Guest blogger: It starts so young…

For 15 years, I worked as a teacher and center director at two of the largest child care providers in the United States. Although you might think that the nutrition in child care and preschool centers is much better, you are not correct. Early childhood is the time of rapid development, discovery of the world around us and the time when most kids are just beginning to figure out who they are. It would make sense to have well rounded, healthy nutrition in the countires preschool and child care centers but unfortunately, it is not.

One of my daily challenges as the director of a child care and preschool center was maintaining a budget. Just like those cafeterias in the public school system, it is all about the budget. Athough it was my job to stay on budget, I often felt guilty with what these kids were fed. State licensing laws in California mandate that the children are fed a daily mix of protein, fruits, veggies and dairy products but there is not a set limit on calories or fat levels.

In order to maintain a budget, you have to go with what is cheap. Since your monthly budget in a preschool is based on the number of children you have enrolled, so it pays to have a school that is as full to capacity as possible because that will give you the “extra” money for not only supplies like crayons and markers but also food. When I ran a school that was close to capacity (I had 125 children enrolled and school capacity was about 145), my menus were full of yummy treats like green salad, pasta salad full of fresh veggies, homemade favorites like lasagna and BBQ chicken sandwiches. We also had homemade cookies sweetend with apple sauce not sugar and kabobs with fresh fruit. It was easy to make healthy choices for the kids and in three years, I never had a complaint about food and often parents asked for recipes we served, to make at home.
In contrast when I was assigned to a struggling school that had an enrollment of 50 or so (capacity was about 165), there was no way to stay close to budget and be nutritious. I was not the director but the assistant director and most days, I would not even eat the food. It was everything on the cheap, chicken nuggets, fruit cocktail in heavy syrup, packaged cookies and sometimes a trail mix of dry breakfast cereals and juice for snack. At one point the director even ordered the cook to serve either fruit (it was the canned kind in heavy syrup) or veggies because it cut the cost of each meal to a more manageable budgeteed amount.
In both cases this food is served to all children that eat table foods. So babies that don’t have food sent from home are fed the same meals and staff simply finely chop the foods for them to eat. So little ones (around age nine months of age or so) were eating processed, sugar-ridden foods before they were even one year of age. Now on the outside looking in I realize how crazy this is! My own son was in the young toddler program and had many problems going to the restroom, sleeping and even having good behavior. I think now that it was not only the environment but also the food that he ate daily while in care.
Parents with young children should investigate the salt, sugar and fat content that their infants, toddlers and preschoolers are eatting. I think that they would be shocked! No child should be eating that much fat and salt laden, processed food at one year old. It is sad to see our littlest people being taught that chicken nuggets, fruit cocktail and crackers are suitable lunch and that juice is the only beverage of choice unless you are eatting lunch.

Our children’s poor nutrition starts young, too young. The cycle is created for many when they are not even old enough to talk. Parents need to rally in all areas of education and care to meet the needs of our children to teach and facilitate healthy nutrition which is something that can stay with them for a lifetime.

When I left the child care and preschool industry and became a stay at home mom, my son who was about one and a half, also left care. During this time he had a lot of problems sleeping, was almost always constipated and often in care was “wild” for no apparent reason. Once he was at home with me, things changed. He got homemade meals everyday, was limited on sugar and was given choices. His choices were often carrots or green beans or a choice of low fat ranch dressing or tomato sauce for his chicken breast. When I saw that he was actually learning to make “healthy choices” as well as think independantly it made something click inside. Maybe all his issues were based on all the processed foods, sugar filled foods he was served in preschool and insisted on eatting at home. Maybe I was not only changing his diet but teaching him how to make better choices when it came to food.
This made me make some changes in our whole family’s diet. We are not rich, not by any means but we found a way to always include fresh fruit, freah veggies and lean proteins in our shopping every week. We changed to whole grains, we cut out salt, switched to lean turkey and chicken instead of beef and even added in more fish to our diets. Our son fell in love with our morning breakfasts of egg whites with sliced tomato or steel cut oats topped with strawberries, blueberries and cinnamon. He started asking for salmon and the “tan rice” (brown rice) for dinner. He refused to eat the chicken nuggets, fish sticks and processed foods the other kids ate while at play dates. We even switiched kid favorite like jelly/jam, syrup and lollipops to sugar free types. We started having salads a few times a week as a main dish and ate high carb things like pasta as a side dish rather than a main dish.
Our son’s behavior changed as well as his sleep patterns. He also began to have regular “movements” that were normal and didn’t make him cry. When our second son was born and started to eat table foods we commited ourselves to even having his rice cereal be whole grains. We thought if we did that, we might never have to “recondition” him as we had with our oldest.
It actually has not made that big of an impact on our budget. We eat seasonally, or in some cases such as blueberries, buy frozen. Looking back on our diets both the one our oldest ate in preschool and the one that our family ate I realize it really was not that hard to make a change. This does not mean that we have never again eaten Mickey D’s or had ice cream but when looking at the whole picture, we have made a BIG change. It has made us all healthy and our kids now make much better choices when it comes to food.

