Early years children should be offered something to eat at least every three hours. The recommendation is among those listed in the highly detailed guidance on nutritional standards for 1-5s issued by the Scottish Executive this week.
As Jamie Oliver's campaign to improve the nutritional standards of school meals won the endorsement of the Prime Minister at the weekend, the Executive's latest move means there is now a complete package on healthy eating and food in Scotland from age one to 18, following the major school meals initiative Hungry for Success, launched in 2003.
Its recommendation for establishing Scottish Nutrient Standards for School Lunches has been accepted by ministers. The target is for the standards to be in place in all primary and special schools by the end of last year and in all secondaries by December next year. The inspectorate has been tasked to monitor progress.
The latest drive will extend these principles to the pre-school years, and the Executive hopes it will set the youngest children on a path to healthy eating which will influence them for the better in school and at home. The guidance includes nutritional information, suggested menus and recipes.
Euan Robson, Deputy Education Minister, said: "Scotland already leads the way in ensuring school meals are healthier, more appetising and offer greater choice - but we want to do even more. By focusing on the early years, before children pick up bad habits and poor diets, we can encourage youngsters to adopt healthy eating habits that will stay with them for life."
Mr Robson pointed out that a healthier approach to eating in the early years was about "giving them the essential nutrients and energy to fuel them through the day".
The guidance, prepared by NHS Health Scotland, states: "The early years setting is in an ideal position to help shape children's eating habits and play a pivotal role in encouraging children to appreciate and enjoy food.
"The key positive messages about food and eating can be consistently reinforced to children through: the snacks, drinks and meals provided; the activities they engage in; the attitudes and behaviours of staff and carers towards food and food choices."
It suggests that young children need to eat regularly, and the recommendation is at least every three hours. Snacks are best given two to two and a half hours before or after a meal to avoid spoiling appetites.
The guidance recommends 15 minutes to have a snack and 30 minutes to eat a meal.
Regular meals with snacks in between are said to be important for the youngest children because they have small appetites. The guidance does not recommend a ban on chocolate and sweets but states that these should be reserved for after meals and as treats rather than offered between meals.
Examples of nutritious snacks are fruit, raw vegetables, breads and mini-sandwiches and yoghurt. Care is recommended with crisps and tortilla chips because of their high salt content, so a small portion twice a week is the official advice.
The guidance also stresses the importance of drinking plenty of water, visiting the dentist, avoiding vitamin deficiency and taking physical activity for at least an hour a day.
The Executive now expects pre-school and care centres to draw up a food and nutrition policy. It will decide later in the year how this is to be monitored and evaluated.