Nutrition in the early years environment

Professor Judith Buttriss, BSc DipDiet PhD RNutr FAfN, Director General, British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), Board Member, Early Years Nutrition Partnership

Early years nutrition

The first years of a child’s life are a critical period in which to get nutrition right. It is one of the three critical times when intervention is recommended by the WHO in their Ending Childhood Obesity report (the others are in the preconception and pregnancy stage and during older childhood and adolescence.[1]) It is in their early years that children develop taste preferences and behaviours that can form the basis of their relationship with food for a lifetime.

However, there are currently a number of issues with diets of young children that mean they may not be getting the best start in life. We know from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey that young children are consuming more than double the recommended amount of free sugars and that the main sources of sugars in their diets include soft drinks, sweets and cakes. Young children also consume too little fibre and intakes of oily fish are equivalent to only 2 grams per day.

According to the National Childhood Measurement Programme (NCMP) in England 1 in 5 children are overweight or obese when they start primary school and this rises to 1 in 3 when they leave primary school. Within these figures, there are stark differences by socioeconomic status with obesity rates in the most deprived areas of the country more than double those in the least deprived. With significant numbers of children carrying excess weight by the time they start school it is clear that work to prevent this needs to start in the early years.

Early years practitioners in nurseries and pre-schools have a unique opportunity. They can influence a child’s nutritional intake due to the regularity of both the care they provide and the access they have to the parents or carers of these children. As we know, a joined-up approach where the same healthy eating behaviours are reflected in the home and the early years setting, provides consistent messages to children that may be more effective in encouraging healthy behaviours.

Early years practitioners need to be confident in their knowledge of early years nutrition. But the unique dietary needs of children at different ages, combined with the complex or seemingly conflicting messages that we hear, can make decision making in the nursery setting, and providing parents with the right advice, a real challenge.

Translating the evidence into practical guidelines

At the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) we use our in-depth knowledge of nutrition to translate the scientific evidence into clear information that is easy to understand and, importantly, to implement.  

In the case of the Early Years Nutrition Partnership, one of our key roles has been the development of criteria, which nurseries have to meet in order to be awarded the EYN Partnership Quality Mark. These are a challenging set of criteria that represent really good practice when it comes to a whole setting approach to food and nutrition, and settings that meet these can be justifiably proud. The criteria resources are accompanied by helpful guides on the main food groups, which outline some of the key issues such as looking at food labels and appropriate portion sizes.

Upskilling early years professionals

The BNF is committed to increasing understanding of early years nutrition, upskilling professionals and supporting the delivery of positive nutrition practice in the early years, and that’s why we’re so proud to be part of the Early Years Nutrition Partnership.

As well as our role in developing the EYN Partnership’s Quality Mark criteria, BNF has also led on the development of training courses for early years practitioners. Ensuring practitioners have evidence-based, reliable information about nutrition and health for young children can help to ensure that they can pass this on to children, parents and carers in their settings, as being a good role model for children to follow.

The EYN Partnership offers a number of training opportunities including a Level 3 CACHE accredited online course on nutrition and hydration in the early years for practitioners and a Level 2 CACHE accredited online course on early years nutrition for early years chefs and cooks. For settings that prefer face to face training for a group of staff, EYN Partnership registered nutrition professionals can deliver training sessions that cover the key elements of early years nutrition as well as a number of optional modules on broader topics that cover subjects like menu planning and difficult meal time behaviour.

The EYN Partnership is building the knowledge and the confidence of practitioners and this completely aligns with our core purpose at the British Nutrition Foundation - to make nutrition science accessible to all. As a Board member for the EYN Partnership I am confident that through this programme we can pave the way for young children to receive the essential nutrition building blocks of life, and help each child flourish and have a healthier, happier future.

Professor Judith Buttriss is Director General of the British Nutrition Foundation. A Fellow of the Association for Nutrition and a Visiting Professor at Robert Gordon University (Aberdeen) and at Kings College London, Judith has over 30 years’ experience in providing targeted advice on nutrition and applying science to develop nutrition policy (including several UK government initiatives in relation to children’s diets). She has written a number of reviews, articles and book chapters on a wide range of diet and health topics, including child nutrition. 

The British Nutrition Foundation

The British Nutrition Foundation is a registered charity that provides impartial, evidence-based information on food and nutrition. The core purpose of the BNF is to make nutrition science accessible to all. The BNF does not lobby, endorse any products, engage in food advertising campaigns or allow commercial or political pressure to influence it when publishing or disseminating information. The BNF is proud to have a long-established reputation for partnership working and is delighted to be a part of the EYN Partnership.

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[1] World Health Organization. Report of the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity. 2016. Available at: