Nutritional Building Blocks: Child care centers balance healthful eating with tight budgets

With a growing toddler at home, South County resident Emily McCay focuses on offering her family a variety of healthful foods. However, when her daughter attended a local day care center, McCay quickly discovered the school’s idea of a balanced meal was quite different from her own. Instead of fresh produce and meats, her daughter was introduced to hot dogs and canned ravioli.

“I was just surprised that in today’s day and age of childhood obesity that this center didn’t realize how important it is to offer fresher choices,” McCay said. “Even to offer a grilled chicken breast instead of chicken nuggets, for example. The rationale given to me by the director was that this is only what the kids would eat. In my eyes, if we only offer these foods to kids, that is all they will eat and it’s what their taste buds will prefer.”

McCay offered to bring in food for her daughter, but when the center declined, she looked for another child care option and found one that shared her philosophy on fresh, organic foods.

“Even though we try to eat organic vegetables and fruits, meats and cheeses when possible, I know that because of budgeting reasons, that is likely not possible in a center setting,” McCay said. “But why not offer grilled meats, fresh steamed veggies, cheese cubes, an apple or other fruit, 100 percent juice? Even the occasional bean and cheese quesadillas. Let’s be creative and fun to help kids understand that fresher food is healthier for them and fun to eat.”

Like McCay, many parents are encouraging their day care centers to modify their menus, especially because the medical community is focused on reducing childhood obesity. On the other hand, centers are facing an uphill battle – pleasing parents while attempting to feed dozens of children on tight budgets.

Nevertheless, many centers and preschools around St. Louis have discovered affordable ways to provide menus full of fresh foods that children are finding delicious and parents are finding satisfying.

Mixing it up

Risotto with sugar snap peas. Cheesy veggie flatbread. Pasta with roasted vegetables. It sounds like the menu at a hot new Washington Avenue restaurant, but for the kids ages 3 and older at St. Michael School in Clayton, it’s just lunch.

St. Michael, in partnership with Nicole Mallette Giesler of Silver Spoon Catering, spotlights healthful meals to grow students’ bodies and minds. Instead of greasy cardboard pizzas and chicken nuggets, the school offers a combination of foods even grown-ups would envy. In fact, one of the most popular items during lunch hour is the fresh salad bar.

“I try to use as many organic produce items as our budget allows,” Giesler said. “All fruits and vegetables are fresh and purchased daily.”

The school has been thrilled with the results. “The support among the parents has been overwhelmingly positive,” Giesler said. “We get a lot of feedback telling us that their child is experimenting with new foods and even insisting on a salad with their meal! The children’s comments are what make it all worthwhile. Today a little boy told me he loved the pasta so much he ate a ‘quarter pound’ of it.”

Like St. Michael, the Little School & Gym in Soulard looked at an outside resource when it became difficult to accommodate lunch preparation at the growing preschool. Its neighbor, John D. McGurk’s Irish Pub, now delivers fresh, budget-friendly lunches to the center each day. In fact, many of the meals come straight off the restaurant’s menu, such as its spinach salad and pesto tortellini.

“We were able to get rid of the brown bag system – the food is so much fresher now,” said Kelly Bock, head of the school. “We’re so fortunate to have that resource in the neighborhood.”

At University City Children’s Center, lunchtime centers on both the physical and mental aspects of eating. UCCC provides nutritious items like baked chicken, natural fruit juices and whole-wheat bread; offers vegetarian options and soy milk; eliminates unnecessary fats; and also is focused on educating kids about healthful alternatives.

“It’s the sense of community around the table that makes the difference,” noted executive director Stephen Zwolak. “We want to help children make the right food choices and develop inner self-control.” This includes everything from letting kids serve themselves to encouraging social interaction during mealtime. In turn, Zwolak has discovered through this philosophy, kids are now eating items they may have turned their noses up at before, such as spinach.

The center will soon be opening an expanded kitchen so it can offer a variety of foods, enabling students to make choices for themselves. “If you give kids a choice between vegetables, they’ll eat their vegetables since they’ll feel empowered by their choice,” remarked Zwolak.

In addition, UCCC is planning a series of vegetable gardens to coincide with a new playground this spring and is part of a day care center consortium being developed by Resource Development Alternatives, which is researching the possibility of partnering with local farmers to receive homegrown produce at an affordable rate.

Child care center resources

One resource that has helped day care centers reshape their menus is the Child and Adult Care Food Program administered by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services in Jefferson City. According to Barbara Raymond, a CACFP program specialist, “Only the centers enrolled in our program have to follow all of the CACFP guidelines, but all licensed centers are supposed to follow the same meal pattern. Compliance would just be monitored a little more closely if they’re on our program.”

That meal pattern focuses on the components of a meal and the serving sizes of foods for breakfast, snacks, and lunch or dinner. For instance, at lunch, children 2 and under should receive one-half cup of fluid milk; 1 ounce of meat, poultry, fish or cheese (or an alternate serving of eggs, cooked dry beans or peanut butter); one-fourth cup total of vegetables and/or fruits; and one half slice of bread.

To be included in the program, licensed child care center administrators attend a five-hour training session that explains the program’s requirements and have their menus reviewed by the organization. In addition, participants are offered specialty classes to assist them with their own menu planning.

Through the program, snacks have become more healthful at many participating centers. “We encourage things like fruits, vegetables, cheese, crackers, yogurt. A snack has to include at least two different foods like a tortilla with melted cheese or yogurt with strawberries. With lunches, we encourage them to use less processed foods and more fresh meats, fruits and vegetables.”

There are still few restrictions placed on meals for toddlers on a national scale. “The federal guidelines have not become stricter yet, but I anticipate some changes will eventually come as a result of the USDA’s newer MyPyramid and dietary guidelines,” Raymond said. “One change we have made in Missouri is to limit the use of sweet snacks, such as cookies, to no more than two times per week.”

Help your center help you

To find a center that meets your requirements, you must do your research. Said parent McCay: “My advice to parents who feel that food choices are important is to ask to see a menu for the older rooms even if you are just starting in the infant room. This is my first child, and I didn’t really know exactly what I should be asking to see in older rooms and if they would accommodate my preferences.”

If you already have your child in day care and are concerned about the food options, talk with the administrative staff about the menu and see if changes can be made. Because of financial restrictions and space limitations, your center may require parental assistance to help it get on the right track.

At The Little School & Gym, parents provide the snacks for their child’s class on a rotating schedule so kids can enjoy healthful treats and the school can avoid raising tuition to cover the additional cost.

“We ask for a combination of snacks, either a carbohydrate with protein or a carbohydrate with dairy,” Bock remarked. “A lot of time it’s yogurt with crackers, but we get fabulous homemade muffins and seasonal fresh fruit, which is hard to afford in a school setting.”

Besides providing kids with tasty snacks, the program is a way to connect with parents and kids. “When our new parents get involved, they’re able to bring a little bit of home into school,” Bock added.

Finally, if your center allows it, brown bagging your child’s lunch may be a last option, though many centers have restrictions on the practice because of the risk of allergic reactions among other students. Vegan students at UCCC, for instance, are welcome to bring their packaged lunches to school if the menu of the day doesn’t match their dietary restrictions.

The key to meeting your child’s nutritional needs throughout the day is to be firm, but understand the limitations your center may face. By working together, you and your center may be able to create a menu that meets your principles and your kids’ hungry tummies.