Child Nutrition

Fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, and dairy provide the nutrients that young bodies need. For example, fruits contain nutrients like vitamin C, potassium and fiber and vegetables contain vitamins and minerals needed for good health in children, is low in calories, and contains fiber (KidsHealth, 2018). Whole grains contain dietary fiber that help children feel full and treats constipation. Whole grains may also decrease the chances of getting heart disease and diabetes. Foods high in protein help the body build and maintain tissues of the body and contain important vitamins and minerals, such as iron. Finally, dairy products contain calcium and vitamin D which help develop healthy bones and teeth.

Here are some guidelines to follow to ensure children receive an adequate intake of nutrients
  • Offer at least one fruit and/or vegetable at every meal and snack.
  • Offer whole-grains at least once per day (cereals, breads, and pasta).
  • Choose low fat milk, yogurt, and cheese.
  • Include lean meats and beans for protein.
  • Serve meals "family style" to encourage healthy eating.
  • Prepare fruits and vegetables without margarine, butter, added sugar, or salt. 
  • Offer foods that have not been fried or pre-fried.
children eating vegetables
Here are some resources/tips for improving healthy nutrition practices in your child care center:
  • Prepare fruits and vegetables without margarine, butter, added sugar, or salt. These are extra calories and sodium that children don’t need.
  • The USDA’s Cookbook for Child Care Centers or Cookbook for Homes has healthy recipes and some specifically for child care centers.
  • Many adults have become used to enjoying their food seasoned with margarine, butter, and added sugar or salt, and are in the habit of preparing food that way. However, herbs and spices offer great alternatives for adding flavor that both adults and children will enjoy.
  • Check out this resource for ways to prepare and flavor vegetables without adding fat: Top Ten Ways To Cook Fruits and Vegetables.
  • Current guidelines recommend limiting the percentage of calories that comes from fat to 35%. You can use this Grocery Shopping Cheat Sheet to identify foods that meet this recommendation.
  • Offer raw fruits and vegetables.  Cut fruit into small pieces and enjoy fresh or with various healthy dips.  Offer raw vegetables by letting children make their own salad with this Jr. Salad Bar activity.
  • Buy fresh fruits when they are in season as they are likely to cost less.  You can pre-cut fruits and vegetables and store in containers to make better use of refrigerator space.  Once cut, foods can also be stored in the freezer.  Learn more about how long fruits and vegetables can be stored for best flavor by clicking here.
  • Children can be picky eaters – they often refuse to try fruits, vegetables and other new foods, but expanding their awareness of a variety of foods, particularly vegetables, is important.  The following tips may help:
    • Make new foods fun and appealing; serve food in fun ways; make it a game by challenging children to try fruits and vegetables of different colors.
    • Plant a vegetable garden. You can check out the Grow It, Try It, Like It curriculum, this garden toolkit, or "Creating and Sustaining Your School Garden" by the California School Garden Network for some ideas.
    • Make it fun by hosting tasting parties for new foods.  Schedule them at the end of the day so  parents can take part as well. Make fruit and vegetable smoothies and add dark green veggies like spinach and kale to make it a fun, green color.  Teach children about taste, smell, texture of foods; this video provides some ideas.
  • It’s important to get a variety of lean proteins in your diet. If you are looking for some ideas, this tip sheet can help get you started.
  • “Role Modeling Healthy Eating: Effective Mealtime Strategies” will help you learn strategies for how to be a good role model and how to encourage children to eat healthy.
  • Check out these nutrition education curricula:
    • “Food for Thought” is a five-unit nutrition education curriculum for preschoolers that covers Fall Fruits and Vegetables, Winter Fruits and Vegetables, Go-Grains, Power Up with Proteins, and Spring Snacking.
    • “Harvest of the Month” is a 12-month curriculum full of creative and engaging activities aimed at introducing children to fruits and vegetables through sensory exploration while learning about the health benefits of fresh produce.
    • “Harvest for Healthy Kids” – Developed by child care providers, this resource provides eight free, downloadable activity kits, each designed around a particular fruit or vegetable.
  • Here are some of Penn State's Better Kid Care modules:
  • Check out this Healthy Eating Resource list developed by Penn State Extension.
  • Nemours has a "Best Practices for Healthy Eating" guide. Check it out here.
  • Penn State Extension's Better Kid Care has a resource with tools, information, and methods to implement strategies.
  • The Better Kid Care program also has compiled information and resources pertaining to staff wellness.
  • To view the "Teaching Children About Nutrition During Meals" videos, click here and here for the accompanying workbook.
  • The Michigan Team Nutrition Booklist has a list of over 400 books with positive food, nutrition and physical activity messages.
These are some resources for family-style dining:
  • Watch videos from other child care programs that have adopted family-style dining so you can see it in action, like this one from the Little Brown School (Part 1 & Part 2).
  • This Family Style Dining Guide brings together current information and offers a step-by-step approach to prepare children, adults, families, and ECE programs to engage in family-style dining.
  • This tip sheet from the Capital District Child Care Council has tips especially for 0 -2 year olds.
  • Penn State Extension also has steps and resources to implementing family-style dining.
Here are a few free items you might like for your program:
Below are some resources for enacting policies to improve nutrition in your child care center:
Here are some resources you can provide to families:
The Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition developed several instructional videos for ECE providers and families on how to teach children about nutrition:
  • “Teaching Nutritional Benefits of Eating Healthy Foods” – This video shares a few examples of how caregivers can teach children about the nutritional benefits of healthy eating.
  • “Teaching Taste, Texture and Color” – This videos shares a few examples of how caregivers can educate children about taste, texture, and color through conversations during mealtimes.
  • “Teaching Portion Size” – This video highlights tips on how to figure out appropriate portion sizes for children based on age and a three-step process for teaching children about portion size during meals.
  • “Putting It All Together” – This video features several different ways an adult can teach children about healthy nutrition during a single meal (e.g., verbal praise, portion sizes, color, and nutritional benefits of healthy food).

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