Medway childcare providers leading the way on healthy food

Children's Food Trust

Nurseries, pre-schools and childminders from across Medway are to celebrate this week, after joining a special programme to improve the food they offer and how they encourage children to eat healthily.

Almost 90 early years providers in the area will come together at a special event tomorrow to mark the first anniversary of their work to offer healthier menus and cooking activities for children.

Medway Council developed the programme based on our Eat Better, Start Better guidelines alongside specialist support and training from the charity, after being commissioned by Medway Council’s Public Health and Early Years Quality Teams.

The Medway programme is now set to enter its second year, with the ultimate aim of reaching more than 3,500 children with healthier food in childcare.

Medway Director of Public Health, Dr Alison Barnett, says: “I’m delighted that so many have signed up to Eat Better, Start Better – it’s a testament to the real commitment here in Medway to giving children the healthiest start in life. We’re looking forward to building on their success and bringing even more of Medway’s providers on board this year.”

Cllr David Brake, Medway Council’s Portfolio Holder in charge of Public Health, says: “This programme is absolutely vital in educating children from a young age about the benefits of eating healthy. Under this scheme, our young people not only get to eat healthier foods but also find out why it is so important to do so along with their parents, who play a key part in ensuring healthy eating continues at home. I’m delighted Medway is leading the way on this fantastic initiative.”

Laura Whiting, our nutritionist, says: “If we want to improve children’s diets in the long-term, we have to start early and that’s why we need to support all childcare providers to offer healthy menus and get children cooking in their earliest years. By making it possible for childcare providers right across this area to have support and training on this, Medway really is leading by example and creating such a powerful legacy for the future.”

The blame game: everyone’s a loser

Claire   “Britain is in the grip of a child obesity epidemic. A third of UK children are now overweight or obese, making us one of the fattest nations in Europe. Last year, 26,000 kids were forced to have rotten teeth removed under general anaesthetic in hospital, due to poor diet and lack of brushing. In extreme cases they’re even facing controversial and risky stomach reduction surgery. We’re raising a generation of snackers and junk-scoffers, suffering from preventable illnesses. So whose fault is it and what can be done to fix it?

So starts the Telegraph’s review of a new two-parter starting on Channel 4 this week, no doubt to the usual living-room refrain of “blame the <parents/schools/doctors/shops/food industry>” (delete as appropriate).

Junk Food Kids screengrab

It’s so easy to focus on the question of ‘who’s to blame’ (we all are: for decades of wanting food faster, cheaper and to feed our cravings for sugar and salt), but it’s the second question that’s much more difficult…and much more important.

For children suffering the consequences of poor diet – whether that’s eating too much of the wrong things, not enough of the right things, not enough at all, or all of the above, the answers are far from simple. We live a world in which children are constantly bombarded by messages about food and food experiences from their earliest years – some subtle, some not-so-subtle and many which are conflicting. Lots of us weren’t given the legacy of cooking skills learned at school or at home to pass on to our kids. Not having the skills or confidence to cook from scratch makes life even more complicated when you’re trying to feed your children well on a shoestring. Places where children eat and buy food often don’t help them learn about making good decisions: becoming a savvy consumer takes time and experience, which children haven’t yet had.

Helping children to navigate this strange food world of ours is one of the most important and complex tasks parents face – with no expert training for the job. We all have to help out, if we’re going to be a healthier Britain. That’s why getting food right in childcare and school is so vital: making sure children get the energy and nutrients they need while at the same time, giving them experiences of lots of different foods and cooking styles. That’s why giving kids and families the skills they need to cook from scratch themselves and get smart with a food budget is one of the most important things we can do. It’s why fuelling real demand for healthier options for children when they eat out and buy food is a way to drive change.

We’re way past the time for pointing the finger of blame. It’s time we all got on the same team and helped children skill up for a healthier food future.

Claire’s our senior nutritionist. Email Claire.

Trust’s response to study on childhood obesity figures

The King’s College London researchers have found that childhood overweight and obesity steadily increased in England between 1994-2003, and has stabilised in the past decade.

