Food Budgeting for Early Years Settings

Food inflation has reached its highest for 13 years and is having an impact on early years settings budgets, including food budgeting costs.

The early years are an important time to give children the best start in life and to ensure they start school a healthy weight. Your nursery and childminding settings play an important role in supporting children to receive vital nutrition while in your care. This will have a positive impact on their health and well-being, along with their concentration and learning. The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework sets a requirement for early years settings to provide children with access to ‘healthy, balanced and nutritious food and drink‘. Let’s take a look at our top tips on how to save money on food, while continuing to meet children’s energy and nutrient requirements.

Plan your Menus in Advance

Meals and snacks in your early years setting should be planned using the Eat Better Start Better food and drink guidelines, supporting you to meet the EYFS requirement for food and drink. There are lots of benefits to planning your menus in advance:

  • A menu covering between two and four weeks will provide children with dietary variety and opportunities to learn about a range of foods
  • Planning ahead can help you to save money on your food shop, prepare nutritious dishes and manage your food stock to reduce food waste
  • Introducing a new menu at least twice a year, for example a spring/summer and autumn/winter menu. Buying foods in season is cheaper and you will be helping children to learn about seasonal foods.

Top Tip: Although it can be a little time consuming, it’s a good idea to cost up each of the meals and snacks in your setting. If there are certain meals and snacks that are a lot more expensive than others, consider adjusting the recipe, or replacing the recipe for something equally as nutritious. Check out our Food Group Ideas Tip Sheet which might help to provide ideas for alternatives.

Image of nursery menu on a display board, image of person writing a menu plan and an image of summer menu written on a white board surrounded by a variety of foods.

Prepare Your Shopping List

If you have a long shopping list, online shopping is a convenient way to stick to your budget. It can be helpful to compare the cost of your trolley between different supermarkets. There are a number of apps and websites that allow you to compare food prices across the main supermarkets. You can also check prices on the supermarket websites before you visit. Examples of price comparison websites include:

Get to Know your Supermarket

You’re likely to have a budget when it comes to your food shop and so it’s important to consider the cheapest way of getting all the foods you need. One way is to compare the price of supermarket ‘Own Brands’ with popular ‘Branded Products’ and you’ll likely see a huge difference in price. While the price is cheaper, the taste, quality and nutritional value is usually the same. For example, supermarket own brand breakfast wheat biscuits cost £0.74, whereas the leading brand cost around £3.00. Other options are to switch from ‘finest’ or ‘standard’ to ‘value’ ranges. You can also check if your preferred supermarket has any loyalty schemes which can offer money-off vouchers, discount coupons and special offers.

Top Tip: Try to avoid ‘top-up’ shopping to buy one or two items, as you may be tempted to buy additional items. Instead, plan a walk to a local market which will be a great educational activity for children. Some local markets have great deals on fruit and vegetables, and also reduce their prices towards the end of the day, so timing your visit may be wise.

Image of a phone showing an online food shopping app, image of non branded cartons on a supermarket shelf and an image of dicount coupons

Top Tips When Choosing Ingredients

If you can, buy store cupboard items, such as pasta, rice, lentils and other long life items, in bulk, as this is often the cheapest way to buy them. The bigger packs may cost you extra in the short term, but when you plan your menu in advance you know these items won’t go to waste.

Buying fresh fruit and vegetables can add up, but you may be able to cut the cost in a number of ways, here are our favourite ideas:

  • Find misshapen produce. Carrots or courgettes that come in weird and wonderful shapes, for example, are often cheaper than the standard range. For example, Lidl sell a 5kg ‘Too Good To Waste’ box of fruit and veg for £1.50, which you could use across the meals and snacks in your setting. Wonky fruit and vegetables will be a great sensory food activity to plan in your setting, as children will love discovering the different shaped fruit and vegetables
  • Supermarkets tend to charge more for pre-prepared foods, such as fruits and vegetables. Instead buy them whole, and chop and freeze them to save time when cooking at a later date. For example, you can freeze herbs, garlic, onion, ginger, fruits and vegetables. Preparing fruit and vegetables is a great food activity for children. You can have discussions about where the food comes from, how to prepare them and their sensory properties
  • Did you know that buying frozen fruit, vegetables and fish is often cheaper than buying fresh and they last much longer? You may think that frozen foods aren’t as fresh, but the vegetables and fruit are frozen as soon as they’re picked so they’re actually fresher and retain their nutritional value. A great way of including a portion of vegetables at mealtimes is by adding frozen varieties for example, peas
  • Try opting for cheaper cuts of meat, such as braising steak. Chicken thighs are much tastier than breasts and work well in tray bakes and casseroles. Cooking these meats slowly will break down the fibre in them making them super tasty at a lower cost. Slow cookers are a great way of cooking these meats too.

