Guidelines for Planning Meals in Childcare Centers

Childcare center meal plans should offer children a diet full of variety and color in order to help children reach key nutrient goals and support cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. Furthermore, when healthy eating habits begin early they are more likely to continue into adulthood.

Childcare Center Meal Patterns

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established childcare center meal patterns that equal 1/3 of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for adequate nutrition.  In general they state:

  • Snacks shall be offered to all children in mid-morning and mid-afternoon.
  • Children shall be offered food at intervals not less than 2 hours and not more than 3 hours apart unless they are asleep.

Helpful Meal Planning Guidelines

When planning meals for daycare businesses, consider the following helpful guidelines provided by Dr. Karrie Kalich, assistant professor of health science at Keene State College and creator of Early Sprouts curriculum:

  • Mentor children in learning to enjoy healthy foods at a young age.  Encourage your childcare staff to serve as nutrition role models.
  • Provide multiple exposures to healthy foods.  Children naturally suffer from “food neophobia” (fear of new foods).  Children often will not eat broccoli the first time you serve it, but are far more likely to try it the fifth or sixth time you serve it.
  • Replace processed grains (white rice or white bread) with whole grains (barley, oats, brown rice).
  • Serve milk and water as a beverage. In other words, eliminate or minimize juice on your menu.  Juice contains lots of sugar and minimal fiber.  Instead, serve your children whole fruits and vegetables.
  • Eliminate processed candies, cookies and cakes from your menu.  Instead offer healthy whole grain carrot muffins or homemade oatmeal bars as an occasional treat.

Budgeting guidelines

Sue Adair, Senior Manager of Quality Assurance at The Goddard School, recommends the following tips to help stay within budget and manage meal planning costs:

  • Anticipate enrollment and be aware of enrollment fluctuations
  • Comparison shop for items such as fresh produce and milk. It is more cost-effective to purchase in-season fruits and vegetables than canned or frozen. Milk purchased at the store is almost always less expensive than milk delivered to the school.
  • Consider purchasing bread at bakery outlets, which provide discounts up to 50% off retail price.
  • Take advantage of coupons, rebates and manufacturer’s promotions.
  • Do not let impulse buying affect your purchases

It is prudent to avoid prepackaged foods. They are more expensive, usually because of packaging and marketing costs.  As often as possible, buy fresh food whenever possible and focus on in-season produce. Dr. Kalich recommends incorporating in-season fruits and vegetables because they are less expensive. They also taste better and are fresher. “For example, serve red peppers in August, apples in October and oranges in January,” says Kalich.

Meal Planning Resources

There is a vast amount of current and reliable information on the internet offering guidelines for childcare meal planning.  Dr. Martine Scannavino, chair of the Allen Center for of Nutrition at Cedar Crest College, recommends food service and child feeding resources from websites such as The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and The International Food Information Council.  In particular, the USDA Team Nutrition program offers a wide range of resources and tools for childcare businesses such as weekly menus, buying guides, and educational materials. “It is not practical to develop your own menus [and] shopping guides... [or] analyze recipes and menus to ensure meeting children needs. Millions of dollars and the expertise of professionals have been employed to provide child care providers the most accurate up to date, user friendly materials possible,” says Dr. Scannavino.

On the whole, meal plans should avoid trans-fat and high fructose corn sugar and include little to no refined sugars and flours. Healthy meal planning for daycare businesses should focus on whole foods and include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables served at appropriate intervals.

Daycare Meal Plan Resources

Meal PlansHealthy meal plans - Quick and easy to follow videos showing you exactly how to create fast, simple and healthy recipes and meals for you and your family. New recipes added regularly every month.

100 day meal planning kit book100 day meal planning kit - The Menu In A Box 100 Day Meal Planning Kit is a PDF download-able product that includes delicious, fast, fresh and family friendly recipes along with corresponding shopping lists and meal plans, plus great time saving, budget & organizational tips.

Kid-Approved MealsMeals for kids - 13 weeks (5 days per week) of tried and true breakfast and lunch ideas that your kids are sure to love, along with categorized grocery shopping lists for each menu.

About the Author

Carla Snuggs is a freelance writer from Southern California. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Family and Consumer Science with an emphasis in child development and also holds a Master of Library and Information Science degree.

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