Nursery food needs to be healthy, says the School Food Trust
Concerns about the quality of food given to thousands of toddlers in England's nurseries have been raised in a government-commissioned report.
The School Food Trust report suggests food served by childminders and nurseries is too high in fat, sugar and salt, and lacks essential nutrients.
It also warns toddlers could be eating adult portions and additives usually banned from young children's foods.
Nursery food will now be reviewed to see if it needs to be regulated.
The School Food Trust report concludes that food may be poor because of a lack of up- to-date guidance on nursery food.
One in four children are reported to be starting primary school overweight or obese.
This has prompted the government to set strict nutritional guidelines on the quality of food served in schools.
But these do not apply to early years settings, and existing guidance in England is said to be out of date.
And ministers say they want to ensure children establish healthy eating habits early on, to give them the best start in life, and have set up a panel of experts to review the issue.
Children's Secretary Ed Balls said: "Every parent wants to know that their child is getting tasty, healthy and nutritious food.
"It's important that parents know that the standards of food are good not just in homes and Sure Start centres but in every setting, and the panel will be able to help us make sure this happens."
The School Food Trust report notes that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have all recently published guidance on food for those in early years settings.
Although there is a "plethora" of nutritional guidance, there is not a single source that is viewed as "authoritative" in England however, the trust says.
It highlights gaps in current food and nutrition guidance including a lack of information about portion sizes for young children.
It also points out that colourings, preservatives and other additives usually banned under EU regulation from manufactured foods aimed at children and babies may be contained in nursery food.
There is also a need for further guidance on special diets, it suggests.
But Susanna Dawson, chairman of the National Childminding Association, said all registered childcarers had to provide children with healthy and nutritious food and that the vast majority did.
"We know that all early years settings will welcome a single point of reference on feeding children under five.
"I would like to reassure parents that registered childminders strive to do their very best for the children in their care.
She added: "Most will also note down exactly what a child has eaten in a day and work with parents to provide their child with a nutritious and balanced diet."
The proposed panel of experts, chaired by nutritionist and child expert Dr Anthony Williams, will look at existing provision and look at whether mandatory foods standards should be brought in.
It will develop recommendations on improved guidance for healthy and nutritious food and drink in nurseries.
The panel, set to report its findings in August, will also look at training and guidance for early years staff.