Leftover Popeye’s and stale French fries are some of the foods that nursery staff say they have found in the lunch boxes of children as young as one.
Some toddlers come in with leftover birthday cake for lunch, said Jasmin Rahman, nursery manager of Blooming Buds. The most appalling lunch boxes she has seen since she joined the nursery in 2013 had in it "leftover chicken and other fast food.
“I've seen children with lunch boxes full of cake and cupcakes,” she said.
Every year, Ms Rahman has to educate parents on the importance of a healthy lunch box, with the beginning of the school year being the hardest time. “I would say that during the first few weeks, almost 50 per cent of the children would have with them packaged cookies.”
In spite of the nursery’s efforts to encourage parents to send healthy meals and follow their policy of no nuts, chocolates, pork or unhealthy food, almost every day there would be at least one toddler with cookies, canned sausages or cupcakes. The excuse from parents is often “at least my child is eating," Ms Rahman said.
Childhood obesity is a major epidemic in the UAE, with it also meaning an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes. It is estimated that 40 per cent of children in the UAE are either obese or overweight.
Blooming Buds has more than 100 children registered from the ages of one to around four. The nursery has begun sending notes home to the parents who send their child with a lunch box containing banned foods; however, the nursery said "Western parents" were more likely to pack healthy snacks and lunches for their children.
“Western families tend to make sure their children eat healthy and with the Arabic families it is a mix. You have some parents who are very cautious and others who really need more education but the minute you sit with them to explain how important healthy food is for the learning and growth of their child, they start reconsidering,” Ms Rahman said.
Nursery staff became so frustrated with the ongoing struggle that they contracted a catering company to provide healthy lunches for the children. Leela’s Lunches are now on hand to provide the children with organic, healthy lunches and snacks.
Food will be free for the first week of Ramadan, then — should parents agree to continue with the meal plans — a fee of Dh1,050 will be introduced.
“We can't control the parents but we can at least ensure that at the nursery the children are eating healthily,” said Ms Rahman.