Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) services across Australia have been feeling the impacts of COVID-19, including the challenge of continuing to provide a healthy menu to children in care.
State and territory regulatory bodies support a ‘common sense’ approach to regulation on food provision during this time. They understand that ECEC services are experiencing supply issues and may need support to meet children’s nutritional needs. Please check with your state or territory regulatory authority for further information.
The National Nutrition Network – ECEC has compiled a list of tips and resources to support services and cooks to continue to meet the Australian Dietary Guidelines and support children’s health and wellbeing during this time.
Consider ingredient substitutions
If you have experienced difficulties in sourcing regular ingredients, Early Childhood Australia and the Healthy Eating Advisory Service have compiled some helpful tips on food swaps and alternative suppliers on their websites. The Nutrition Australia Qld (NAQ) Nutrition’s Food Foundations Program has put together a tip sheet for ingredient swaps.
The Australian Childcare Alliance has developed a video: Adapting Children’s Service menus around food shortages inresponse to food shortages as well.
Include variety and key food groups
Aim to provide a variety of food and drinks from the five-food groups, and try to include a mix of colours and textures! The five food groups are:
- vegetables and legumes/beans
- grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties
- lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds and legumes/beans
- milk, yoghurt cheese and/or alternatives, mostly reduced fat.
Discretionary foods (such as ones with high sugar, high fat or high salt content) are not recommended for inclusion on an ECEC service menu. The ‘healthy eating for children’ brochure from the Eat for Health website provides a guide to the types and amounts of food each child needs daily and also identifies substitutes within each food group.
If meat is not accessible consider using legumes or other protein rich plant-based alternatives. This Munch & Move program tip-sheet on creating a healthy vegetarian meal for ECEC services highlights the need for protein, iron and vitamin C sources and an additional tip-sheet that suggests ways to include iron rich foods in menus.
The following sites provide recipes suitable for ECEC:
- the Healthy Eating Advisory Service
- NSW Health Caring For Children
- the Yummy Tummy Cookbook (check out page 109 for ingredient substitutions!)
- the Munch & Move checklist for planning sandwich menus can support you to provide healthy sandwich meals. Sandwiches can be a substitute in lieu of hot meals, but ensure that meat or meat alternatives and dairy are included.
Food safety and supply
Effective hygiene and food safety practices are always important to ensure children and staff remain healthy. Studies suggest that coronavirus (COVID-19) may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days. This may vary under different conditions such as the type of surface, temperature or humidity of the environment.
There is no evidence that COVID-19 is transmitted through food.
For trusted and up to date advice about coronavirus hygiene and food safety advice, head to:
Remember, you are not alone
Reach out for nutrition support from established resource hubs and programs. Read on to see what is available across most states and territories in Australia.
QLD & NT
Food Foundations is Queensland’s early years nutrition and food safety program and provides tools, training and resources for best practice in nutrition, menu planning, meal times and food safety. Services provided include online resources, consultancy and in-person and online professional development training.
Munch & Move is NSW Health initiative that supports the healthy development of children birth to 5 years by promoting physical activity, healthy eating and reduced small screen time. Munch & Move offers free professional development training and resources to educators working in NSW early childhood education and care services.
The ACT Nutrition Support Service is an initiative of Nutrition Australia ACT Inc, supported by the ACT Government. Through its professional advice this service can support staff and management to give children the best start in life with Nutrition and Food Handling Courses, menu assessments, parent information sessions and more.
A course that provides practical ideas and materials to support the delivery of nutrition education to preschool students using the Food&ME Preschool Curriculum resource. Food&ME Preschool is mapped to the Early Years Learning Framework and the National Quality Standards.
On Healthy Kids online you will find information on:
- how and what to feed young children
- how you can help create healthy places and spaces in your community
- active play ideas for under fives
- looking after teeth.
The Healthy Eating Advisory Service provides free support for early childhood services in Victoria to provide and promote healthy foods and drinks. Visit the website for:
- tips for promoting healthy eating during coronavirus
- menu planning guidelines and assessments
- online training
- advice on promoting healthy eating
- allergies and intolerances
- healthy recipes.
A support site for education and care centres and early years educators. This is a place to connect with other childcare professionals to share experiences, ideas and thoughts and to build a network of support. There are many reliable, accurate resources to help you provide a healthy eating environment at your centre, including recipes and factsheets.
About the authors.
Amy Wakem and Lara Hernandez co-lead the intervention stream of the National Nutrition Network-Early Childhood Education and Care (NNN-ECEC). The NNN-ECEC’s mission is to promote best practice food provision within education and care services to facilitate health, nutrition and positive developmental outcomes for children.
Amy is a dietitian with the Healthy Eating Advisory Service, which is delivered by Nutrition Australia Vic Division with support from the Victorian Government.
Lara is the manager for the NSW Health Munch & Move program.