An Apple a Day: Creating a Healthy Eating Environment at Child Care

How to establish healthy eating habits through proper nutrition and an encouraging environment

Children spend hours a day at child care facilities, so it only makes sense that providers play a key role in their nutritional development. Children’s bodies and minds are changing rapidly. Even as infants and toddlers, they are forming the foundations of their behaviors later in life.

It’s important for caregivers to understand the nutritional needs of children at different stages in order to create a healthy eating environment that will hopefully help form a healthy lifestyle. This will not only impact the types of food served during the day but also the staff’s commitment to maintaining and encouraging good eating habits.

Eating timeline

Eating requirements vary widely in children from ages 0 to 3. Children can’t all eat the same things at the same time of day. In order to create a healthy eating environment, it’s important to understand the overall eating timeline.

0 to 6 months

From 0 to 6 months old, infants should only be consuming breast milk or formula. Some children can start eating solid foods before the six-month mark, but this is the general recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Formula is a little bit easier for caregivers to manage and prepare. If parents wish to breastfeed while the child is in child care, caregivers need to work with them to achieve success by ensuring there is enough breast milk to last the day.

6 months

It’s time for solid foods! Stick to simple, one-ingredient foods at first. Allow time to assess children’s reactions to certain foods. Again, it’s important to work with parents during this transition time to make sure you’re following the same timeline and not introducing too many foods at once.

6 to 12 months

As time goes on, introduce more foods with a variety of tastes and textures. Children will focus on finger foods but will start to learn how to use utensils toward the 12-month mark.

12 to 24 months

Utensil skills will continue to increase. Children at this age are learning to listen to their bodies, so they can tell when they’re full or hungry or don’t like a certain food.

24 to 36 months

Children will be able to feed themselves at this stage. They should continue to experience a variety of foods to expand their awareness of different foods.

Healthy diet ideas

There are a variety of reasons that childhood obesity affects 13.9% of 2- to 5-year-old children. It could be due to circumstances outside a caregiver’s control such as genetics, metabolism, or stressful family dynamics.

However, the food served at child care and the eating environment created are very much within the caregiver’s control and should be taken seriously. Understanding the basics of food nutrition and how certain foods impact children will shape the facility’s food policies and processes. Providers should, of course, consult with parents first to account for allergies or nutritional preferences.

Here are some simple food tips to enhance children’s diets.

Water, juice, and milk

Water should be available, and children should be encouraged to drink regularly throughout the day. This is a calorie-free thirst quencher and energizer.

Juice should be limited to 6 ounces per day for children under 6 years old. One hundred percent fruit juice is a nice treat at snack time and is healthier compared to other sugary options.

Children need calcium-rich foods to support bone growth and development. Yogurt and cheese are good options, but milk is an important part of this as well. Children between 1 and 2 years old should drink full-fat milk, but older children can drink reduced-fat or fat-free milk. About two cups a day is recommended.

Fruits and veggies

Fruit is a great source of fiber and healthy sugars and should be available as much as possible. Fresh fruit is ideal, but caregivers can also serve frozen, canned, or dried fruit. As mentioned, fruit juice is optional, but real is even better.

Vegetables don’t have to be disliked. Mix things up, and use a variety of colors, textures, and tastes to keep things interesting. Broccoli, corn, potatoes, peppers, spinach, carrots, and green beans are all great options.


Refined or processed grains should be limited as much as possible. They are usually empty calories that don’t provide much energy or sustained nutrition. Whole grains such as brown rice, oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, and even popcorn are preferred.


Lean protein is the way to go with young children. Chicken and fish are healthy meat options with low-fat content. Eggs, beans, and nuts are also great sources of protein.

A healthy eating environment

There are many factors that go into healthy eating besides food. Caregivers can do a lot to encourage healthy choices just by focusing on creating a good environment.

Family-style eating

Family-style eating is designed to include children in the eating process and make them more conscious of their choices. Older children can serve themselves or get help from an adult. They will also learn to listen to their bodies and stop eating when they’re full.

Staff should eat with children as often as possible. This gives them a chance to talk about the food they’re eating and reflect on healthy versus unhealthy choices. It’s also a great chance to encourage children to try new things.

Consistent schedule for ages 12 – 36 months

Try to prepare and serve meals and snacks at the same time every day. Make it consistent. This lets children get used to a schedule and know that food is coming. If the schedule is inconsistent or there are large gaps between food, children may get too hungry and overeat at the next mealtime.

Division of responsibility

This is a common principle in child care environments. It is the responsibility of the caregiver to provide and prepare food. It is the responsibility of the child to choose how much of it to eat. This needs to be respected on both sides.

Don’t force-feed children or demand they finish everything on their plates. It’s important to let them develop their own internal cues and learn that mealtimes are not battle time.

Be a healthy role model

Caregivers have a responsibility to give children the tools and knowledge they need to establish healthy eating habits. Getting children involved in simple mealtime preparation tasks or even hanging posters with images of healthy food can go a long way as well.

Planning is a child care provider’s best friend when it comes to healthy eating. Create a rotational menu that lasts three to four weeks. This prevents children from getting bored with any one food and allows caregivers to take advantage of fun seasonal options.

Above all, children look up to caregivers as role models. Staff should participate in all meals with the children and eat healthily themselves to demonstrate habits the children can follow. Of course, treats are OK from time to time, but they shouldn’t be the norm.

Healthy eating can start in the child care environment, but it should continue in the home environment. When possible, caregivers should try to educate parents on the benefits of healthy eating and how to improve their family’s own diets. Getting parents and caregivers on the same page will set the children up for a lifetime of healthy choices.

The Virginia Infant & Toddler Specialist Network helps improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers through extensive resources, services, and education for caregivers. Learn more about how we can help you improve the standard of care.


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