Children’s Food Trust Head of Nutrition, Dr Patricia Mucavele, said: “Childhood overweight and obesity remains a high public health priority. As the researchers state monitoring and understanding trends in childhood obesity is important for informing policy initiatives. Although this study and other national surveys have suggested a levelling off of increases in child obesity, we still have one in four children aged between 4-5 years diagnosed as overweight or obese which increases to one in three by age 10-11 years. This is a real concern.

“Obese children are more likely to be ill, be absent from school due to illness, experience health-related limitations and require more medical care than normal weight children. Overweight and obese children are also more likely to become obese adults, and have a higher risk of morbidity, disability and premature mortality in adulthood due to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers.

“Supportive policies, environments, schools and communities are fundamental in shaping children’s choices, making the healthier choice of foods and regular physical activity accessible, available and affordable – thereby preventing obesity.

“There are stark inequalities in levels of child obesity, with prevalence among children in the most deprived areas being double that of those children in the least deprived areas.

“We are one of the many organisations who are working towards ensuring that all children, despite their circumstances or background, have access to nutritious food, which is why initiatives such as the government’s Universal Infant Free School Meals policy are so important.

“We believe that schools and other educational settings such as nurseries have a crucial role to play in developing healthy eating habits from an early age and by ensuring food and drinks provided are healthy, balanced and nutritious.

“The new school food standards and the Voluntary Food and Drink Guidelines for Early Years Settings in England help to limit the provision of high saturated fat, sugar and salt foods, and increase consumption of fruit and vegetables, across the day.

“The high prevalence of children currently diagnosed as overweight and obese suggests that there is still a lot we all need to do to protect and improve the health and wellbeing of children.”

A new year for children’s food and time to reflect

Our Chief Executive at the Children’s Food Trust, Linda Cregan, talks about the past year in children’s food, and the one ahead.

Christmas can put you in a reflective mood. Rest, family time and the prospect of a brand new year is often when you assess the past year’s successes and challenges, and look forward to the opportunities of the next year.

For many, work schedules don’t always let up before the Christmas holidays begin, so time for genuine reflection before the break is rare. But sometimes there are brief interludes, and I was fortunate enough to enjoy one of these earlier this month when I joined influential public sector catering colleagues at the House of Commons for a round table, hosted by Cost Sector Catering.

Our discussions, which will be shared by the magazine early next year, prompted me to think about the progress the Trust, our partners and others have made in improving the access to better food and food skills for our children during 2014 – and the fundamental challenges that we still need to address if we are to meet our goal of ensuring that every child enjoys the right to eat healthy, nutritious food, irrelevant of their personal circumstances.

In November it was the 25th anniversary of the signing of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child – a commitment to giving all children good nutrition as part of their inalienable right to a healthy, happy and fulfilled life – exactly what the Trust works everyday to achieve.

Yet a quarter of a century later, there are still too many children – and too many adults – in this country, who want for good, healthy food. They suffer a sort of malnutrition that is far from the haunting images of emaciated children on famine stricken plains that undoubtedly helped to shape the wording of the Convention back in 1989. This modern malnutrition stems from eating poor quality, processed food that is laden with high levels of salt, sugar and fat. It is a diet that condemns too many to obesity related illness and early death.

The implications for our society are profound. A quarter of adults and one in five school children are now obese, up from 15% just 20 years ago. Diabetes and other obesity related conditions are increasing too, and how awful is it that this year we were hearing of the return of rickets in some children. As well as costing lives this puts our NHS under intense pressure dealing with obesity related illnesses. NHS England Chief Executive Simon Stevens might well be justified for calling obesity ‘the new smoking’.

Of course significant strides have been made during 2014 to give more children access to healthy, nutritious food, and the Trust is proud to be playing a key role in these efforts.

The introduction of free school meals for infant pupils in 16,000 schools back in September was an historic time and has the potential to impact on the health and education of our children for years to come. Working with LACA and our other partners, our advisors are helping schools overcome practical issues associated with what is a major expansion of school meal provision.

