Nursery Management

Sugar swaps – healthy eating in early years

  • Sugar swaps – healthy eating in early years

Making food swaps can have many health benefits and ensure we are providing children with access to balanced, nutritious food, says Edwina Revel…

Did you know, children are having over twice the recommended amount of sugar? With over half the sugar coming from drinks and snacks. Having too much sugar can lead to painful tooth decay – every 10 minutes a child in England has a tooth removed in hospital.

As set out in the Early Years Foundation Stage 2021 reforms, early years providers are required to promote the good oral health of children. This has been included because good oral health habits need to be formed from an early age.

Making food swaps are a great way to ensure children are not consuming foods that are too high in sugar and to support them to learn how to make healthy choices and develop an enjoyment and love of food. 

How much is too much?

Children aged four to six years should have less than 19 grams (five cubes) of free sugar each day. There are no guideline limits for children under the age of four, but it’s recommended they avoid sugar-sweetened drinks and food with sugar added to it.

To meet these guidelines, we need to be aware of the free sugars added to foods, such as sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, and those that occur naturally in fruit purees, juices and pastes.

Cutting down on the intake of free sugar can help to reduce the risk of tooth decay and type 2 diabetes, and help us to improve health outcomes for children.

There are some sugars that we don’t need to cut down on, such as those found naturally in foods like fruit, vegetables and milk.

Many food and drink products contain excess sugar and carry misleading health claims, making nutritious choices challenging.

For example, if a child has a juice drink (two cubes of sugar) and a sugary yoghurt (six cubes of sugar) they would exceed the recommended maximum daily sugar intake (19 grams / five cubes of sugar)! We have plenty of tips to support your early years setting to be sugar aware. 

Read the label

While you might not actively add a lot of fat, sugar and salt into the foods you prepare in your setting, it’s important to recognise that a lot of the packaged foods we buy can contain these ingredients – sometimes without us knowing it!

A label reading card has three colour coded columns: green, amber and red, which correspond to low, medium and high. The aim of label reading is to try and choose products which are labelled as low (green) or medium (amber) in saturated fat, sugar and salt and to limit those that are labelled as high (red).

Swap sugary cereals

Breakfast is an important meal for children, providing them with energy to fuel their day and lots of important vitamins and minerals. Cereals are a great breakfast option and it’s important to choose those with a low (green) or medium (amber) sugar content.

Avoid cereals labelled as high (red) in sugar and remember to always read labels by looking at the per 100g column, not per serving. Swap sugar-coated or chocolate flavoured cereals such as frosted flakes, honey crunch cereal or cereal bars.

Instead, choose low sugar cereals, such as porridge, wheat bisks or shredded whole wheat. You could occasionally choose medium sugar cereals, such as corn flakes and crisped rice. Check out our favourite breakfast ideas

Rethink snack time

Snacks are an opportunity to offer children additional energy and nutrients between meals, without adding sugar to their diet. Snacks should be viewed as ‘mini meals’, using the same nutritious foods as meals do!

Many processed fruit-based snacks are high in sugar. Dried fruit bars, jellies, melts, fruit-based biscuits and wafers, purées and fruit juices are often very high in sugar, and the sugars in these foods can damage teeth. These foods are not recommended between meals, even if they are sold as snacks.

Snack swaps

Swap sugary snacks such as cereal bars, dried fruit, flavoured yoghurts, muffins, jam and chocolate spreads, for more nutritious options: 

  • plain rice cake with cream cheese and blackberries
  • sliced fresh fruit, such as melon, pear, kiwi, orange
  • plain Greek or natural yoghurt topped with fruit, such as berries, mango, rhubarb, grated apple
  • Scotch pancakes with banana and strawberries
  • bean dips, hummus, mashed strawberries
  • *Offer age-appropriate textures

Check out our favourite snack ideas

Hydrate the right way

The amount of sugar that is found in children’s drinks can be surprising. A quarter of the sugar they consume comes from sugary drinks. Remember, water and plain milk are the only tooth-friendly drinks for children in your early years setting and at home.

Make sure water is freely available for children to help themselves to throughout the day. You should avoid offering fruit juices, diluted fruit juice, squash, fizzy drinks, flavoured water and drinks containing added caffeine or other stimulants.

If parents are offering juice drinks at home, recommend offering them at mealtimes only, in an open cup and diluting it one part juice to ten parts water.

What’s for dessert?

When we think about toddler desserts and puddings, the foods that often come to mind are sugary treats, such as chocolate cake and ice cream. However, nutritious desserts and puddings are a great way to provide young children with energy and essential nutrients, such as calcium and iron.

Puddings made with cereals (such as rice or oats), milk and fruit can be included as part of a healthy, balanced diet for young children. Here are some of our favourite options:

  • fruit crumbles
  • homemade fruity flapjack
  • fresh and tinned fruit
  • fruit salad
  • plain yoghurt with fruit
  • rice pudding
  • custard

Check out more pudding ideas 

Useful resources

Visit Early Start Nutrition for lots of recipe ideas and training to support you to plan food provision.

Download the free Healthier Families NHS Food Scanner App.