Menu Planning for Children: What to Consider

When it comes to menu planning for children, the most important factor is that it meets their nutritional needs. Carefully planning the foods you serve for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks from day to day and from week to week can ensure a variety of healthy, nutritious and tasty meal options that the children at your center are looking forward to eating. Menu planning also allows balanced and nutritionally appropriate meals to be served to the children in your center. From a management perspective, using standardized recipes can help control food and labor costs, inventory and purchases.

Child care centers that provide meals and snacks through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) play a critical role in supporting children's well-being, health, and development by providing them with nutritious food and beverages. All menus should incorporate a variety of nutritious foods in portions that meet the CACFP requirements for children in every age group. Cycle menus are a great way to ensure variety in meals. These menus usually last three to five weeks, although they can be for any period of time.

Using cycle menus can have a positive impact on the nutritional quality of meals, in addition to offering simplified aspects of budgeting and preparing food service. As an expert in menu planning, I recommend taking advantage of the many recipe resources available to child care food service staff that comply with the CACFP, have been tested on children, are affordable, and yet offer a variety of flavors, textures and colors. Because standardized recipes are always prepared the same way, using them can reduce food and labor costs. The National Institute of Food Service Management has published a reference guide for planning cyclical menus that you may want to download.

For example, according to the CACFP infant eating patterns, an example of a reimbursable breakfast should include foods containing milk, fruits and vegetables and cereals, served in the portions indicated for each age group. Additionally, lunch should include grains or breads, proteins such as meat or beans, vegetables or fruits, and dairy products. Snacks should include two components from two different food groups such as grains or breads with dairy products or fruits with proteins.