Cooking is back in the school curriculum, and we’re training those who care for under-fives in how to provide food in line with the national food and drink guidelines, which we launched in 2012.

The introduction of the new school food standards, which the Trust has been instrumental in developing will come into force on 1 January and through our menu checking service we’re helping school caterers make sure that their new menus meet those standards.

Changing the cooking habits of families at home is equally important because this directly influences what children eat. Our network of 5,000 Let’s Get Cooking Clubs has helped to get more than three million children and adults cooking, with 58% of participants telling us that they make healthier food choices after taking part, and we were pleased to be able to reach more children and their families this year by extending cookery clubs into 50 Tesco stores for the entire summer holidays.

The Trust is working hard to make a positive difference but it’s clear to me and my colleagues that there is still much to do in this modern war against want.

Few of us can predict exactly what lies in store for us in 2015 but one thing is certain – the Trust, its partners and everyone concerned with children’s food won’t relent until we can fulfil the ambitions of the UN Convention and ensure that every child has the right to enjoy healthy and nutritious food.

Is healthy eating affordable?

Against the backdrop of a national obesity crisis, recent headlines have been full of claims that it’s cheaper to eat a diet of junk food than healthy meals. But is the research being misquoted?

Sparking the headlines, what the Cambridge University research actually looked at was the costs of different foods per 1,000 calories over a 10-year period. It found that the average cost of 1,000 healthy calories has risen faster than that of 1,000 unhealthy calories and cost almost three times more per calorie than in 2012.

The healthy foods (based on the Food Standards Agency nutrient profiling model) included canned tuna and tomatoes as well as fresh fruit and vegetables. The unhealthy foods were pizza, ice cream and the like.

Now, let’s just visualise those 1,000 calories…

1,000 healthy calories would be approximately…
14 cans of chopped tomatoes or
6 cans of tuna in spring water

1,000 unhealthy calories would be approximately…
1 cheese and tomato pizza or
1.2 litres of ice cream

You can see straight away that the 1,000 healthy calorie examples go a long way – these are large volumes of food. The unhealthy calories, by contrast, provide a much smaller quantity of food. Unhealthy calories might be cheaper – but they won’t satisfy you for long. And a lack of calories is generally not the problem we face in this county.

The 1,000 healthy calories also give a wider range of nutrients, vitamins and minerals. So in both quality and quantity they represent better value for money, despite their higher cost per 1,000 calories.

Prof Pablo Monsivais from the research team was the first to admit the study wasn’t about whether home cooked, healthy food can be cheaper than ready-meals. Speaking on Radio 4’s You and Yours he pointed out the importance of knowing which foods provide the most nutrients for the lowest cost.

People don’t shop by the calorie – they shop for the food that will satisfy them.

The problem comes when people don’t know how to cook from scratch using healthy ingredients. We worked with families living on tight budgets earlier this year and many told us they opted for cheap ready meals and processed foods precisely because they didn’t feel they had the skills or confidence to cook from scratch. The foods they were relying on were often high in saturated fat, sugar and salt while being low in essential minerals, vitamins and fibre.

Similarly, when we asked  professionals who work with children what would make the biggest difference to the families struggling on a limited food budget, cooking education for children and parents was one of the most frequent responses.

People need practical solutions. That’s why we’ve trained staff from more than 40 organisations to run practical Cook and eat on a budget courses. The courses, now being run through food banks, housing associations and substance misuse charities to name a few,  equip  families with knowledge and skills to plan and shop for meals and cook from scratch with basic ingredients. All with nutritionally balanced recipes that are good for their health as well as their wallet.

These families are now

  • planning meals ahead
  • freezing foods (e.g. cheese, milk, bread) to make the most of bulk buys
  • measuring food out before cooking to reduce food waste
  • buying less processed food and batch cooking and freezing instead
  • making the best use of leftovers.

