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Nurseries across the UK are adapting to the changing lifestyles and requirements of the families who use them.
With the threat of childhood obesity, diabetes and tooth decay facing families across the UK, many are taking steps to make their lifestyles and diets healthier with some opting to exclude some food groups, eat 'clean' or become vegetarian or vegan.
Nurseries have been reacting to this change by offering vegetarian and gluten and dairy free options on their menus, and there are now several settings across the UK offering vegetarian only menus to children in their care. Some nurseries are offering completely plant-based menus, excluding faux meat products such as Quorn, while others are opting to exclude eggs and nuts for allergy purposes.
Early Learning Years (ELY) Nursery in Finchley, North London is a purely vegetarian nursery. Established in 2002 by Sat Sharma and his wife when they were looking for a nursery to send their children to in their local area, but found that there were no settings nearby.
Both being brought up following Hindu traditions and eating vegetarian diets, they raised their children up as vegetarians and wanted their children to grow up in a vegetarian environment.
Mr Sharma said: “We moved to the Finchley area and wanted to place our children in a nursery, but found that were no nurseries in the area 15 years ago. We ended up hiring a nanny who had previously owned a nursery and knew everything about setting up a nursery and helped us to establish ELY Nursery.
Vegetarian menus work for people, culturally
Speaking about the decision to provide only a vegetarian menu, Mr Sharma said: “There have been various food scare stories over the years and in addition to not serving, meat, fish or poultry at the nursery, we also don’t serve eggs.
“We’re a very multicultural setting and a lot of parents who use our setting really like that we are a vegetarian nursery as it fits in well with them culturally.
“The nursery fits very well with many different religious communities in the area, particularly those from the Hindu and Jewish communities and those who follow kosher diets as all of our vegetarian meals will always be kosher.
“We’ve been doing well over the past 15 years, considering we started off with just three children, two of which were my own. We can now provide care and education for over 50 children and have 16 members of staff.
“Some children who use our service may not be vegetarian themselves, but their parents are happy for them to eat vegetarian meals during the week and then perhaps have meat, fish or poultry at the weekends.
In recent years, more vegetarian settings have started to pop up in London with nursery group Little Pebbles opening two settings in the capital in the last few years.
Little Pebbles Hendon is the newest of the group's two settings in North-West London and has been operating for two years, providing childcare for nearly 60 children.
Big demand for vegetarian nurseries
Founders Jessica Khetani and Kanta Hirani are themselves both vegetarian parents and established Little Pebbles Nurseries on the understanding that parents want to offer their children the very best start in life that they can, even when placing them in childcare.
Nursery manager at Little Pebbles Hendon, Laura Copcea believes that there is a 'big demand' for vegetarian settings, saying: "Most of the families using the service are themselves vegetarian, and choose the setting for this reason, rather than it purely being convenient for them."
Vegetarian nurseries are not exclusive to London though, with Crossley Mill Nursery in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire providing a fully organic, vegetarian menu for children and ACE Day Nursery in Cambridge has been providing a fully vegetarian menu for the past 12 years.
Nursery manager Sarah Piotrowski said: “At the time of opening, the then headteacher of the setting was vegetarian herself and we have a small kitchen here so it is easier to feed all of the children vegetarian food."
Despite the fact that none of the current staff are vegetarian, the nursery has stayed true to its roots. Ms Pitorowski said: “We’ve continued to serve vegetarian food to the children using the service as it is the preference of the parent committee and the nursery management team.
“The nursery is unique in that it is also a nut free setting and can adapt to the individual dietary requirements of families and children visiting our setting. Many of the families using the setting are themselves vegetarian and choose to send their children to the setting for its location, reputation and Forest School activities.”
Meat Free Mondays
Though many nurseries across the UK do already cater for vegetarian, vegan or special diets and allergies, there are some settings choosing to give up eating meat at least one day a week.
Nursery group Just Childcare have been officially taking part in Meat Free Monday since 2015. The Meat Free Monday initiative was established by Paul, Mary and Stella McCartney in 2009 and encourages people to not eat meat on a Monday to help raise awareness of the environmental impact of eating meat.
The group operate more than 30 nurseries across the UK and its catering manager Mark Webster recognises that Meat Free Mondays encourage children to eat more vegetables and introduce new flavours to children, saying “to change a culture, you need to start at a young age”.
Both the Vegetarian Society and The Vegan Society recognise the benefits of feeding children a vegetable based diet, noting that it is considered healthier than that of a typical meat-based diet.
There are already more than one million people in the UK following vegetarian diets, allowing families to reduce their consumption of meat, poultry and fish and still consume some other animal products.
In May 2016, it was reported that veganism is on the increase, with the number of people excluding all animal products from their diets in Britain having increased by 360 per cent in the past decade with various campaigns such as 'Veganuary' being launched to promote the benefits of following a vegan lifestyle.
Current advice from NHS Choices, nutritionists and The Children's Food Trust says there is no reason why it is unsafe for children to consume a vegetarian or vegan diet as long as they are able to get the relevant nutrients from alternative plant-based sources.
The Children’s Food Trust ‘Voluntary Food and Drink Guidelines for Early Years Settings in England - A Practical Guide’ offers advice for early years professionals on catering for vegetarian, vegan and cultural and religious diets.
The guide features tips on how to ensure children receive the right amount of protein through alternative meat sources and how much they should eat each day or week. The document has been designed to help practitioners who offer snacks, meals and drinks to children aged one to five-years-old to provide food and drinks that are appropriate for children with special diets.
10 Jan 2017 10:05 AM
Having read this article - i just think this is an easy option for nurseries. Sticking to a totally vegetarian, egg free diet causes nutrition issues. Meat does not cause tooth decay, diabetes or obesity. It's not having a balanced diet and too much snacking and grazing which is encouraged by parents and some nursery settings. Let's take a common sense approach and stop adding salt and sugar to meals which is often unnecessary. Here at The Nursery Kitchen we use alternative methods to give food wonderful flavours. We do use Quorn and we do serve sausages - but these are made especially for us by our butcher. Our food scientist, Nicky Dexter, Menu Matters ensures we keep our meals as balanced and healthy as nutritionally possible. So you don't need to stick to a vegetarian, egg free menu - it's all hype. Thanks for reading, Katy Elliott, The Nursery Kitchen.