December 2012 Issue

Healthful Meals at Day Care — Child-Care Facilities Are Revamping Menus to Offer Kids Nutritious Foods
By Lindsey Getz
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 14 No. 12 P. 14

More than 11 million children under the age of 5 are in some type of child-care arrangement in the United States. On average, these children spend 35 hours per week in a child-care facility. That’s significant since many of these youngsters are receiving at least one meal as well as snacks in the day-care or preschool setting.

With almost 10% of infants and toddlers carrying excess weight for their length and slightly more than 20% of children between the ages of 2 and 5 already obese, what these kids are eating at child-care facilities is important.

Healthful Change Ahead
A simple online search reveals an onslaught of complaints, blog posts, and articles highlighting some of the unhealthful foods being served at day cares and preschools nationwide despite growing awareness that healthful eating habits should be promoted at a young age. One day-care helper wrote of being appalled that nachos with processed cheese were served to the kids with whom she worked. Another day-care worker revealed that the 1-year-olds at her facility were given doughnut holes for a typical breakfast. On a different blog, a mom complained that a typical lunch is canned ravioli and canned fruit instead of fresh foods.

While many of these choices are the norm in child-care facilities, healthful changes are being made. Federal involvement has been one step in the right direction.
The Child and Adult Care Food Program is a federal program that provides more than 3.3 million children and 120,000 adults with nutritious meals and snacks each day and reimburses participating day-care centers for meal costs. Many child-care providers are enrolled in the program, which means they’re getting audited and have to uphold certain standards.

But some day-care facilities simply feel a strong conviction about serving healthful food to the children in their charge. Amy Nogar, owner of Amy & Kids Co Family Child Care in Appleton, Wisconsin, says watching the documentary films Supersize Me and Food Inc. helped cement her plan to implement more organic foods at her home-based child-care business. “I buy as much organic food for our menu as possible,” Nogar says. “Kids typically eat breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon snack here, so I recognize that’s a significant portion of their daily nutrition.”

A typical breakfast at Amy & Kids might be 100% whole grain cereal with milk and bananas. Lunch may include vegetarian chili, whole grain buns, and string cheese on the side with grapes. An afternoon snack might be graham crackers with apple and mango. “We serve mostly fresh fruit, but if I do serve something canned it’s in 100% juice and not syrup,” Nogar adds. “Most vegetables are frozen, and I just steam them.”

At Melrose Daycare Center, Inc outside Boston, codirector Caroline Yoder says the menu has been fully revamped in the last six years at the urging of parents to include more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. A typical breakfast is now whole wheat toast with fruit or whole grain cereal with milk. A snack might be celery topped with low-fat cream cheese and raisins for “ants on a log.”

RDs to the Rescue
Yoder says her facility consulted with a dietitian for advice in overhauling the menu. “One of the areas she really helped us with was portion control,” Yoder says. “Another key area she helped with was eliminating juice. We now realize that the kids are fine with just milk and water throughout the day.”

Nogar’s sister-in-law happens to be an RD, so she reviews menus for Amy & Kids. “She’ll point out if she doesn’t see a healthful balance of food groups or maybe an item that we’re lacking,” Nogar says. “That’s been a tremendous help. I also had a child that was constipated, and she gave me some wonderful ideas. Just the opportunity to bounce ideas off her or get her opinion has been a tremendous asset.”

At Our Beginning in Fremont, Washington, the entire facility is organic—not only the food but also the paint on the walls. A typical snack for young tots at Faith Child Care in Appleton, Wisconsin, is hummus and yogurt-type dips. Older kids tend a garden where they grow cucumbers, tomatoes, and other vegetables. And in Minnesota, a new partnership has formed between the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and child-care provider New Horizon Academy to deliver fresh, local foods to the child-care centers from Minnesota farms. New Horizon child-care sites in the Twin Cities, St Cloud, and Rochester areas are serving as pilot locations for a new Farm to Child Care Initiative that will be implemented at all 60 New Horizon locations in 2013.

Often the food provided at child-care centers isn’t prepared on site. Quality Catering for Kids, Inc in the Chicago area, which has been in business for 30-plus years, produces approximately 15,000 meals per day for day-care, preschool, and elementary facilities. They not only adhere to the Children and Adult Care Food Program guidelines but also have a USDA inspector come out daily to inspect the kitchen.

“The emphasis here is on good nutrition and high-quality food,” says Jayne Peterson, the company’s on-site RD. “The business owner’s philosophy always has been nutrition first. We do recipe analyses on our menus to figure out the appropriate portions for tots, preschoolers, and K-8 programs.”

Quality Catering believes in education, so everything about their foodservice program is transparent. “We have the ingredients we use right on the website, and we have a menu each day so our clients always can know exactly what we’re serving,” Peterson says.

A typical lunch might be barbequed chicken, steamed rice, and peachy applesauce with wheat bread. “The company owner really believes in hot meals, and that’s primarily what we do,” Peterson says. “We can provide bagged lunches for field trips and other outings, but we believe in the importance of a hot, healthful meal.”

Education Is the Answer
Peterson says Quality Catering not only believes in producing healthful food but in producing food that kids like to eat. “We feel that helps them learn to make better choices,” she notes. “We want the kids to realize eating healthfully also can be delicious. Part of my future goal in this role includes working even closer with some of these sites and going out and educating the kids and their teachers about making smart food choices. I think that’s a great opportunity for dietitians.”

And certainly there are many opportunities for dietitians in this area. From consulting with local day cares and preschools on their menus to working with catering companies that provide hot meals to these centers, dietitians can play a critical role in transforming these young children’s meals.

“We’ve relied a lot on the suggestions we’ve gotten from the registered dietitian with whom we consulted,” Yoder says. “Before her help, we might have done a lot of bargaining with kids, such as ‘If you eat this, you can have that.’ But she’s even taught us better approaches to getting kids to eat healthfully, and the great thing is that the kids love it. Our healthier menu has been fully embraced. I think a lot of times we just forget that healthful food can still be fun and tasty, too.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pennsylvania.