These strategies are helping people to make best use of nutrient rich foods to put together balanced meals that are both affordable and value for money.

Here are some of their favourite tried and tested recipes that they said really work:

  • Mini Pancakes – quick, easy and cheap to make – a great way to use up any leftovers in the fridge and can even be made using long life or powdered milk
  • Fruity Yoghurt Cups – can be made with fresh, frozen or canned fruits
  • Tasty Tomato Pasta- a basic sauce that can be easily adapted to use whatever’s available – try adding canned beans or pulses, frozen vegetables or leftover cooked chicken.

We know that when children eat better, they do better. So as families find their food budgets tightening, it’s more important than ever that they are equipped with the cooking skills and knowledge they need to make healthy meals from scratch.

Jayne Hoyle is the Children’s Food Trust Evaluations Officer and a Registered Dietitian. For tips on cooking healthily on a budget visit Let’s Get Cooking at Home website.

Are we sentencing children to death?

Linda Cregan ponders the recent national media narrative on children’s food

Research by large, high street companies and academics alike over recent weeks highlights much that is shocking and bizarre about children’s food. Whatever the respective agendas behind these various findings – commercial or altruistic – they continue to feed the mainstream media narrative.

And rightly so. When this drops out of the news, worry more. Malnutrition in all its ugly forms will finally have become a cultural norm and we will have become resigned to fatal indifference.

Instead, we are provoked by hard hitting facts. Commentary on a report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month suggested we are sentencing children to death, as nine out of 10 were eating ‘dangerously high levels’ of salt.[1] More than 40 per cent of the sodium children consume comes from what are typically their favourite foods, including pizza, sandwich meats, cheese, chicken nuggets and pasta dishes, says the report.

“We are sentencing all too many children to premature death from heart disease and stroke,” the news story quotes.

But do we fare any better in the UK? Last week, it was sugar. We – and that includes our children – are all consuming too much, say researchers[2] from University College London and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. They want sugar to be taxed, the threshold for what constitutes high sugar levels to be lowered, and vending machines offering confectionery and sugary drinks to be removed from places controlled by government, such as schools and hospitals.

Ahead of the new requirement for cooking to be in the school curriculum, Tesco is one of the supermarket giants focusing on children’s lack of cooking skills and basic understanding of healthy food. Each is underpinning their research findings with new activity programmes for children to help address this, such as Tesco’s Farm to Fork Cooking.

And behind all these issues lie the financial costs of relative inertia. With sugar intake a key culprit, treating dental problems costs between 5% and 10% of total health expenditure in industrial countries. And the NHS is staggering under an unsustainable burden of £5 billion a year[3] to treat obesity-related illnesses.

So are we inert? Not at the Children’s Food Trust. It’s the reason we exist – to protect every child’s right to nutritious food. We’re seeing excellent results across all our work with early years settings, schools and directly with children and families.

The first 1,000 days of a child’s life from conception to a child’s second birthday are when a child most needs nutritious food, so our work with the early years sector is crucial. We’re training those who care for under-fives in how to provide food in line with the national guidelines, which we launched in 2012.

Focusing on children over five, whatever your politics about universal free provision, there’s no doubt school food – subject to national standards – are the wisest, healthiest option. Since the standards were introduced, on average school meals contain 30 per cent less sugar, salt and saturated fat and at least one portion of fruit and one portion of vegetables or salad per child per day. Although not impossible, it’s a huge effort for any parent to match that with a packed lunch.

And as for healthy cooking, we’ve been doing it and sharing it for years and the passion and fun it brings are infectious. Our national network of around 5,000 Let’s Get Cooking clubs has reached nearly 3 million people, and our evidence shows 92 per cent of those use their newly learned cooking skills at home. Let’s Get Cooking goes way beyond children to their families and communities, a diverse range of adult groups and even for employers into the work place.

So inertia has no place for us. As the media coverage will undoubtedly continue to show, there’s so much to do to help our children eat better, do better and reach their full potential. Let’s get busy sentencing children to life.

