The Scoop on Food

What to Expect From the New Rules for Daycare Food

Healthier changes are on their way—but do the new daycare food rules go far enough?

little girl eating a snack at daycare Shutterstock 
If your child is enrolled in a daycare program, chances are that healthier food is on its way. Childcare centers who take part in the federal Child and Adult Food Care Program have new regulations for the food they serve at meals and snacks, including more fruits and veggies and less sugar. And it's about time: The nutrition rules haven't changed since the program was created in the 1960s!

"It's an understatement to say that these nutritional improvements are long overdue," says Bettina Siegel, a nationally recognized advocate on issues relating to children and food policy who writes the blog The Lunch Tray. "And there's a lot to be happy about in the new rules." Here's some of what you can expect:

For infants between 6-11 months:

  • Snacks must include a fruit, vegetable, or both.
  • Juice may not be served.

For children age 1 and older:

  • Lunch must include a fruit and vegetable (not one or the other).
  • Juice can only be served once a day.
  • At least one serving of grains must be rich in whole grains.
  • Yogurt must contain no more than 23 grams of sugar per 6 ounces.
  • Breakfast cereals must contain no more than 6 grams of sugar per dry ounce.
  • Frying is not allowed as a way of preparing foods on-site.

Centers must comply with these new standards by October 1, 2017.

These changes, which are meant to align with the latest Dietary Guildeines For Americans, are definite improvements. But do they go far enough? Since no extra funding will be provided for childcare centers to implement healthier standards, a lot of changes that should be made just can't happen with limited budgets. With that in mind, the regulations include what they call optional "best practices"—healthy steps that centers are encouraged to take, but aren't legally required to. These include serving more whole fruit and less juice, offering at least two servings of whole grains a day, serving more dark green vegetables and beans, limiting processed meats to no more than one serving per week, incorporating seasonal and locally-produced food into meals, and eliminating all sugar-sweetened beverages.

So if you still aren't pleased with the food your child is getting at daycare, what can you do? Unfortunately, not much. "Unless a child has documented medical or special dietary needs, some centers discourage or even prohibit parents from sending in their own food," says Siegel. "So if parents have a choice in the matter, they'll want to take a good hard look at the quality of food served before choosing a daycare center for their child."

I'd love to hear from you: If your children are enrolled in daycare, are YOU happy with food they're being served?

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook Twitter Pinterest, and Instagram. She collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.