Guest Blogger: Preschool lunches

Preschool Food: A look at what our youngest students actually eat.

I have been working in preschools and as a nanny for over 5 years, and while this may not be a lot of time, it was certainly enough to change my views on food forever. I consider myself a healthy eater; I eat fruits and vegetables on a daily basis and generally have a good idea about what I am fueling my body with (even if it is a block of ramen or some macaroni and cheese on occasion), but when I landed my first job in the preschool world and realized I 
was eating better than the majority of the toddler’s I was taking care of, I was in shock. It even led to a rather nasty clash with a mother who refused to accept that her child would not eat the “food” she provided and instead insisted I was an idiot who “didn’t have kids and didn’t understand”. True, I don’t have children…but I do know that when a 2 year old screams and cries every single day at the sight of her lunch, yet graciously accepts any food the center provides to her, something needs to be changed.
A typical preschool lunch is the same in every classroom, with the exception of infants. The food pyramid is clearly represented in single-serving-microwavable-macaroni-and-cheese, single-serving-pasta-with-sauce and pre-prepared meals in a box (you know what I’m talking about) and of course, the king of children’s foods…the chicken nugget. I appreciate the fact that parents are busy, stressed and usually strapped for cash, but when these issues start impacting the child’s health and eating habits and they are consuming enough sodium and preservatives to kill a horse before they can even write their name, there’s a problem. 
Now please don’t think I’m being harsh and critical of parents, I know it is not my place to judge, but realistically, I feel pretty safe in saying that most preschool teachers judge parents on a daily basis. It’s a result of the job we do, we are fooled into thinking we are masters of child care because we juggle anywhere from 4-20 kids without breaking a sweat, and usually on minimum wage. We resent the fact their lunchboxes are full of carbs and sugar because we’re the ones who have to deal with the hyperactivity at 3pm and the meltdowns at 5pm. The “crash and burn” hours are the worst shift to work, the lucky teachers leave after nap when the cavalry comes in to “close”. I have personally noticed that the kids who eat a more balanced meal are generally the ones who behave better and therefore learn more. 
Like Mrs Q, I do have some strong feelings and opinions about the food that is presented to children. For one thing, fruit cups, on what planet are barely identifiable cubes of soggy fruit that sit in a cup of a liquid that can only be described as “drool”  something anyone would want to eat? Parents, you can send in fresh fruit, we will cut, peel and serve it to your child. Pudding should be a rare treat…for home. Pizza rolls and Bagel Bites are NOT food, on any level. Ketchup is not a vegetable. Yogurt that comes in a tube is just ridiculous, unless the child is old enough to neatly eat it themselves please, PLEASE, don’t put it in their lunchbox, a cup of yogurt is a much better option and ensures at least most of what you paid for will actually get in their mouth. 
Some awesome foods that should be in more lunchboxes are hummus and pita, frozen peas, freeze-dried fruits and veggies, cheese and deli meat rolls, granola, soy “peanut” butter, leftover dinners, small bagels, hard boiled eggs, chips and veggies with guacamole and even soups that come in the same microwavable containers but are a much healthier and balanced option. All preschool teachers want what’s best for their students, we do this job because we love them, we put up with tough working conditions and crap pay for them. Don’t feel like you need to make our lives easier by providing microwavable meals, it may be a little more work to prepare a balanced lunch on both ends, but it is worth it to know a child is eating healthy and can focus on learning and having fun in preschool, after all, it’s what the parents are paying for.
Our guest blogger blogs at: Child Care Confidential
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78 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: Preschool lunches

  1. I am the guest blogger and I am absolutely amazed at the comments my fruit cup issue has generated. I do have plenty of nice things to say and people often joke I am a "parent advocate" because I spend so much of my professional time trying to make their lives easier.

    If you would like to comment to me directly this is the link to my blog, where I talk about more than fruit cups lol.

    And to the people who say "your opinion doesn't count because you don't have children"…I would honestly love to see you handle a classroom of 25 hyperactive 3 year olds who are hopped up on pudding, go-gurt, and fruit so processed it has a shelf life of 2 years.

  2. I would love to have my daughter at your preschool! Mine does not allow lunches that must be refrigerated or heated (so I can't send milk with her!). I am not to send anything in glass (like the homemade "fruit cups" I home can each summer), and single serving drinks are actually listed as preferable to the little plastic bottles of home juiced fruit & veggie juice that my daughter would prefer. The school will not peel, cut, or otherwise "prepare" foods for the kids. I sent in a banana & it came right back home because my toddler can't open it herself. I wish more schools were like yours!

