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Please Don't Feed My Toddler Cheetos

Our family has started a new chapter -- last week I rejoined the paid workforce! I am very excited about my new part-time job at a local history museum, coordinating field trips and special events. As part of this transition, Henry is now going to daycare three days per week. 
Henry meets new friends and plays with new toys on his first day at daycare.
Searching for quality childcare was a somewhat stressful experience. We visited 8 childcare facilities who had immediate space available for Henry to begin part-time care. I wanted to be confident that Henry would be cared for by experienced, nurturing staff in an environment that would challenge him to learn new skills and form friendships with other children. Of course, the added cost of childcare also had to fit within our family budget.

While interviewing daycares, one aspect that I cared about was food. All eight of the facilities participate in the USDA food program, receiving reimbursement at a set rate for the meals they provide. This means breakfast, lunch and snack(s) are prepared and served on-site for all the children in care. All but one of the centers had an on-site kitchen to prepare food; the one outlier brought in cooked meals from an external vendor. The cost of food is included in the price for each day of childcare, whether or not a child is present for all meals.

All of the staff at the daycare centers I visited were required to have a Food Worker Card. Children are generally not allowed to bring in their own food as a safety precaution against food-born illness and food allergies. On occasion, children can bring store-bought treats or uncut fruits and vegetables for special celebrations like birthdays.

In Washington state, childcare centers must post a weekly menu in advance so parents know what their child will be eating. Most of the facilities prepare weekly menus, but a few choose to provide a monthly menu for parents. While all meals must meet nutritional guidelines, I saw a large variation in the quality and creativity of these menus. The daycare facilities are given sample menu ideas, but they can choose where to buy their food and what foods to serve.

The USDA food program requires that breakfast include a serving of milk, a fruit or vegetable (including juice), and a serving of grain or bread. The breakfast menu items I observed generally included cereal, milk and fruit. Occasionally, the menus included hot breakfast items such as pancakes or waffles. While oatmeal would fall under the grain category, it was not included on any of the menus. With only one exception, there were no eggs, vegetables, rice, beans or meat served to the children for breakfast.

Lunch is required to include five components: one serving of milk, one serving of grain, one serving of protein (including meat, eggs, beans, nuts or yogurt), and at least two servings of fruits or vegetables. Most of the lunch fare I saw centered on typical "kid foods" such as chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, pizza, hot dogs and tater tot casserole. A few of the childcare centers mixed in main dishes such as vegetable soups, tuna salad, or roast chicken. Although there was a lot of ethnic diversity among the children in care, there was a definite lack of international foods. Only three of the menus at the eight facilities included ethnic foods like enchiladas, taco salads, or stir-fry.

The children's snack is required to have two items from the following four categories: milk, fruit or vegetable, grain, and protein. The typical snack fare I saw was crackers, cheese, yogurt, fruit, juice, and even cookies. Additionally, several of the providers conceded that fresh fruits and vegetables are only offered when prices are low. Otherwise, the daycare facilities generally rely on frozen or canned produce, as well as juice.

I believe that all the daycare centers I interviewed care about kids, but meal planning is generally not their biggest priority. At one location, I was told that the children get to choose a movie to watch every Friday afternoon. I was not too thrilled about this since Henry does not watch television. Our family strictly adheres to the American Academy of Pediatrics' guideline for restricting screen time for kids before the age of two. The older children at the center have popcorn on movie days, but that can be a choking hazard for toddlers. I cringed when the daycare provider told me that instead of popcorn, Henry would be served Cheetos as a snack on movie days. I'm not sure what food group includes Cheetos, but that daycare center did not make the cut.

If you have children in daycare, what has been your experience with the quality and variety of food served to your kids?


  1. My 8.5 month old goes to an in-home daycare and just the other day we had a meeting with the provider and all of the other moms to discuss food. Currently almost everyone is sending in their own foods from home, but the provider would prefer to prepare and serve one meal to all of the kids (age dependent) because it is easier for her and easier for the parents. A great idea, and she truly means well, but as the mom with the strictest views on food it's causing me some stress. She is willing to buy organic produce and has asked us for recipe ideas, and what foods we would prefer, but avoiding GMOs is so hard, I just doubt she'll be able to do it as diligently as I do (and I certainly make mistakes too). Anyway, for now my daughter is on a different set of meal requirements until she reaches 1 year, so I'm just continuing to send in food.

    1. It sounds like you have a provider who is willing to listen and work with you, which is wonderful! Of the daycares we visited, only one said that she purchases some organic produce when the price is reasonable. It wasn't even on the radar of the other providers, never mind GMOs. It really is up to us as parents to raise this issue with care providers. If they don't know that it's important to us, then they are unlikely to make it a priority.

  2. My LOs daycare serves all that very basic stuff. We've had him eating their food for the last the days he wants any solids. We are moving soon but if we were there long-term, I would choose to pack his own snacks and food every day. It's depressing what they feed them. For now, I'm so happy when he eats anything I don't care what it is.

    Breakfast/snack #1 examples: pancakes, waffles, cheerios, blueberry muffin
    Lunch: Meat (chicken/steak/fish fingers, veggie (peas and carrots), fruit (pineapple, peaches)
    Snack #2: cookies, cheese puffs, cheerios, graham crackers (we forbid them from feeding him basically anything but cheerios or crackers)

    I wish they fed them more hummus, beans, guacamole, fruits and veggies. It's so carb, pre-made junk heavy.

    1. Unfortunately, the USDA program is very grain focused. I think it might still be based on the old food pyramid model. And daycare providers receive limited training in cooking and nutrition.

      I am curious whether the effort to remove junk food (cookies, crackers, chips, etc.) from schools will filter down to daycare centers. Until it does, it is really up to the parents to voice our concerns and encourage childcare providers to expand their healthy menu choices. We can do better!

  3. O, also they provide juice and milk but he's too young for milk and we don't allow juice


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