Today’s guest blogger: For over 15 years I worked in the preschool industry as a teacher, infant care provider and eventually as a center director. I learned a lot from the parents, children and educators that I worked with over the years but now have moved on to raising and teaching my own children at home as a Stay-at-Home Mom (by far the hardest job I have ever had). I enjoy sharing my knowledge of the preschool world with everyone I can and currently write a blog called Preschool Mommy and am a Featured Parenting Contributor on Associated Content, a local writer for Examiner on the topics of Motherhood and Preschool and write on occasion for the AOL site Holidash.

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16 thoughts on “Guest blogger: It starts so young…

  1. I too worked in a large childcare center and I am appalled at all the processed foods that the children are given. Like the center you worked at the quality of the food is based on the budget and since our center participated and funds received from the governments food program we were forced to serve food groups a certain way and must serve whole milk to all the children even the school age kids. There is no limit on the amount of milk the children can drink and often times if they don't like the lunch they will have 3-5 small 6 oz. cups of whole milk!

    Breakfast is always a sugary cereal, pop tart, or pancakes. Lunch is chicken nuggets, hot dogs, fish sticks, canned ravioli, tater tots, frozen mac and cheese served with fruit cocktail and/or canned veggie. Snacks almost always consist of some type of packaged cookie, cracker, chips or pretzels. There is also no limit rule in place for seconds so if a child wants to eat 10 chicken nuggets they are allowed to do so. In my classroom we served the recommended serving size on the package but other classrooms do not. Even still is a serving of nuggets the same for a 2 year old as it is for a 5 year old? I think not!

    We did get a new cook a little while ago who had nutrition concerns about what the kids eat. She would make pasta, pot roast, oven roasted potatoes, fresh fruits, carrots and baked chicken breast. Most of the kids really enjoy the new homestyle cooking and are trying new things. However we still have to serve all the old foods much of the time because of budget concerns. I just hope that somehow we are able to keep adding healthier less processed foods to the kids.They really need to be feed better at day care especially since they eat most of their meals here. Thanks for bringing more awareness to this issue it sits very near and dear to me.

  2. Yep my wife and I just went through this with my son’s day care. My son just “graduated” from the infant room and into the toddler room, where they feed the children from a catering service. They wanted us to move our son to this food and stop bringing in his own food.

    I checked the site, here is the link if anyone is interested, and found they at least put the nutritional information on the site however it was just bad, bad news. Here is my email response to the daycare:

    Thank you, we are very concerned with him eating school lunches, unfortunately most of what is on the menu is probably heavily processed foods, formed with fillers, corn syrup, artificial colorings and flavorings, ect. this is exactly what we do not want to feed him. We feel very strongly about feeding him the best we can and we want him to continue to bring lunches from home.

    According to the Fairfax food service site the ingredient list for the Chicken teriyaki contains:
    Chicken, water, teriyaki sauce (soy sauce (water, soybeans, wheat, salt, sodium benzcate). sugar, water, distilled vinegar, modified food starch, pineapple juice concentrate, soybean oil, caramel color, xanthan gum, garlic powder, sodium benzoate, spice and natural flavor).Vegetable protein product (soy protein concentrate, sinc oxide, niacinamide, ferrous sulfate, copper glucomate, vitamin A palmitate, calcium pantothemate, thiamine mononitrate (B1), pyridoxine hydrochloride (B6), riboflavin (B2), and cyanocoralamin (B12), seasoning (corn syrup solids, brown sugar, salt, dextrose, vinegar powder (maltodextrin, modified corn starch, dried vinegar), garlic powder, onion powder, chicken type flavor (hydrolyzed corn cluten, autolyzed yeast extract, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil, thiamine hydrochloride, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate)), sodium phosphates. Contains soy, corn

    I bolded what we don't consider food and do not think he should consume, it is just scary to us and not something we want him eating.

