Child Feeding Guidelines: The Preschool Years
By Susan M. Leisner
You've done well! Your child is thriving and now it's time to send him off to preschool. Maybe he's only going to attend a few hours each week, or perhaps he's attending fulltime sessions so you can return to work. Whatever the case, he will be eating snacks and/or meals away from home.

Daycare situations are very interesting when it comes to eating. Children are taught to eat with others, many learn table manners and all will, at some point, try new foods. They also learn at this very early age that daycare providers cannot be manipulated as easily as Mom and Dad, and that if they are hungry, they have to eat what is available. But it's OK to eat a strange vegetable at school because everyone else is doing it!

When my own children were in daycare I volunteered to review the menus for nutritional quality. Some parents asked me why the daycare would serve vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, which they knew their children didn't like. They were amazed when informed that the children not only ate them but often asked for more!

Recently, a worried parent wrote to this website because her child wouldn't eat much at dinner. She served the food her child ate at daycare as well as some of his at-home favorites, without success. If your child eats lunch in a daycare setting, it's often his large meal for the day. Licensed daycare centers are required to serve nutritionally balanced meals to all age groups if they accept United States Department of Agriculture reimbursement for food. For certain ages, this meal provides most of the caloric needs for the day. Add in midmorning and afternoon snacks and it's not unusual that your child's appetite is not very high at dinner. Simply offer whatever is being served to the rest of the family and let your child eat what he needs.

If your child is not yet in daycare but you're deciding on one, ask the director the following questions about its feeding policies:
  • Does the center provide hot lunches and if so, do they receive USDA funding? This will reassure you that your child is getting a wholesome meal. The USDA monitors daycare center menus for compliance.
  • Do they offer nutritionally appropriate snacks such as fruit, cheese, juice and graham crackers? Or do they rely on cookies and high-fat snacks?
  • Are the food items age-appropriate? For example, young toddlers shouldn't be offered choking hazards such as popcorn, raw vegetables, hot dogs or nuts.
  • Do they have cooking, storage and clean-up facilities large enough to handle the population of children?
  • If the parents are required to provide a lunch, is there a refrigerator dedicated to storage? (This doesn't apply to home-based daycare.)
If you're reassured that the facility puts food safety and childhood nutrition on their priority list, you're probably dealing with a very good day care center.

One final note about day-care situations: Make sure that the teachers or babysitter will welcome you if you choose to make an unannounced visit, and be very cautious of those who don't allow it. Quality daycare providers with an open-door policy have nothing to hide and understand that you, as the parent, have the right to check on your child's safety and well being whenever you wish.