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Childcare workers think cake is ‘fun’

Do you and your colleagues share a definition of junk food? 1000 childcare workers, surveyed by researchers from Western Australia’s Edith Cowan University, didn’t.

Some thought sausages, high in saturated fat and salt, were a naughty treat. For others, these processed snacks formed part of a staple diet. Despite this, snags were on heavy rotation in a lot of the childcare centres analysed.

Though Dr Ruth Wallace, study leader, also discovered some consistencies amongst childcare workers’ food views: jam and Vegemite were routinely smeared on kids’ food, and cake was considered ‘fun’.

Wallace is concerned that, despite their small serving sizes, the frequent use of these salty and sweet condiments could predispose kids to crave them. Her fear is borne out by numerous studies that link an enhanced risk of obesity with childcare attendance.

Aside from leading to weight gain later on, Wallace’s junk food-heavy findings also fall foul of the childcare’s National Quality Standards (NQS) as they relate to nutrition. The NQS dictate that “sound menu planning incorporates foods from the basic food groups in each meal and does not include discretionary choices (junk food)”.

Wallace thinks the NQS need to be tightened. But, tougher standards or not, many childcare workers see resistance against unhealthy meals as futile. They say a lack of time and nutrition knowledge will stymie systemic change.

They further claim that centres’ ‘food cultures’ prevent the introduction of a healthier childcare diet. ‘Food cultures’ could mean a habit of giving kids cake when they refused veggies, Wallace explained. But, she thinks these are changeable.

“As the carer, as the adult, it’s our responsibility to offer the child healthy food,” she said. “We can still give them choice – three or four choices of food – but they should all be healthy.”

Wallace stressed her study wasn’t aimed at having a go at childcare workers. A lack of clarity around the definition and dietary quantity of junk food, she said, is population-wide. And she’s not being an anti-sugar extremist, either.

“I’m not saying never ever ever should there be cake in childcare centres,” she cautioned. “In some centres, though, it is served every day, so it becomes ingrained in that child’s expectations.

Regardless of her expert recommendation, some childcare centres as well as parents are asserting ‘never ever ever’ when it comes to cake. One such centre, in Sydney’s Surry Hills, banned homemade birthday cakes, following parents’ complaints. Two other centres – one in South Australia – returned children’s packed lunches that contained chocolate slices.

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