Top Tip: Ingredients like swede and butternut squash are notoriously hard to chop – if you give them a quick 1-minute burst in the microwave they will soften up a little.

Meat Free Days

You can also consider meat-free days by choosing an alternative protein source, such as beans, lentils, pulses, tofu and soya. They’re usually much cheaper and contain lots of beneficial nutrients! The Eat Better Start Better guidelines recommend providing one lunch and one tea for all children each week which uses pulses or a meat alternative as the protein source. Please note, bought and homemade products made from meat alternatives, for example Quorn, should be limited to no more than once a week.

Image of frozen vegetables in containers, image of store cupboard ingredients such as rice, pasta and oats and image of wonky vegetables such as carrots

Using your Ingredients

Did you know that 8 meals could be saved each week if we stopped binning food? There are lots of steps you can take to reduce food waste in your settings.

  • Organise your cupboard and fridge/freezer space. A bit of order ensures you don’t forget about ingredients. For example, have a shelf for pasta, rice and cereal and one for tinned items. If you can see all of your items you are more likely to use them
  • It’s important to rotate items in your fridge, keep items with the shortest shelf life to the front of the fridge
  • Use every part of the food ingredient. For example, do you cut off broccoli stems and leaves, even though you can eat all of it? What do you do with vegetable scraps? Try using them in vegetable stock or put in soups
  • Planning meals and sticking to your shopping list can help reduce waste, but if you notice items are getting close to their use-by date, freeze them! Did you know that bread is one of the most wasted foods items? Try freezing it, preferably in portions (for convenience) and when it’s at its freshest. Make sure you store it in a freezer bag to avoid freezer burn
  • Talk to your chef and children about your menu. Which items are popular and which dishes result in more waste? Remember repeated exposure and role modelling is important to support children to learn about and try new foods. Try new items for the period of the menu cycle.

Top Tip: Make sure your fridge is always set to 1-5 degrees, it ensures your chilled food lasts longer. Empty freezers are more expensive to run, so the fuller you keep it, the less energy it is using. A great reason to cook in bulk!


Introducing sustainable food systems in your setting is an opportunity to connect children, staff and families to more environmentally friendly habits and to nurture a sustainable food culture. The tips in this article will support food sustainability. You can also consider growing your own fruits and vegetables and using food waste to create compost for your garden.

Local produce

While it’s a really good idea to compare supermarket prices when shopping for ingredients, it’s also worth speaking to local supplies about your specific needs. Local produce can be cheaper, is more environmentally friendly and can even be a selling point for your nursery!

Allow for a degree of flexibility

As long as it fits within the EBSB guidelines, you could leave a little flexibility in your menu in order to take advantages of special offers. For example:

  • if you serve a fish pie, you could select the fish based on what’s on special offer
  • if you serve a fruit and vegetable platter at snack time, you could choose seasonal vegetables on offer (the supermarket are increasingly doing good offers on fruit and vegetables)

Just make sure you reflect this on your menu, and let parents know what you’re offering. We find a small whiteboard on display next to your menus is the perfect place to add this additional information.

Save on energy

Energy bills have sky-rocketed in the last year, so it’s a good idea to consider your energy usage in your nursery kitchen.

  • When boiling the kettle, try to only boil as much water as you need
  • Switch off electrical appliances when not in use, such as kettles, toasters, microwave and cookers
  • If you have a dishwasher, wait until it’s full before switching it on
  • Cover pots and pans when cooking, to reduce heat loss and shorten cooking times
  • Preheat your oven to the manufacturer’s recommended setting, rather than turning it up to the highest setting and then adjusting before putting your food in
  • Consider investing in a large slow cooker as they’re a great alternative to the oven for stews, tagines and curries

Images with TIps for saving energy for example, turning the switch off for appliances, only using the amount of water you need when filling the kettle and covering pots and pans to reduce heat loss.

Support for Families

Try sharing your top tips on shopping on a budget with families via your newsletter or through display boards. Signpost families to low cost recipes and remember low cost doesn’t mean they have to be less tasty! There are several websites that provide low cost recipes. Some of our favourites include:

Support parents to reduce food waste using tools which review items in families’ fridge or cupboard and suggest a recipe for them:

There are also food-sharing apps, which enable people to share food they won’t use with their local community. Families can simply sign up, and find what’s on offer and sort a time to collect.

Do you have any leftover food items in your setting that you might be able to share with families at the end of the week?

Early Start Nutrition Resources:

For additional advice or support you can contact Early Start Nutrition

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