Health & Well-Being-Consider nutrition when choosing day care

Selecting the perfect preschool care is more than just evaluating story time and playtime activities; although often overlooked, mealtime is equally important.

"Child-care centers have a real impact on the nutritional quality of children's diets and can significantly influence developing eating habits," says Theresa Nicklas, MD, a research nutritionist with the USDA/ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center in Houston.

When choosing a day-care facility, says Nicklas, parents should take into consideration the center's overall nutrition program, including the content of meals and snacks, its nutrition education program and the mealtime environment. Here are some things to look for:

Meals and snacks. Day-care center menus often lack variety — and they tend to be low in calories, iron, and zinc. To avoid those shortfalls, check that a minimum of fat and sodium is used in food preparation, that menus feature a variety of foods from every group of the Food Guide Pyramid and that selections change frequently.

Menus are also more likely to be nutritionally complete if the center contracts with a registered dietitian to assist with menu planning. Ask other parents who use the center if their children get enough to eat. Children who often seem ravenous at pick-up time have probably not had enough. Day-care centers should offer children food a minimum of every three hours. Children who are in day care for eight hours or more should receive at least one meal and two snacks.

Nutrition education. In addition to complying with regulations regarding food safety and sanitation, child-care centers should train staff members in the basics of children's nutrition and methods that promote healthy eating habits. Centers that use resources from state, local, and national programs like the American Cancer Society and the USDA's Nutrition Education and Training Program usually have effective nutrition education plans. Parents should also look for providers who emphasize good hand-washing habits and for centers with fun, food-related activities, such as child-tended vegetable gardens.

Mealtime environment. Child-care providers who are good role models make mealtime and snacktime positive, cheerful, unhurried events. Providers should sit with children during meal periods, eat the same foods the children do, offer choices and give children an opportunity to serve themselves. They should also engage the children in upbeat food-related conversations, make positive comments about nutrition and encourage, but not require, children to taste all foods.