How can you determine if a child care center’s feeding practices are supporting your child to be an adventurous eater? Staff behavior at meal and snack times is a factor that deserves close attention as it plays a role in your child’s food selection and perceptions about food.
This article explores best practices that research shows offers your child the best environment for making healthy food choices and recommends specific questions you can ask to evaluate.
Childcare Centers Influence Food Habits and Preferences
If your child is one of the more than 60% that attend early childhood (ages 3-5) education, you know that it creates new experiences for food and eating (1). Staff are often responsible for serving multiple meals and snacks to your child.
Whether the preschool or childcare center provide meals or you bring your own, the staff involved in feeding play an important role in how and what your child eats (2). Do they offer encouragement to eat? Do they eat unhealthy food in front of your child? Are second helpings served before asking your child if she is full?
The following are three best practices for child care environments.
Work with Your Child to Listen to Satiety Cues
Your child has an excellent sense of hunger and satiety, but in a hectic childcare environment, it is easy for food to be removed from the table or seconds served without regard to appetite. A child that has stopped eating or is pushing food around plate may be assumed to be finished with a meal and similarly, a child that has eaten everything on his plate may get a second helping without asking for one.
Best practices are to specifically ask your child if he is full before taking away the plate and to ask if he is hungry before serving a second helping (2). While this may seem like a rather “common sense” approach and one that you regularly do at home, it may not be part of the meal routine at childcare center.
If possible, visit the childcare center during a mealtime and observe staff behavior. You are looking to see that children are being supported to be in tune with their hunger and satiety cues.
Here are few questions you can ask the facility director or other person familiar with feeding practices.
- How will you determine when my child is done eating?
- If my child is a very fast (or very slow) eater, what do you do during mealtimes if he finishes his food quickly (or needs more time)?
- If center provides meals, ask if food is served family style or if children are served specific portions.
Model Healthy Eating Behavior
You know the importance of eating with your child and modeling healthy choices. The adults your child interacts with at childcare center will also serve as role models in regard to food choices and preferences. Staff may be involved in preparing and serving food or offering your child assistance at meals but may not sit down and eat with your child.
There is an important distinction to make here and emerging research suggests that a small difference can impact effectiveness (3). Sitting down with the children during meal and snack time does not have the same favorable effects as staff members that sit and eat a meal together with the children. While a shared meal may not be possible in all environments, it is an element that you will want to gather details about.
Ask these questions of center staff.
- What is the role of staff during mealtimes? Will staff be sitting and eating with my child?
- Do staff consume food or snacks in front of children? What is the center policy about types of foods?
- Can I observe a meal time at the center?
Talk About Healthy Food
Meal times are an opportunity to learn and explore food. Preschoolers are curious and are beginning to explore more structured learning. Take time to ask about what curriculum related to food and nutrition is included at the childcare center. This doesn’t mean formal classroom-based learning. It might mean children are engaged in activities such as preparing a colorful fruit salad and getting the opportunity to explore smell, taste and touch.
A few key principles should be kept front and center when inquiring about how the center teaches about healthy food. First, food should not be labeled as good or bad. Focus on the functions of various nutrients, “creates strong bones.” A positive body image and relationship with food starts early and the childcare center environment and staff play an important role.
Beyond how the staff speak directly with the children, pay careful attention to how staff speak to each other and about themselves. Is there a constant dialogue about the latest weight loss fad, negative comments about body size and or focus on specific foods or eating habits.
- What is your approach toward treats, sweets and other “fun” foods? Listen for cues about how food is perceived or talked about (i.e. bad or good).
- Do you have a formal curriculum or scheduled activities that teach concepts of healthy eating? If so, can you provide a few examples?
- If you are able to do a meal time observation at the center, listen to the interaction between the children and staff as well as comments between staff members.
Choosing a preschool or childcare center is an important decision. The staff and environment will have an impact on your child’s eating behavior and food preferences. Asking targeted questions will help you to evaluate the environment and ensure that it is the best place for your child.
MY FREE ONLINE WORKSHOP TEACHES KEY FEEDING PRINCIPLES TO REDUCE PICKY EATING AND HOW TO CREATE A POSITIVE MEALTIME ENVIRONMENT.
- US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Early Childhood Program Participation Survey of the National Household Education Surveys Program 2012. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d14/tables/dt14_202.30.asp. Accessed September 3, 2018.
- Benjaminn Neelon SE, Briley ME, American Dietetic A. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Benchmarks for nutrition in child care. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2011;111(4):607-615.
- Anundson K, Sisson SB, Anderson M et al. Staff Food-Related Behaviors and Childrens' Tastes of Food Groups during Lunch at Childcare in Oklahoma. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2018;118(8):1399-1407. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2017.07.023