A review headed by St George’s child nutrition expert Dr Anthony Williams says childcare providers and parents want clearer guidance on what under-fives should eat and drink in childcare.

The review, from a panel of independent experts, highlights confusion about how to make sure young children in childcare are being given the right foods to meet their nutritional needs.

The panel, which was commissioned by the government and supported by the School Food Trust, found significant demand for a recognised, national source of practical guidance that all childcare providers can choose to follow.

Using such guidance would mean children are given the right types of foods in portion sizes appropriate to their nutritional needs, while parents would have a national benchmark to help them choose a childcare place for their child.

It comes after the latest figures from the National Child Measurement Programme, which showed that almost a quarter of children (23.1 per cent) are overweight or obese by the time they start school.

Dr Anthony Williams, who chaired the panel, said: “The message from childcare providers is clear. They want to feed children well and know that it’s vital to start healthy eating habits early, but at the moment they have no clear advice on how to achieve this in practice.

“In this report we show how providers could be more certain that they’re meeting their children’s nutritional needs. It would save staff time on researching and developing menus, and would help parents know what to look for if they want to be sure their children are well-fed in childcare.

“It’s never too early for children to start eating well; in fact it’s critical if we’re going to help them grow up to be healthy. But unless all childcare providers get a better steer on what they should be offering, children in different settings will continue to have very different food experiences – and a very different start to learning about what foods are good for them.”

The panel found that whilst there is much good work already being done by many childcare providers, current research suggests that some are giving young children food which is more appropriate for older children and adults. This can mean children eat too little energy, carbohydrate and essential minerals such as iron and zinc, and too much salt and sugar.

Healthier eating before the age of five plays a vital role in promoting good nutritional health, and better eating at school. Almost a quarter of children are either overweight or obese when they join reception class; Type 2 diabetes is appearing; and dental health in young children is deteriorating**.

The Advisory Panel on Food and Nutrition in Early Years included nutritionists, policy advisors and national organisations representing children’s centres, childminders and maintained, private, voluntary and independent nurseries. Their report also contains a series of other recommendations which have been submitted to Government as part of the wider review of the Early Years Foundation Stage.

The panel’s full report: ‘Laying the Table: Recommendations for National Food and Nutrition Guidance for Early Years Settings in England’ can be downloaded from the panel’s webpage.