  3. "Parents need to stop trying to justify feeding their children this stuff. If you wanted convenience, you shouldn't have had children."

    Rosa, are you kidding me??! So, if all I can manage just after I've had major abdominal surgery is to send my kid to school with a lunchable (the kind with turkey and "cheese" and no dessert) and an apple (even though I consistently send healthy foods the other 51 weeks of the year), I should have chosen not to have children? How self-righteous can you be?! Shame on you.

  4. This kind of makes me feel a bit sad that I might be judged badly because I give my toddler 'fruit cups' and juice. Even though the fruit cups are only fruit and water (with ascorbic acid) people are just going to see that it is indeed 'fruit' and in a 'cup' and the juice is 100% pure- 1 part juice, 4 parts water but yes it is still juice.

    I (and both my sisters) have what is called Oral Allergy Syndrome which means I CANNOT eat any uncooked fruit or vegetable apart from apples and pears, lettuce sometimes. I can get most of my fruits from juices, and cooking them but it means yeah, I do keep Mott's cups and some canned fruits on hand. I am surprised to find out that means I might be labeled as not having enough time or care to feed my daughter properly. Believe me, unless we are out of fresh fruit, I'M the one choking down the canned stuff because I spend so long making her food.

    There are tons of parents feeding their children worse things than (unsweetened) fruit cups and real juice!

  5. In response to people defending sending fruit cups several time a week-
    I'm sorry, if you can't (and won't) spend 2 minutes of your day cutting up a few pieces of apple, a strawberry, and a few pieces of banana into a bag or cup for your child then you are a sad parent. These little people depend on you. You're supposed to do whatever you can to keep them healthy.

    I mean, I spend more time than that making cat food for my cat every night. And she's a cat. A CAT. MY CAT GETS FOOD THAT IS MORE NUTRITIOUS AND TIME CONSUMING THAN YOUR CHILDREN.
    That makes me sad.
    Bad parents find excuses. Good parents find solutions.

  6. YES! What about those lunchables that some parents (no offense) send to field trips (when I was in elementary/middle school)? It's a snack, not lunch!

  7. I eat & feed my 1 yr old fruit that is packed in pineapple juice-no more sugar than if we had a glass of juice (less actually since the qty of juice in a fruit cup or a serving from a can is much less than a serving) along with our fruit.

    And most preschools accept children age 3-5, these kids are old enough to know how to eat a Gogurt, 6 of my 19 nieces and nephews are right around 2.5-5yoa and all of them eat the gogurts just fine when they get them for snacks-less mess than when the younger of the group try to eat yogurt with a spoon.

    And the additives in gogurt are similar to those in many fruit cups, unless you pay the extra 1-2 dollars for the "Simply Gogurts" which have no added artificial sweeteners etc.

  8. Just a tip for sending whole fruit with preschoolers: I "started" clementines by peeling back a small piece of skin. And with bananas, I made a small knife cut just below the stem. This way my daughter could easily peel them herself.

    Spoonfed: Raising kids to think about the food they eat

  9. Hey, non-mother, do some research from the other side of the story! While your little daycare center may encourage parents to send in leftovers that you would willingly reheat and serve, look around you! I have been packing lunches for over 15 years and I have never seen a school (public or private) that would ever be willing to do something like this! And really, when you send in items that need refridgeration, they tell you that they don't have that option. They will tell you to pack an ice pack. I've tried over and over ad naseum to send fruit and cold cuts with the ice pack and can tell you-it's not the same as refridgeration! Be careful how quickly you point the finger at the parents-the schools themselves play a huge role in this problem.

  10. "I have personally noticed that the kids who eat a more balanced meal are generally the ones who behave better and therefore learn more."
    Have you ever thought this is because the kids who are eating better are coming from more stable homes? Yes, food does play a role in behavior but it isn't everything. This entire post sounded far to classist for my taste.
    Besides that, trying to get a 4 year old to eat guacamole?…

  11. I am appalled at the food that our nation's youngest children eat, both provided by their parents and day care centers. My daughter is almost 2 and has never eaten things like chicken nuggets (except for maybe the occassional mcdonald's treat with grandparents) and yogurt in a tube. We dedicate 15 minutes every evening to packing a healthy lunch for our daughter that includes meatballs, fresh fruit and veggies, turkey and cheese roll-ups, yo-baby yogurt (which has a healthy amount of probiotics!), etc. Recently our day care started providing hot lunch in addition to snacks and she gets things like veggies and hummus dip, whole grain waffles, homemade whole grain mac and cheese, and other healthy options. My husband and I don't always have the healthiest eating habits, but we make it a priority to instill them in our daughter. I think it is one of the most important things a parent can do for their child. It's not always easy to send these items, but with an good insulated lunch box and ice pack, things are fine. And we heat up leftovers and put them in a thermos in the morning. I grew up with this method and still pack my lunch the same way for myself every day!