    Thank you,

    I took the names out of the email. They understood our concerns and will let us continue supplying home food for our son. I just feel bad for all the other kids.

  3. Whole milk is good for small children. Practically perfect. Small children need the full fat milk for brain development. The Whole milk those kids are drinking is much better for them than the processed foods they are serving at the day care centers.

    All this day care processed food talk makes me want to make sure my grandkids come to my house instead of day care. I find it scary.

    Thanks for the eye opener on Day Care food!

  4. Preschool Mommy, when we know better, we do better. I like the point you made about your entire family eating better once you made improvements in your family's diet for your son's sake. Many thanks for opening our eyes and starting a dialogue on the issues faced by those who feed preschoolers. It's crazy what some people feed our tiniest, most vulnerable kids.

    P;S. I love that photo of the guy in the high chair having a spaghetti party!

  5. What a great post! I found the insight you gave on Day Care Food Service really interested. Also, I very much appreciated your points about how early diet has an impact on behavior AND how it is possible to "recondition" food preferences. Awesome job!

  6. Scary, Azgar! "Autolyzed yeast extract" is code for monosodium glutamate (MSG), which can trigger varying health problems in a lot of people. At least four different sweeteners in there makes me wonder how high sugar would be on the list of ingredients if they were compounded.

  7. I too used to work at a daycare center, one of the big-name ones. My center served a lot of kids from lower-income homes. On my first day, I was watching training videos when the school cook was kind enough to bring me lunch, Swedish meatballs over rice. The meatballs made me gag. I love meatballs, but I have never tasted or experienced a texture like these.

    The food was similar to what the others posting here have described. My concern isn't so much what was served for lunch (not that it was good), but the "snacks." Twice a day, in the morning and afternoon. It was usually "juice" that was really Kool-Aid and animal crackers. And the breakfast (which some kids ate in addition to breakfast at home) was usually french toast sticks with syrup, pancakes with syrup or sugary cereals.

    Another thing that bothered me is I mentioned my concerns to other teachers several times, looking for an ally, and every time would be laughed at and told I was silly and worried too much.

    But this was probably the best the school could offer. As I said, it served a lot of low-income kids, and healthier food would have likely meant a tuition hike. Projects like Jamie Oliver's give me some hope, though.

  8. sugar free syrups? that is code word for artificial sweeteners. i would think some one in favor of better nutrition would be wary of those chemical cocktails. i know the writers heart is in the right place but aspartame, sucralose, etc. are far from natural and i question their safety. not something i would ever feed my children.

  9. I worked for three large daycares over the years and felt the same way about the food. My five year old stepson always had major behavior problems at daycare, and this summer we decided to try removing artificial colors from his diet. It has worked wonders in the last month. We will continue not to eat those things! I have learned many ways to get around it, so he won't be left out at school for parties and things, I will just send a treat in for him. He will definitely be bringing lunches from home for kindergarten.

  10. I agree with Ellen. I was with the author until she mentioned that the family changed to sugar-free syrup and jams. Why not just stay as close to nature as possible instead of introducing chemicals into your childrens diet?

  11. Great post 🙂 My kids (especially my daughter) definitely act better when they eat better.

    I try to avoid artificial sweeteners though. I don't feel comfortable with them, but also we have some family members allergic to various ones, so I feel it's better to be safe. For jelly we use fruit preserve that's sweetened with juice concentrate. We don't eat syrup very often but when we do it's real maple syrup.

    Lollipops are eaten so rarely, I don't care what they are, lol!

  12. We do try and avoid artificial sweeteners! We eat sugar free syrup only a few times a month and really use a puree of fresh berries sweetened with OJ most of the time. You have to take baby steps. When my son got out of school he was a little too into syrup. I found out a couple weeks later that the teacher had been putting syrup into his Cheerios to make them "sweet" and also that she has been pouring it over the steamed carrots at lunch. It took me so long to get him to eat carrots after that. The last time he ate "real maple syrup" he vomited and complained of a tummy ache so I stay away from that. I think that you have to make small changes in your diet and re-train yourself to not eat those foods. lately we have given up lollipops and my kids seem to be in love with dark chocolate, they would actually rather have that than a lollipop, which is still always a "treat".

  13. My son is in group day care and I pack his meal and snacks every day for just this reason. I'd rather he have my homemade sweet potato slices and fresh fruit rather than canned fruits and veggies any day! It really doesn't take me more than 5 minutes to make a healthy lunch, and I bake a batch of healthy muffins or banana bread on the weekend to serve as snack during the week.

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