This is a new service, your feedback will help us improve it.

Menu planning

How to make menu planning work for your setting.

This article was written by the Department for Education (DfE) in consultation with a team of early years experts and senior health professionals, including Anaphylaxis UK.

Why plan weekly menus

Planning all meals and snacks will help you check that what you’re offering children is balanced and includes a wide variety of different foods. It also helps with food ordering and preparation.

The food and drink you give to children should be spaced across the day. Children over 12 months old need to eat regularly, with breakfast, lunch, and tea, plus 2 or 3 snacks every day. Children under 12 months old do not need any snacks.

What to think about when planning menus

When creating menus for your setting, these are the key things to remember:

1. Nutrition

Across all meals and snacks for a full day:

  • at least 5 different types of fruit and vegetables
  • 4 different portions of starchy carbohydrates
  • 4 portions of dairy
  • 2 different portions of protein

2. Varied and balanced diet across the week

Menus should include a variety of different foods, tastes, textures and colours.

This will make sure children get the benefits from different nutrients in each food.

It’s good for children’s sensory systems to experience flavours from around the world. This can also build appreciation for food from different cultures at an early age.

3. Plan menus lasting at least a week

If you plan menus covering between one and four weeks, it will be easier to ensure children are eating a wide variety of food. Try not to serve the same food on the same day of the week to make sure children who attend your setting on the same day get a varied menu.

4. Review and reflect on the nutritional value of the menu

  • Does it provide a varied amount of nutrients each day and across the week?
  • Have you thought about portion sizes?
  • Have you thought about drinks?
  • Have you limited foods that are high in saturated fat, salt and sugar?

5. Introduce new menus

Introduce new menus at least twice a year and ideally 3 to 4 times a year to include seasonal produce. This will give children the chance to try different foods.

6. Share menus with parents

This can help parents balance the food they provide at home with the meals and snacks served in your setting.

Considering dietary requirements in early years

It’s important that you cater for the cultural and dietary needs of the children in your care. The most common dietary requirements in early years are:

Food allergies: Allergies to foods can cause serious reactions. Read more about how to manage allergies.

Food intolerances: It is more likely for a baby or toddler to have an intolerance to certain foods rather than an allergy. Food intolerances often cause stomach pain and discomfort. It’s rare to see visible effects such as hives or throat closing.

Vegetarianism: A vegetarian won’t eat meat of any kind, including fish. They also won’t eat by-products of animal slaughter, such as gelatine. Most people choose to be vegetarian for religious, health or moral reasons.

Veganism or eating a plant-based diet: A vegan is someone who eats a plant-based diet. Vegans don’t eat meat, fish, dairy or other substances which come directly from an animal, including eggs and honey. Some people refer to this as eating a plant-based diet.

Religious preferences: Some religions or faiths have strict dietary requirements. Although eating certain foods won’t physically harm children, it is vital to respect their religious and cultural beliefs. Religious dietary requirements include (but are not limited to):

  • only eating halal foods
  • avoiding pork or beef
  • keeping kosher
  • eating specific foods only on certain days

When creating menus, consider substitutions and replacement ingredients for children with special dietary requirements.

PDF downloadSubstitutions table for food allergies

How to use the example menus for early years settings

The example menus and guidance have been developed by Public Health England to help you meet dietary recommendations for children aged 6 months to 4 years.

Here is a video to help you use the menus in your setting as well as planning your own.

Key takeaways

  • Menus for children aged 5 and under should be planned carefully. They should consider the nutritional value and include a variety of foods.
  • You should also consider children’s special dietary needs. These may be linked to allergies and intolerances, religious and cultural beliefs, and vegetarianism or veganism.
  • When creating menus, you should include substitutions for children with special dietary requirements.