Daycare meals getting healthier
May 26, 2021
Contact: Caree Cotwright  | 706-542-3073  | More about Caree

They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but can serving kale and kiwi to preschoolers stave off obesity later in life? That’s what many childcare providers across the nation are working toward: serving nutritious meals.

New research from the University of Georgia looks at the quality of meals in early care and education (ECE) programs around the state of Georgia. The study examines whether the ECE programs were serving healthy foods and beverages and if meals were less nutritious in rural areas or programs serving minority or low-income children. 

The results were surprising. While obesity and hypertension rates vary by socioeconomic, demographic and geographic factors, the meals served at daycares didn’t.

“Geographically, we didn’t find any differences in the foods and beverages being served. That’s great,” said Caree Cotwright, an assistant professor in the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences and the study’s lead author.

“We do have a large number of children of color enrolled in Head Start. What’s good about that is Head Start is a federally funded early care education program for low-income families, so these programs have to meet specific standards. The standards have been improved, and better standards mean better foods for the children enrolled.”

“Many studies have found that the Child and Adult Care Food Program is protective and leads to healthier beverages and foods served in those programs. This research supports that.”

Healthy meals

Meals have moved from chicken nuggets and tater tots to brown turkey tacos with yellow rice, black beans, cheese, salsa and spinach instead of lettuce shreds.

Cooks are getting creative in their ways to incorporate lean proteins, whole grains, dairy, fruits and vegetables, according to Cotwright.

Under federal guidance through MyPlate, children are encouraged to “eat a rainbow”: dark leafy greens, red tomatoes, orange peppers, green kiwi and choices more varied from the traditional apples and grapes.

Cotwright especially wanted to see if the ECE programs were serving sugary beverages. Georgia is known for serving sweet tea, and sugary drinks are a source of extra calories. Her research showed that centers weren’t serving sugary drinks. They were serving milk, water and juice.

Disparities in obesity

Obesity disproportionately impacts children who are Black and Hispanic, live in rural communities and come from families with low income.

While 14% of white American children are obese, that figure jumps to 22% and 26% of Black and Latino American children. Researchers thought they’d find differences in the meals served, given these statistics, but the differences they found were subtle and small.

The odds of providing sweets, like donuts and cookies, increased by 0.6% as the percentage of Black children enrolled increased, but so did the amount of fruits, vegetables and protein served. Researchers say this wasn’t a significant finding.

Additionally, the odds of providers serving salty snacks (like chips and pretzels) decreased by 0.06% as the percentage of Black children increased. This particular finding may indicate increased awareness about high rates of hypertension among Black Americans, Cotwright said.

And what children eat during their preschool years can set their habits for life.

Why eating habits in preschool matter

By the time they reach school age, 20% of American children are overweight or classified as obese. Eating habits children begin when they are young can stay with them for life.

Over 60% of children under the age of 6 are enrolled in out-of-the-home care each week, the study said. More than 11 million children spend an average of 30 hours per week in early care and education. Some of these children receive up to two-thirds of their daily calories in this setting.

In 2010, experts were just beginning to talk about obesity as an issue in children under 6. But with increased screen time, children and their parents are facing new health challenges. 

“Now, providers are more aware and very interested,” said Cotwright. “They’re more willing to implement these changes because they want our kids to be healthier.”

UGA’s study builds on other studies that have found that since the Child and Adult Care Food revisions have been in place, implementing these standards has made mealtimes healthier for young children. 

Overall, the changes toward healthy meals for young children have been motivating and inspiring, she said. 

Part of the reason for the change in meals served at ECE programs is increased federal support. Many of the programs surveyed in the research (67% of respondents) are part of the Child and Adult Care Food Program. They are reimbursed for meals and snacks that meet the federal standard and are served to low-income children. In 2016, the program was revised to require greater varieties of fruits and vegetables and protein options, more whole grains and healthy beverages.

Federal training programs educate ECE providers, and chefs develop recipe suggestions for the center’s cooks. A sample menu on the national Child and Adult Care Food Program weekly email blast features sauteed spinach and tomatoes, served with West African Jollof Rice and Kati Kati chicken—all pared out into recipes for 6, 25 or 50 servings.

“We’re introducing cultural flavors from around the world from to children 0-5,” said Cotwright. “I never would have had that on my menu as a young child.”

While the reimbursement program has made meals healthier—with more diverse fruits and vegetables—more can be done, said Cotwright. She suggests additional federal funding to cover administrative costs associated with the program, from meal planning to filing paperwork for reimbursement. 

The research was published in the February issue of Pediatric Obesity.  

This article was written by Sara Freeland with the UGA Division of Marketing and Communications.

In this category: Nutrition