Linda Cregan is Chief Executive of the Children’s Food Trust

[1] https://uk.news.yahoo.com/nine-10-children-us-eat-too-much-salt-225406618.html#WuyndyI

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-29212780

[3] https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/reducing-obesity-and-improving-diet

Cooking with the Tesco Eat Happy Project

We’re cooking in Tesco stores across the UK this summer, as part of the Eat Happy Project. Our Business Development Manager, Wendy Carter, went along to a course with her son Alexander. She tells us about their experience…  

photo 5

Before my first child was born I vowed to be the kind of mum who’d cook every day with my children, teaching them about where food comes from and sitting together as a family to eat. And for a while, I was. Then the second one came along, and now I am more likely to send them off to their play kitchens to occupy them for twenty minutes while I cook, than let them loose in the kitchen with me.

I know all the reasons why cooking with your children is a good idea. It helps develop motor skills, encourages them to try new foods and it’s a great way of learning a whole host of new skills – from reading (following a recipe) to maths (weighing, fractions) and science. Plus its quality time, doing something fun, that doesn’t cost a fortune. 

But for every one of these positive reasons, I can give you another one why I don’t do it very often. Too much mess, far too much stress, and it takes longer. 

As it’s my eldest son’s first school summer holiday, I eagerly signed us up for the free cooking sessions, ran by the Trust and the Eat Happy Project, in our local Tesco store.

I went with my five-year-old son Alexander, who I feel I’ve neglected terribly since his little brother came along two years ago. Finally, a chance to spend quality time together.

On day one, we meet our cooking teachers, Gill and Sarah, who work together seamlessly. Gill gives us a cooking demonstration of each recipe, splitting it up into stages so the youngsters can remember the instructions, and telling us about each ingredient. Sarah slips around like a magical kitchen fairy as, without you even noticing, the next ingredient or piece of equipment is placed at hand, ready to use, and everything else is cleared away. I wish my kitchen had a Sarah!

We also meet our new friends for the next three days. We’re joined by five other mums and their children.Today we are making tasty tomato pasta and the children get busy chopping spring onions and mushrooms and crushing garlic, before it’s all added to one big pan to be cooked by Sarah. We all sit together to eat and complete a foodie word search. Then it’s back to the kitchen to prepare some fruit parcels to take home to bake in the oven. Alexander loves the pasta so much that he eats a second helping in the car, with his fingers. Rubbish table manners but I am loving his enthusiasm!

On day two, the children bring the chef hats that we decorated at home with pictures of fruit and veg and Alexander has included five people on his to represent the five young chefs. We’re desperate to learn what we are cooking and today its falafel in wraps with minty yoghurt dressing. We love squishing the falafel into patties, but I am a bit worried that Alexander won’t eat it. I’m surprised to see him polish the lot off and bring some spares home to share with his dad. We also make carrot cous cous, which he wants to eat in the car, but this time I draw the line.

On day three, we’re genuinely sad that it’s our last day and we kick off with a speedy chicken biryani, which is delicious, even at ten o’clock in the morning. The tempting smell attracts some Tesco customers who wander over to see what we are cooking, and they are given a recipe to take away. We then toast our culinary success with a citrus cocktail drink and prepare a peach and raspberry crumble to finish off at home in the oven.

So what did we learn over the three days? I’ve never let Alexander near the knives before but he learned ‘bridge’ and ‘claw’ safe chopping techniques, which did wonders for his confidence, and mine. He learned a lot about ingredients through the food quiz and from Gill’s demonstrations and ate lots of new foods, which I wouldn’t have thought he’d even try. He’s now super keen to help me cook every meal.

What did I learn? I just can’t help ‘helping’, and this course helped me to trust Alexander to get on with the recipe on his own. I learned how to make some great simple new recipes, including ‘homework’ which involved making bread in a bag and healthy noodle snack pots which will be incredibly handy to take to work. And that cooking with kids is not that hard after all!

You can find out more about the cooking sessions and book here