A study of child-care centres across Saskatchewan shows lunch programs leave much to be desired, but there is hope on the horizon. 

Three years ago, researchers from the University of Saskatchewan studied the lunchtime meals of 37 privately run child-care centres across the province, serving food to children between the ages of three and five.

The numbers were less than encouraging. The average amount of fruit and vegetables served represented less than one complete serving. Excluding french fries, potatoes made up more than a quarter of the vegetables. 

Only two-fifths of the recommended serving of milk was given to kids in the study, while sodium levels in almost all centres were higher than the maximum recommendations.

"We noticed, based on the data, what is expected in child-care centres to be served to children is really not close to the standard," said Hassan Vatanparast, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan's school of public health.

However, Vatanparast and his team were more interested in making the lunches better than taking workers to task. Since the study's conclusion, researchers, health workers and the centres in the study have been working through the provincial Healthy Start program to improve the situation.

Since then, preliminary data has shown the lunches are improving and more vegetables are being served.

"We want to know how to make this intervention sustainable," he said. "Not just having a project going on and when the duration is done, it's dead."

Prime time for nutrition

Vatanparast says good nutritional habits are normally instilled in children at a young age, making early intervention important.

"One perception that we saw in the study is that educators may have the perception that kids don't like these foods, that they're not tasty to them," he said.

"But if you encourage them to have it, that's exactly the time when children are developing their habits."

The group would like to see a standardized food manual given out to all child-care centres in the province that stresses children should be served a variety of food, broadening their palates.

Vatanparast said cost can also be a factor in meal planning, especially in the north, where vegetables cost more money.