What's on Your Child's Plate in Day Care?

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 9, 2000 -- Before choosing a day care center for your child, you carefully checked out the staff's credentials, examined the playground equipment, and sat in on a storytelling session. But if you're like many parents, you may have paid little attention to something experts say can be just as important: The food that ends up on your child's plate at lunch and snack time.

"Today, child care providers have a major impact on shaping the eating habits of kids that could stay with them throughout their lives," Theresa Nicklas, PhD, a professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, tells WebMD.

Six out of 10 infants, toddlers, and preschool children -- nearly 13 million total -- are enrolled in child care, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That includes nearly 88% of children whose mothers work full time, and 75% of children whose mothers work part time. As a result, ensuring that children's daily nutritional needs are met often becomes the responsibility of a day care provider.

Parents should ask day care providers about the content and variety of meals and snacks, and how often the children are fed, Nicklas says. Too often, she says, day care meals are low in minerals, vitamins, and other important nutrients, and high in fat and sodium.

American Dietary Association (ADA) guidelines say children should receive foods that provide nutrients in proportion to how much of their day they spend in a child care facility. "A child in a part-day program [four to seven hours, for example,] should receive food that provides at least one third of the daily nutrition needs, whereas those in a full-day program [eight hours or more] should receive foods that meet at least one-half to two-thirds of the child's daily nutrition needs," the ADA says.

Even when no nutritional problems become immediately evident, a poor day care diet could set children up for problems later on, warns the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

For example, maintaining an adequate calcium intake during childhood is necessary for bone development throughout life. In fact, the AAP says, strong bones in childhood may reduce the risk of osteoporosis in later adulthood. Children who don't have access to an adequate diet also are at risk for a variety of other conditions, including long-term learning and developmental problems, the ADA says.

Not only that, a limited day care menu -- besides leading to boredom and waste -- can deter children from experimenting with new foods at home. "Research shows in order for a young child to like a food, it takes at least eight to 10 exposures to that food," Nicklas says.

Nicklas has conducted plate-waste studies at day care centers and says that what she found alarmed her. Specifically, very few kids were selecting fruits and vegetables and, of those who did, as much as 77% of their meals were thrown away.

To help combat this, she says, child care centers should incorporate nutrition into their lessons and should train staff members on the basics of children's nutrition. The ADA recommends that centers use qualified dieticians if they are unable to provide effective nutrition-education programs themselves.

Eating periods at day care centers should be cheerful and unhurried, Nicklas says. Teachers should sit with children and eat the same foods they do. Also, they should talk in positive terms about nutrition and encourage, but not force, the children to try new foods.

Workers who force children to clean their plates or use food as a reward, punishment, or to pacify are making a mistake, she says. "This is not positive reinforcement, says Nicklas, "and doesn't build healthy nutritional habits."

Besides ensuring that their children are fed adequately when they're under the care of others, parents need to set a good example, as well. Often, Nicklas says, parents will pick the kids up from day care and head right to the drive through window at a fast-food joint.

"They learn from their parents that fat and salt are OK, and so that's what they crave," Nicklas says. "No wonder obesity among children ages 6 to 11 has increased 54% since 1960."