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Day Care Cuisine

With more mothers working full or part time, childcare is a fact of life for most families. Nearly 13 million American preschoolers are enrolled in childcare programs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That means that more than 60 percent of the nation's children ages six and under are supervised during the day by someone other than a parent. As of 1995, a third of the infants and preschoolers enrolled in childcare programs participated in center-based care, while 20 percent were cared for in home-based programs. The remainder of the children were supervised by relatives or by a sitter in the child's home.

When parents choose people to care for children in their absence, what do they value? Warmth and caring no doubt come to mind. A safe and nurturing environment is critical, too. Nutrition should be just as important to parents. The quality of the food your child eats while in any childcare situation affects his short- and long-term health and well-being. The more time your youngster spends with a sitter, the more important nutrition becomes. Anything less than a high standard for nutrition can set the stage for poor eating habits that your youngster may never outgrow.

In general, parents strongly influence a child's nutritional habits, but other caregivers contribute to a youngster's eating patterns, too. You may not know it, but your child models himself in part after his day care providers. And why not? He may spend upwards of five days a week in other people's care. Chances are, your youngster admires and identifies with the sitter he sees daily or nearly daily.

Ensuring that your child's diet away from home is healthy is crucial for a number of reasons. Surveys show that preschoolers are getting progressively heavier. In fact, the incidence of obesity in these youngsters has doubled in the past twenty years. Young children are not eating adequate fruits, vegetables, or whole grains. Since your child may spend most of her waking hours in the care of others, her diet should be as healthy as possible during that time.

You have a say about what, and how, your child eats while you're at work. Read on.

Childcare Check List
You may be looking for a suitable childcare situation, or re-evaluating your current program. In any case, don't forget to ask about the following.

How can parents become involved? What kids eat at day care should be an open book, and any program should welcome your questions about its menus. But it seems that few parents have thought to inquire about what their children eat. Research shows minimal parental involvement with day care diets. It's folly to expect your day care provider to supply your child with the nutrients she needs to grow and develop properly if you don't check on what's being served first.

How often is food offered? The American Dietetic Association suggests children need to consume at least a third of their daily nutrients when in the care of others for four to seven hours. Children in day care for eight hours should expect to satisfy at least half to two-thirds of their daily nutrient requirements.

Unless you provide written instructions to the contrary, your infant should be fed on demand, not according to the sitter's schedule. Be sure to ask your sitter to hold your infant when giving him a baby bottle. Preschoolers should go no longer than three hours before being offered a snack or meal.

How are meals planned? Providers should use the guiding principals of the USDA's Food Guide Pyramid for Young Children. Kids should eat at least one source of vitamin C a day, including citrus, tomatoes, kiwis, and strawberries, and be offered good sources of vitamin A, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, at least thrice weekly as part of a well-balanced meal plan.

Does the program participate in the Child and Adult Care Food Program? This is a plus when deciding on day care, according to research. That's because kids tend to eat better when enrolled in programs that participate. Childcare programs that enroll in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) administered by the USDA have a better track record of supplying children with necessary nutrients. The CACFP reimburses eligible childcare programs for the costs of food and foodservice operations, and CACFP participants must receive annual training about child nutrition and the CACFP requirements.

Are foods laden with fat, sugar, and sodium kept to a minimum? There's no need for providers to entice kids to eat by adding fat, sugar, and salt during or after food preparation. Children possess a heightened sense of taste, which is one of the reasons why seasonings are not particularly pleasing to them. Nor should providers offer your youngster too many snacks supplying fat, sugar, and sodium, such as high-fat crackers, cookies, candy, and sugary drinks.

Does your provider post weekly menus? If not, ask if it's possible. That way, you'll be informed about what your child is being served.

What's the procedure for hand washing and other food safety practices? At the very minimum, children should wash their hands with warm soapy water for at least twenty seconds and dry them with a clean dry cloth or paper towel before every meal and snack, after visiting the bathroom, after touching animals, and more frequently when they have a cold. Make sure your day care program provides for this. Likewise, staff should wash their hands after every diaper check or change, after visiting the bathroom, and before and after handling food.

Are food preparation and storage areas neat and clean? Don't forget to check out these areas. Adequate refrigeration is a must. Children bringing food from home should be able to store it in a clean refrigerator that operates at 40°F or below.

Where is the diaper changing area? It should be away from the areas where children eat and play, to minimize the spread of germs.

How much does your childcare provider know about nutrition? CACFP participants must receive annual nutrition training, but other day care providers may know less about child nutrition. In fact, research bears that out. In one study, only about half of the caregivers could correctly select the major food sources for certain nutrients (i.e., dairy foods as a source of calcium) or knew the appropriate serving sizes for preschoolers.

Is the environment conducive to eating? The best way to find out is by observing—unannounced. Our sitter Louise, who has been caring for my children for the past five years, allows parents to drop in without notice, a policy that I applaud. The notion that you can walk into your babysitter's house, or that you can go unannounced to your day care center, is comforting. What should you look for once you're there? Clean, safe, and cheerful eating areas designed for toddlers and preschoolers. Serving food family style is preferable, but let's face it, it's not always possible when kids are clamoring for their meal and your sitter is scrambling to meet the needs of children of many different ages. As at home, food should never be used as a reward or a punishment at day care; nor should your sitter force a child to eat. Sitters should not allow kids to share food.

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Copyright © 2002 by Elizabeth M. Ward. Excerpted from Healthy Foods, Healthy Kids with permission of its publisher, Adams Media Corporation.

To order this book visit Amazon.com.


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