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Feature Articles—Child Care


Positive Nutrition Experiences for Children in Child Care

Sara Gable, Ph.D., Human Development and Family Studies, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia


Because children spend so much time in child care settings, these programs play an important role in children's attitudes toward health and nutrition. Positive nutrition and health experiences for young children focus on: providing nutritious foods, effectively arranging the eating environment, and appropriate adult behavior during meals.


Foods Served

Adult responsibility for child health and nutrition begins with providing a variety of nutritious foods. When a child attends child care for 8 or more hours per day, caregivers should seek to meet two-thirds of the child's nutritional needs with snacks and mealtimes (Nahikian-Nelms, 1997).


Mealtime Environment

Snacks and meals can be served in different ways. To promote children's learning about food and nutrition, experts recommend that children decide for themselves what to eat and how much to eat. Allowing children to make food selections and to serve themselves exercises children's small muscle coordination and helps them to regulate their own food intake. Experts also suggest that adults sit with children during snacks and meals and eat the same foods. To keep snacks and mealtimes fun, vary food presentation and mealtime routines. Three different variations include: family style, buffet style, and picnics. When making plans for snacks and meals, consider children's developmental abilities and needs.


Adult Behavior during Meals (Berman & Fromer, 1991; Nahikian-Nelms, 1997)

As with other settings for adult-child interaction, snacks and mealtimes present adults with a wonderful opportunity for teaching children and for maintaining secure relationships. Research indicates that certain adult behaviors and expectations correspond with the development of positive child attitudes toward food and nutrition.


Optimal Behaviors

  • Adults insure that all children wash hands before eating
  • Adults sit with the children during the meal or snack
  • Adults eat the same food as the children and uses the same utensils
  • Adults allow children to serve themselves
  • Adults encourage children to taste all food offered
  • Adults engage in pleasant conversation with children during meal
  • Adults use mealtimes as an opportunity to provide nutrition education
  • Adults encourage children to use proper mealtime manners and model these social conventions


Behaviors to Avoid

  • Adults do not hurry children to eat
  • Adults do not require children to taste all the foods offered before additional servings of any food are given
  • Adults do not force children to eat all the food offered
  • Food is not used as a reward, punishment, or pacifier
  • Televisions are turned off during mealtimes



Berman, C. & Fromer, J. (1997). Meals without squeals: Child care feeding guide and cookbook. Palo Alto, CA: Bull Publishing.


Nahikian-Nelms, M. (1997). Influential factor of caregiver behavior at mealtime: A study of 24 child-care programs. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 97, 505-509.



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