Nutrition requirements for child care — Good Parenting

tots breakfastDear Dr. Debbie,

My 3-year-old will be attending a child care program soon and I’m concerned about her eating habits. She’s a bit picky, but I’m careful to balance out a healthy diet, even though she eats a lot of the same foods day after day. Her current fad is banana or cucumber slices topped with plain yogurt. Whole grain rice cakes (unflavored) are her favorite car food.

Several centers we are considering serve a morning snack and require parents to send in the rest. The director at one center mentioned that they follow a state standard called CACFP. She said parents are free to send in their own food, but that their breakfast, lunch and two snacks would meet government standards for nutrition.

The option of not having to pack her food every day sounds tempting as a time-saver for me. However, losing control over what my daughter’s food choices are doesn’t feel comfortable.
Are you familiar with this acronym? Does it guarantee some fresh foods and whole grains?

Her Chef

Don't miss last week's column Changing friends from middle to high school — Good Parenting

Dear Chef,

The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP)  is a way to reimburse professional care providers with state funds for the cost of food so long as it meets certain nutrition requirements. These requirements are set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which, by law, takes current research and medical knowledge and applies it to dietary guidelines for the nation. The recommendations are updated every five years. The 2015 report includes such things as the proportion of whole grains in bread and cereal products and the amount of added sugars to prepared foods. Fruits and vegetables, not necessarily fresh, and protein foods in addition to milk are also part of the daily requirements along with ample water. Fruit juice – never sugar-sweetened nor artificially sweetened drinks, can only be served once per day. This information is interpreted for parents and teachers on the Choose My Plate website, which includes family activities and menu ideas.

Speaking as a former childcare provider during the “Square Meal” era of government guidelines, I am thrilled that chocolate cake no longer satisfies the “bread or starch” requirement. (The nutritionist from the catering company argued that this was a concession on days they served fish sticks since they assumed the children wouldn’t eat much, if any, of their “meat” portion of the meal!)

Total Sugar

For present day child care providers in Maryland, there are a few other specific rules to follow to be part of the CACFP. These assure more nutritious offerings than had been acceptable in the past. For example, yogurts can contain no more than 23 grams of sugar per 6 ounces. That includes those with “fruit on the bottom” which is sometimes sweetened with table sugar or corn syrup. Manufacturers have been adjusting some of their ingredients in reaction to changing ideas about what should and shouldn’t be in our food, so keep an eye on your favorite brands, or better yet, ask manufacturers directly to make their products more nutritious. Business yields to customer demands, so as we become better informed about how our food choices affect us, we should speak up.

Back to yogurt standards. Child care programs can no longer serve Yoplait’s GoGurt, although Yoplait Strawberry fits within the guidelines. Of course a nutrition conscious director or classroom teacher can go beyond the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). Plain yogurt goes great with fresh fruit, as sweet as nature intended, as your daughter well knows.

Whole Grain (not Multi-Grain)

As the American diet moved away from coarser “whole” grains over the last century, continuing research has implicated processed grains in a multitude of health troubles – diabetes, cancers, heart disease, and obesity. According to the current CACFP requirements, whole grains must be included in one meal or snack per day, and must be at least 50% of the grain ingredients in a product. For example, Nature’s Own whole wheat hamburger buns list the first ingredient as “whole wheat flour” with “cultured wheat flour” as less than 2% of the total. (Cultured wheat flour is a natural preservative made with white flour which has been fermented.) Although this well satisfies the USDA standard, a few steps beyond would be your rice cakes, or some whole grain oatmeal, which is 100% whole grain and doesn’t usually need any preservative at all. Since your daughter may be eating as much as 2 meals and 2 snacks during her day at child care, the bare minimum of only one serving of a whole grain-rich bread or cereal leaves much room for improvement.

By the way, manufacturers have been duping consumers for decades with claims of “multi-grain” benefits to bread and cereal products. This term merely indicates that more than one kind of processed grain - oat, rice, wheat, corn, whatever - was used.

Cereal bars have been scrutinized in the 2015 DGA leaving many traditional quick breakfast favorites in the dust. Pop Tarts, of course, are not acceptable for CACFP reimbursement, nor are Nutrigrain bars, Quaker Chewy Granola Bars, nor other so-called “granola bars” that little resemble the homemade versions we made in the mid-seventies. These sugar-laden products are properly classified as “desserts” and no longer qualify (by report of the U.S. government!) as contributing to children’s health.

Kudos to you for looking out for your daughter’s nutrition while she is in a child care program. One bonus to being among other children while she’s eating is that children are likely to want to eat what their friends are eating. If teachers include food preparation and tasting activities in their lessons, this too encourages more adventurousness in eating. Ask to observe or to see menu plans if you need further assurance that the center is meeting more than bare minimum standards. And if you are so inclined, use your interest in children’s nutrition to help the center learn how to surpass the minimum government standards.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children's Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her "Understanding Children" columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.

© 2018 Chesapeake Family Life. All Rights Reserved.