Food in Child Care Check It

Warm and caring staff, a safe environment, opportunities for development and self-expression—that's what most parents look for when they choose child care. If you look for child care, rank good nutrition, food-safety standards, and active play high on your checklist, too. If your child has a food allergy or needs to avoid any food for religious or other reasons, find out how that's handled.

Consider the importance of the food served. A child may eat two or more meals and snacks in a child-care facility, so the nutritional quality must be high. Since a young child is developing eating skills and food attitudes that will affect long-term health, the overall eating environment is important, too.

A child-care setting offers many opportunities for spreading illness: food service, diapering, toileting, and close contact with others. For this reason, cleanliness and safe food handling are "musts." Infants and young children have immature immune systems; they're more vulnerable to catching a cold, flu, or other illness from others.

To help establish a lifelong habit of active living, children regularly involved in child care need a program with safe, fun, and developmentally appropriate ways to move more and sit less. Choose a program that makes active play a priority. Besides health, active living teaches social skills and helps develop body skills.

As you choose child care, these factors suggest high standards of cleanliness, nutrition, and active play:

Food preparation and storage areas...

  • Neat and very clean
  • Properly labeled and well-covered foods
  • Adequate refrigeration and heating equipment
  • Perishable foods stored in the refrigerator

Hand-washing area...

  • Child-size sinks, or safe stepping stools for adult-size sinks
  • Soap and paper towels

Mealtimes and snacktimes...

  • Meals and snacks with a variety of foods from the five food groups of MyPyramid. (Most child-care settings have specific guidelines and menus; ask to see them.)
  • Tables and chairs appropriately sized for children's comfort, or high chairs, or booster seats
  • Child-size utensils and covered cups with spouts to help young children master their feeding skills
  • Adult supervision at snacktimes and mealtimes and adequate staffing for feeding infants and children with special needs

Diaper-changing and toilet areas...

  • Very clean
  • Located away from food, eating, and play areas
  • Closed containers for soiled diapers, tissues, and wipes
  • Daily removal of soiled items

Other areas ...

  • Separate storage for each child's toothbrush, comb, and clothing
  • Ample space between cots, nap rugs, or cribs

Observe what goes on in the child-care setting. You should be able to answer "yes" to these questions:

  • Do children, staff, and volunteers wash and dry their hands before and after eating or participating in food activities?
  • Do children wash and dry their hands after outdoor play, toileting, touching animals, sneezing, or wiping their nose?
  • Does each child have his or her own washcloth?
  • Are child-care providers practicing appropriate sanitation and food-handling techniques?
  • Are bottles and foods brought from home refrigerated, and if necessary, heated safely? (Hint: When you send food, always label it with your child's name. Transport perishable foods in an insulated sack with a cold pack.)
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