health Professionals UK. She gave us some excellent advice, and we took on board her suggestions and guidance.

Sometimes you try to do the right thing and hope you’re getting it right, but her validation gave us added confidence when speaking to parents.

When we launched the menu to parents, we went into it with our eyes wide open; we look after 700 children, so we knew we weren’t going to please everyone. We could have simply changed the menu with little fuss, but we decided to give parents as much information as possible because we wanted them to understand what we were doing and why.

Healthy eating and nutrition are such a big part of our ethos and we felt it important to communicate that. We drafted an email with links to the research and quotes from the dietician, and I’m pleased to say the majority of parents applauded our efforts.

However, we did face some questions and complaints from a minority of people. We anticipated the key complaint would be the lack of meat content and that proved to be the case.

We prepared by having a template email with additional nutritional information and facts we could send to parents who required it. We tailored the email to each parent’s questions, but because each complaint was similar, we could handle it efficiently.

A real success

The minor complaints and misgivings from parents had dissipated after a few weeks because it became clear the children loved the menu. This was really down to the skill of our cooks.

When you ask a chef to cook a lasagne without the beef for the first time you get some funny looks – they’re naturally apprehensive – but we’re lucky to have a fantastic team. They did their own research and came back to us with ideas for more dishes and suggestions on how to give the meals maximum flavour.

The cooks’ buy-in was important and it created new learning opportunities for the children. We encouraged them to prepare food with the children and one of the ideas that came out of that was the wraps.

We always liked the idea of wraps, but it’s difficult to prepare so many, so we decided to let the children help make them and that’s been a great success.

Our staff also eat all the meals with the children, and discuss what they are putting in their bodies and why it’s good for them.

We’ve been encouraged by feedback from parents whose children have been asking for nursery dishes. So much so that we have created a cookbook.

What’s next?

The cost of providing the menu has gone up, but only with the cost of food, not because we are using more fresh ingredients. Meat and fish aren’t cheap, but neither are spinach and avocado, so I think we’ve found a good balance.

Next, we’re aiming for a completely organic menu for health reasons as well as environmental ones. We have the Eco Schools Award and removing pesticides from the environment is something we are passionate about.

With the new plant-based menu, we have found a structure, so hopefully the next iteration won’t be as difficult. There will always be different dishes to try and that will be a challenge, but it’s a challenge we’re looking forward to getting our teeth into.

New menu? Five things to remember when planning changes…

  • Do things gradually – this wasn’t a big leap for us but a natural progression; going from a traditional menu to a plant-based one would have been too difficult. Have an aim in mind but give it time, so you can manage children, parents and logistics.
  • Do your research – when making a menu that’s different, ensure you have plenty of information to back up your decisions.
  • Keep parents fully informed – we found this was the best policy. You can then anticipate feedback and be prepared.
  • Be prepared for complaints – make sure you have your internal processes in place and that staff know how to deal with negative feedback.
  • Involve children in meal preparation – when trying a new menu this is a good way to familiarise children with dishes so they will be more receptive to the food.

Michael Murphy is Managing Director at Portland Nurseries.