  12. I don't get some of these comments about food and behavior. There is solid, undisputed evidence that kids who eat wholesome food without additives, food dyes and excess sugar behave better and perform better in school. That's just the truth (not to mention common sense).

    Also, folks, please stop saying things like "4-year-olds won't eat guacamole." Plenty of 4-year-olds will and do eat guacamole and other stereotypically "non-kid" food. These kinds of generalizations contribute to the food mess we have in this country, including the state of school food.

    If adults think kids will eat only certain kinds of foods, that's all the adults feed them, so of course it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But come on, let's give our kids a little credit.

    Spoonfed: Raising kids to think about the food they eat

  13. I do agree with everything you said, except for your comment about pudding. Pudding can be bought without sugar and low in fat. I find it a tasty way to add some extra calcium into a diet.

  14. It is easy for you to say. It's not easy for parents, especially parents who work 2-3 jobs! I've seen MY mom work just to have dinner on the table! It's not easy to provide and "cut up pieces of fruit" for kids who are at their pickiest stage! Especially when you don't have the time. And being a nanny and an actual parent are two different things! You are not the one actually cooking/making the lunces so please spare me this self-righteous, judgemental crap you have going on. This infuriates me that you can go on judging parents when you aren't one yourself! Spare everyone all this blaming and finger-pointing.

  15. I was at a baptism this weekend and a 3 year old boy and a 5 year old girl was running around. When they started serving food, instead of the usual salty things the children only ate the cherry tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers (they were nicely cut into little sticks). I was really amazed, only after they finished all the tomatoes did the kids start to eat other things. Also when it came to desert, I saw the father trying to give the kids some sweets, and the girl pointed to freshly cut up fruit, and said she would prefer that!!! It was really amazing to watch. We should give some credit to children. And this was a family who had 3 kids (the youngest one just started walking).

  16. You people are ridiculous. I work more then full time (I'm an EM resident), my husband does the same. We don't have a babysitter, aside from day care. We still manage to feed our kids nutrious food, and don't send all this bullshit convinence food with our kids to day care. You can't spend two seconds to cut up some strawberries? Please stop having kids.

  17. Wow, I'm amazed at some of the responses to this post! I worked for just shy of ten years as a preschool teacher in a daycare setting, and observed what was packed for hundreds of children in their lunch boxes, day after day. Lunchables, go-gurts, individual bags of Freetos/Doritos/Chips, gummy snacks…the list goes on. The guest poster is right on in her assessment that these non-lunches DO negatively affect the behavior of the children who eat them.

    I did not have children of my own until my last year of teaching, so no, I did not know first hand what it was like to get a child out the door in the morning. But I can tell you that I learned so much from my years teaching — I saw first hand what worked and what didn't, and it has had an enormous impact on how I parent my child now. It IS possible to prepare healthier lunches that are not dependent on chemical-laden, highly processed foods. It takes a little forethought, sure, and some prep the night before. But it can be done.

    To the commenter who snarked that what four-year old would eat guacamole…my two-year-old eats guacamole. As does my two-year-old niece. And my five-year-old nephew.

  18. When my youngest (9 this month) was in preschool, I sent her with the same meal every day: turkey hot dog cut in bite size pieces, green beans, and cut fruit. It didn't have to be heated, just served as is. Imagine my surprise when her teachers told me she had the healthiest lunch off all the students. Go figure.

  19. The picture of the mac & cheese with Cheetohs and juicebox makes me so sad. I worked in daycare for many years as a teenager, and I will never forget the chubby little 1-year-old "Tyler" whose mom sent him in with the same lunch EVERY day: Bologna, cut into pieces; American cheese single, cut into pieces; Ritz Bitz crackers.

    That was IT! And he was only 1 – just learning to eat finger foods. They're not even picky at that stage, usually, so this is a great age to take advantage of a palate that thinks all variety of fruits and veggies are exciting and delicious!

