Choosing a day care: Nutritional considerations

I am going back to work. I need to choose a day care for my children. Is there anything in particular I should be looking for when I consider their meal plan?


Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

There are certain things you should look for when reviewing the food the day care will be serving. A child often spends the better part of their waking day at a day care and depending on the number of hours they are there, the food served should meet anywhere from one third to two thirds of their daily needs.

A day care can have significant impact on not only the nutritional intake of your kids, but also their eating behaviors and health habits. Ideally, your child's day care will have a very positive impact by helping them to learn appropriate mealtime behavior and helping them to enjoy a variety of nutritious foods.

When reviewing day-care nutrition it is important to consider the type of food served and the mealtime environment:

The Type of Food Served

Several organizations have agreed upon, and have recommend, nutritional standards for child-care centers. These organizations include the American Dietetic Association, the US Department of Health and Human Services, The USDA, the American Public Health Association , the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Society for Nutrition Education. The recommendations include:

Children who are in day care part time (four to seven hours per day) should receive food that equals one third of their nutritional needs. Children who are at day care for eight or more hours should be getting one half to two thirds of their nutritional needs met. For a full time child, that translates to one meal and two snacks. Those meals and snacks should meet the minimum requirements:

  • Breakfast should consist of milk, fruit, vegetable or 100 percent juice, bread or cereal.
  • Lunch or supper should include: milk, meat or meat alternate, fruit or vegetable (two servings), bread or alternate (such as rice, pasta, or crackers).
  • Snacks should include at least two of the four components, milk, meat or alternate, fruit or vegetable, bread or alternate.

The fruits and vegetables served should help ensure that children receive some vitamin C and vitamin A.

Meals and snacks should focus on the use of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, with smaller amounts of meat or meat alternatives and dairy. As many foods as possible should be fresh and unprocessed. See if fresh fruits rather than canned are served.. Bread should be whole wheat, or crackers, whole grain.

A recent evaluation of day-care meals showed that the combination of foods and the quantity of foods served failed to supply the recommended amount of energy, iron, Thiamin, Niacin, Vitamin A, Zinc, Magnesium and Folic Acid. Because it may be impossible for you to determine which programs are meeting those needs, ask to see if the program is under the guidance of a registered dietitian who regularly checks to ensure that meals and snacks are nutritionally adequate and consistent with the dietary guidelines.

Following are some tips that may help in reviewing the nutritional adequacy of a potential day care facility:

  • Ask to see a weekly menu and review it for variety. To help children learn to like a wide range of foods, meals and snacks should offer a wide variety of foods. For example, snacks should not be cheese and crackers every day.
  • Make sure that most foods served have minimal added sugar, salt or fat.
  • Do not allow foods to be served that contain nitrates (e.g. hot dogs, some cold cuts), foods with caffeine, high salt foods such as chips, high calorie drinks like sodas, fruit drinks or candy.
  • Check to see that beverages served are nutritious. Apple juice is low in nutrients, as are many other 100 percent juices. Request more nutritious beverages such as orange juice, milk, or fortified soy milk.
  • The foods served should be age appropriate in type and amount.
  • Once you have chosen a day care, ask for a weekly menu in advance so that you can plan home meals to compliment what is served at day care. For example, if only one fruit and no vegetables were served, you will want to plan a meal that includes vegetables. If juice rather than milk was served, be sure to offer plenty of milk or other calcium rich beverage at home.

Mealtime Environment

Kids have a small carrying capacity and need to eat regularly to ensure adequate energy. Meals and snacks should be served at intervals of not more than three hours. Caregivers are important role models. Because of this they should sit at the table with the children and eat the same foods as they do. The furniture and eating utensils should be age appropriate. Mealtimes should be relaxed and unhurried. Mealtimes should be a time for social interaction and conversation, especially about food and nutrition.

Many day-care facilities may not meet all these requirements, but are often eager to make changes to provide healthy foods. If a day care is willing to work with you to make some necessary changes, you may have a chance to help from the ground up design an eating environment that will help provide optimum nutrition and a pleasant, age appropriate environment conducive to learning healthy eating habits and behaviors to last a lifetime.

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