Nutritious Meal and Snack Ideas for Children at Your Childcare Center

November 14, 2022

Providing nutrient-dense meals and snacks for growing children is an important role of the childcare provider. In the following guide, we have compiled a list of nourishing meal and snack ideas by age group to help you round out the menu at your early learning center. Read on to find out more. 

Children Birth to 6 Months 

Note: The following nutritional guidelines for children are based on the recommendations of renowned pediatrician, Dr. William Sears in The Baby Book, authored by Dr. Sears, Martha Sears, RN, Robert Sears, MD, and James Sears, MD. 

For babies from birth to six months of age, breast milk and/or iron-fortified formula satisfies all nutritional requirements, and solid foods are not necessary for optimal nutrition. 

Infants at your childcare center may be exclusively breastfed. In this case, parents may want you to store and feed Mom’s breastmilk from a bottle. In addition, Mom may want to come into your childcare center before, during, or after the childcare day to nurse her baby. 

Infants at your childcare center may be fed a combination of breastmilk and formula. Parents will specify their child’s feeding preferences to you. Decide how you will implement them. 

Otherwise, infants you care for may be exclusively formula-fed. Communicate with parents about the formula they provide for their baby and how they would like you to feed him or her while at daycare. Practice safe handling of formula (and breastmilk) at all times. 

Children 6 Months 

The age of six months is typically the time when pediatricians recommend starting children on solid food. It can be quite an adventure! Let’s take a look at some great options for baby’s first foods.

Food items that are strained or pureed are ideal. Offering a fingertipful or small spoonful of the following foods is a good way to begin:

  • bananas
  • pears
  • avocados 
  • peaches
  • applesauce
  • carrots
  • squash
  • sweet potatoes

Good communication with baby’s parents will help your childcare team know what some of baby’s favorite first foods are and what parents would like their baby to try next. Rotating foods, avoiding mixed foods, and skipping out on added salt and sugar are wise guidelines to follow with the brand-new solid foods eater. 

Children 7 to 9 Months

As babies become accustomed to solid foods for the first time, parents and caregivers can enjoy introducing them to a whole new world of nutrient-dense whole foods. Here are some ideas to try at your childcare center with children who are approximately seven to nine months of age:

  • peaches
  • carrots
  • squash
  • prunes
  • sweet potatoes or yams
  • mashed potatoes
  • barley cereal
  • rice cereal 

Children at this age may begin drinking from a cup and holding a bottle. This is also the age when finger foods begin. Pureed and mashed foods are still an appropriate presentation at meal-time. Keep an eye out for choking! 

Children 9 to 12 Months

The world of solid foods expands even more for children who are nine to twelve months of age. In addition to the fruit and vegetable-heavy first foods of earlier months, baby’s parents and caregivers may wish to introduce some or all of the following:

  • fish, especially salmon
  • lamb, veal
  • poultry
  • rice cakes
  • eggs
  • cheese
  • yogurt
  • tofu
  • beans
  • peas
  • oatmeal
  • spinach

Children begin to accept food with a lumpier consistency. They work toward mastery of finger foods. Bite-sized cooked vegetables and melt-in-the-mouth foods are appropriate food presentations. 

At this age, self-feeding skills improve, and babies learn to hold a bottle and cup longer. Babies will point, poke at, and smear their food. The messier the meal, the more fun for baby! While baby may try to use utensils, he or she will spill lots. High-chair gymnastics are common as well. Patience is key! 

As a reminder, babies under one year of age should not be given the following foods at daycare, or anytime:

  • nut butters
  • cow’s milk
  • shellfish
  • honey
Children 12 to 18 Months 

By the time children turn a year old until around 18 months, the variety of foods they may try increases exponentially. This can be an exciting time for baby, parents, and caregivers alike. Expect children to go at their own pace. Keep a record of foods tried, favorite foods, and foods to offer or avoid based on the parents’ preferences. Here are some food items to keep in mind for nutritious meals and snacks at this age:

  • whole milk
  • cottage cheese
  • ice cream
  • beef
  • broccoli
  • cauliflower
  • melon
  • mango
  • kiwi
  • papaya
  • apricots
  • grapefruit
  • grape halves
  • strawberries
  • tomatoes
  • pasta
  • graham crackers
  • wheat cereal
  • honey
  • pancakes
  • muffins
  • bagels

At this stage, children are likely to participate more in family meals or community meals at daycare. Toddlers will eat chopped and mashed foods. They will begin self-feeding with utensils. They may also enjoy trying different seasonings and spices on their foods. 

During meal time, toddlers may have a prolonged attention span. The typical “I want to do it myself” desire intensifies. They may tilt a cup and their head while drinking, learning how to spill less. Even though they may hold a spoon better, they will probably spill lots. As toddlers begin walking, they may not want to sit still and eat for long periods of time. Grazing is common! 

Especially when introducing foods that are highly allergenic for some children, such as dairy, wheat, and nuts, be vigilant about observing the child’s reaction to certain foods at this stage. Understand what the child has tried already at home and how parents feel about him or her trying these potentially allergenic foods at daycare. Keep a log of behaviors and signs of general health during this stage and be sure to rotate allergenic foods so the toddler is not consuming too much of one food item. 

Also, expect “picky eating” and erratic food behaviors to develop at this stage or earlier. Food preferences and aversions are a normal part of child development. Work with parents to come up with strategies for helping children discover new foods without pressure or force. 

Children 18 to 24 Months, and Beyond

At the height of the “picky eater” stage, creativity is key at home and at daycare in order to help children eat nutrient-dense meals and snacks. Let’s take a look at some winning foods for the 18 to 24-month-old, and beyond:

  • sandwiches
  • nutritious puddings
  • dips, toppings, and spreads 
  • soups and stews
  • sauces
  • smoothies and shakes
  • pâté 

Presenting food in a fun, appealing way is key, so try offering a clever spin on common foods, like:

  • avocado boats 
  • cooked carrot wheels
  • cheese blocks 
  • broccoli trees
  • toast sticks
  • cookie-cutter sandwiches
  • canoe eggs

Finally, keep in mind these safe feeding tips from Dr. Sears for toddlers one year and older:

  • Avoid stringy foods, like celery and green beans. 
  • Pick out fish bones before mashing fish. 
  • Bananas or other melt-in-the-mouth frozen foods are safe and natural teethers. 
  • Spread nut butters well. 
  • Cut meat and poultry against the grain. 
  • Check the chunks. 
  • Supervise the eating of finger foods. 

Avoid the following chokable foods:

  • nuts
  • seeds
  • popcorn kernels
  • hot dogs (whole or chunks) 
  • hard beans
  • hard candies
  • raw carrots
  • raw apples
  • whole grapes
  • unripe pears
  • stringy foods
  • meat chunks 

For more information about nutritional food choices for young children at your childcare center, consider the following recommended resources from the Sears Parenting Library:

  • The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood: Ten Ways to Get Your Family on the Right Nutritional Track 
  • The N.D.D. Book: how Nutrition Deficit Disorder Affects Your Child’s Learning, Behavior, and Health, and What You Can Do About It—Without Drugs
  • The Omega-3 Effect: Everything You Need to Know About the Supernutrient for Living Longer, Happier, and Healthier 
  • The Family Nutrition Book: Everything You Need to Know About Feeding Your Children—From Birth to Age Two

We hope this guide will get you and your childcare team thinking about creative ways to incorporate nutritious meals and snacks by age and stage of child development at your early learning center!

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