Photo source: woodleywonderworks on Flickr
Last week, Pediatrician Dr. Joanna Dolgoff offered a few ideas for managing concerns about the quality of daycare food on my Ask the Expert column. She suggested several interesting questions for parents to ask to make sure their daycare meets their standards on nutrition. Her post sparked several new ideas, which I have combined in this post with our experiences with the daycare our twins go to. Feel free to offer your ideas and experiences with your daycare.
1. Make nutrition a criteria for selection
When selecting a daycare, parents usually consider referrals from friends, location, safety, staff qualifications and experience, hygiene, cost, teaching curriculum and class size as the most important criteria. These are indeed quite important, but when it comes to the quality and healthfulness of food, daycare centers span a very broad range of standards. Keep nutrition at the top of your list and assign it the same level of priority as if you were taking care of your child at home. What she eats at the daycare – and more importantly, how she is fed – will affect not only her daily mood but also her growth and long term health. Surely it cannot become the only criteria, but it should have the right level of relative importance compared to other criteria when deciding on a daycare.
2. Be informed and ask questions
Daycare centers must meet several licensing requirements to operate and stay in business. Each state may have different requirements for nutrition, which you can find on daycare.com. For example, the licensing requirements in my home state Florida stipulate that “if a facility chooses to supply food, they shall provide nutritious meals and snacks of a quantity and quality to meet the daily nutritional needs of the children”. It is common for daycare centers to follow the USDA Food Pyramid Guide in developing their menus. But they can be fairly open to interpretation and vary in the selection of foods across various food groups.
Ask for the meal and snack menus and review them for types of foods being served during the year. Do you see enough fruits and vegetables? Are they fresh or canned? Is there enough variety of foods? Are there a lot of processed foods on the menu? Ask for nutritional information to understand if there is excessive salt, sugar or fat (especially trans fats) in the meals. What is a typical serving size? Do they keep a record of how much your child ate at each meal during the day? Keep a close eye on these records and notice any changes in her appetite in response to different types of foods.
Develop a routine to ask your child what she ate during the day as you bring her home. We play this game in the car on our way home and it is great fun to hear our 3-year-old twins tell us what they did and what they ate during the day and if they liked it! You can learn a lot simply by asking questions.
3. Share expectations and special needs
It is important to communicate clearly and on a regular basis with your daycare manager. When you ask questions about nutrition and food quality, you communicate to them that it is important to you. And when it comes to special dietary needs and food allergies, it is even more critical to provide every single detail, no matter how small. Restrictions such as no meat, no dairy, no eggs, no fish or known food allergies need to be maintained on file and posted in the classroom for staff to refer and follow each day. Check the accuracy of these records and notify them if corrections or changes need to be made over time. Review the menu to make sure your child will still have enough options to choose from at each meal. If not, ask if you can provide your own food and if they would be willing to store and serve it according to your directions.
It is also important to communicate preferences about food even if you know they may not be fulfilled in the short term. Tell them you prefer organic foods, fresh fruits, and vegetables, water over milk or juice if you consider them important for your child. There is no reason to assume that they will not consider changes to their menu in future if enough parents express such preference. It is, however, important to communicate your preferences not as demands or complaints, but as something you would want them to know that you care about.
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4. Get involved
It takes time and commitment, and we all live very busy lives, but there are many ways to get involved with your daycare management without overloading yourself. Recently, our daycare center asked us to volunteer a few hours during the year, which we first thought to be a burden, but later realized as an opportunity to strengthen our relationship and influence them to make future improvements. You can read stories to children if that is what you want, but you can also volunteer to help out in the kitchen. One mom, who works from home, recently introduced them to a simple vegetarian recipe and actually went there to cook it for the whole class! When you work together with them, you build a stake and ownership in their operation and “earn” the right to nudge them in the direction of your desires.
Show up for special events such as mother’s day or father’s day celebrations, and get to know other parents and teachers. Gently spread your ideas and build connections with those who share your thinking. Offer to lead a team for a volunteer project as you try to implement these ideas.
5. Seek win-win
The most important source of new business for daycare centers is referrals from satisfied parents. They are motivated to work with you to make improvements while managing their costs and compliance with regulations. If you see yourself simply as a “customer”, you will lose out on a great opportunity to leverage this motivation in making improvements. Instead, if you see yourself as a “partner”, you could build a relationship that benefits both. You need to understand their constraints and they need to understand your expectations. It is only through involvement that you can develop this understanding. What they want is happy parents, and what you want is something more than the basic daycare service.
Share your experiences with daycare and what has worked for you.