Early Child Care Nutrition

Healthy breakfast

Child care providers can encourage healthy eating habits in young children by providing a variety of nutritious foods, limiting junk food and sugary drinks, and encouraging parents to do the same at home.

Here is a summary of early childhood nutrition recommendations for obesity prevention, based on a review of expert guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education, the Institute of Medicine, and others. Though these recommendations are designed for early child care providers, parents can also adopt these nutrition guidelines at home. For more detailed guidance on these recommendations and ideas for putting them into practice, explore the source list and the links to other resources.

Serve age-appropriate and healthy beverages

  • Offer safe drinking water regularly and in place of fruit drinks, soda, or other sweetened beverages (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Ensure that children ages 1 to 6 are limited to 4 to 6 ounces of juice per day, including at home (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Serve 100 percent juice with no added sweeteners in cups, and only at mealtimes (1, 2, 4)
  • Offer either skim or 1 percent pasteurized milk to all children over 2 years of age, or whole pasteurized milk for children ages 1 to 2 (1, 2, 4)
Provide a varied and balanced diet that emphasizes minimally processed foods

  • Offer a mix of different colored vegetables each day, especially dark green and red and orange vegetables (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Serve a variety of whole fruits, rather than juice (1,2,4)
  • Ensure all breads, cereals, and pastas served are whole grain (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Choose heart-healthy lean protein such as beans, chicken, legumes, and low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Opt for foods that contain healthy monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats like olive or safflower oil instead of foods high in trans or saturated fats, such as packaged snack foods, foods fried or prepared with partially hydrogenated oil, butter, and red meat (1, 2, 4)
Encourage healthy growth in children by keeping high-calorie, low-nutrient foods out of child care

  • Avoid foods high in trans fats and/or saturated fats (1, 2, 4)
  • Avoid salty, low-nutrient foods like chips or pretzels (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Avoid high-sugar foods such as flavored milk, fruit nectars, soda, or candy (1, 2, 3, 4)
Encourage family involvement in healthy eating at the child care facility

  • Provide written nutrition guidelines and posted menus for parents (1, 4)
  • Ensure food brought from home meets written standards (1, 4)
  • Engage in conversations about healthy eating, including taking menu suggestions from parents consistent with healthy guidelines (1, 4)

Early Child Care Nutrition-Source List

1. American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, and National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education. Preventing Childhood Obesity in Early Care and Education: Selected Standards from Caring for Our Children: National Health and Safety Performance Standards; Guidelines for Early Care and Education Programs, 3rd Edition; 2010.

2. National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education, University of Colorado Denver. National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education: Achieving a State of Healthy Weight: A National Assessment of Obesity Prevention Terminology in Child Care Regulations 201. Aurora, CO; 2011.

3. Institute of Medicine. Early Childhood Obesity Prevention Policies. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2011.

4. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Benchmarks for Nutrition in Child Care. J Am Diet Assoc.2011;111:607-615.