    Because we knew he didn't have any food allergies, we would occasionally sneak him grapes, carrots, strawberries, etc. from our own lunches, and he always gobbled them up.

    We hinted to Mom that "Maybe Tyler would like some fruit with his lunch, he sure loved the taste we gave him today," but she never did send him with fruit – or veggies.

    I'm sure it was just an effort issue – produce needs to be peeled, cut, etc. Still, it broke my heart to see a healthy baby go from breast milk and Beech Nut jarred foods one month to full-fledged American junk diet the next, for no reason other than he had finally developed the teeth to be able to chew it!


  20. Dear Anonymous E: Thank you for your brilliant insight. Because I feed my daughter the occasional "bullshit" fruit cup, I will now sever my fallopian tubes. This conversation? I'm over it.

  21. To all the people who say they don't have time to pack healthy meals. Do you watch TV? You could easily take 5-10 minutes of your tv watching time to pack a healthy meal for your child.
    My 2 1/2 year old eats guacamole, as does my 5 year old nephew, and the 3 year old I babysit.
    To the person that has Oral Allergy Syndrome: I too, have OAS. Its no fun. I have to stay clear of nuts and certain fruit during the Spring/Fall unless its baked. My child is allergic to raspberries, apples, cinnamon, & nutmeg. You may be able to eat frozen fruit that is baked in the oven or microwave. It doesn't have to come from a fruit cup.

  22. If people need some good ideas for packing lunches, check out
    Everything can be modified (obviously) but it gives great ideas for presenting food in a way kids will enjoy.

    All this complaining about having 'no time' is ridiculous. I work 30 hours a week and go to school full time during the day. Oh, and I get up extra early to go to the gym three times a week.

    I manage to make my breakfast, lunch and dinner the night before. I make large quantities of rice, grill several pieces of chicken, hardboil some eggs, cut up carrots etc. I make healthy muffins on the weekend, large batches of homemade granola with berries and coconut. So when it's time for me to make things it only takes about 1/2 an hour for all three.

    If you want to see how healthy your kids really are, try tracking their nutrition at sparkpeople. I think you might be surprised.

    When I found I was pressed for time, I started logging what I was doing and when. I found lots of wasted time and cleaned up my schedule. If you can't find 1/2 a night to spare for your children, maybe try doing that?
    Or start packing a healthy lunch once a week. Then twice a week. then three times a week. It becomes easier as you learn to do it.

    I just don't understand this "I give up! Too hard! You can't judge" attitude. Kids are hard work and time consuming. Why did you have them if you can't even bother to help them thrive?

  23. Anyone who punctuates their accusations against parents with phrases like "Why did you ever have them?" or "Please stop having them," or "You shouldn't have had kids," immediately loses their prospective audience. No one ever changed their behavior as a result of the contempt of anonymous strangers on the internet. If you choose to communicate so disrespectfully, then be aware that the only benefit of your discourse is your personal satisfaction in being able to look down on someone else. If you really care about children, try offering your suggestions without telling people how stupid they are for not having implemented them already!

  24. I particularly appreciate the comment just above the one I'm writing now.

    So much horrifically negative judgement here against anyone who deviates from these imagined, specific "guidelines" for feeding children. The food Nazis are out in force.

    For those of you who are so hateful toward your fellow moms, answer the following questions for me. Do you put your children in institutionalized daycare? When is the last time you took your children to church? Are your children in stimulating extracurricular activities?

    Do you read chapter books with your school-aged children every night? Are you actively involved at your kids' school? Do you volunteer in the community, and bring your kids along to teach them about giving? Have you saved adequately for your children's college education?

    See, I could judge YOU on the answers to each of these questions. (But I won't, because I think sharing information is more helpful than name-calling.) And I would argue that every single one of these issues is more important than whether my kid occasionally eats a fruit cup.

  25. My son is in 2nd grade now and after finding this blog I am looking at his lunches and it's easy for me since I work at the school. I am in the process of making changes and he will be packing a lot more next year.
    When he was in preschool I had to provide lunch and we sometimes did the microwave meals (kids cuisine and easy mac, etc) I also did homemade lunches from day before dinner. He especially loved Mondays because he would take what my dad cooked for us on Sunday. His teachers were jealous that he was bringing in Mushroom Risotto, Spaghetti with homemade sauce or even meatloaf because they told me it always smelled so good and looked great. I have to get back to those meals for my kids instead of the school lunches just because they are eligible for free lunches.

    I thank everyone who contributes on here when the author is taking a break and all the reader's comments. I am learning so much!

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