According to the Center for Disease Control’s Infant and Toddler Nutrition Guidelines, preschoolers should be offered something to eat every two to three hours, or about five or six times a day. This means that even if you’re only offering a half day program, you’ll still need to provide at least one snack every day.
When I taught in half day programs, we kept it simple, offering children nothing but fresh fruits and vegetables along with water. Part of our rationale was that most children consume plenty of carbohydrates and protein (and often too much sugar) during the rest of their day, so we would promise parents that we would be a place to make sure that their kids were at least offered the opportunity to eat fresh produce. Every program is different, however, and full-day programs are obliged to offer more balanced offerings.
Generally speaking the healthiest diets are comprised of a variety of wholesome foods, consumed in moderation, something easier said than done when it comes to young children. One of the greatest pieces of wisdom my mother shared with me when I became a parent was: “You can’t make them eat and you can’t make them sleep. What you can do is offer healthy food and a soothing place to sleep. The rest is up to them.” Of course, in the throes of teaching or parenting, it can be challenging to keep this at top of mind, but it takes some of the tension out of things to remember that you’ve done your job by providing a variety of fresh, minimally processed foods that are low in sugar. And to keep in mind that while an individual child might not eat a balanced diet on any given day, over the course of a week, most of them do if given the opportunity.
Half day programs may not want to offer a designated meal or snack time during the day, preferring to simply let children know what is available, then let them eat as they’re hungry. This gives children an opportunity to practice “listening” to their bodies, rather than relying upon an arbitrary schedule for knowing when to eat, which is an ability that will serve them throughout their lives.
That said, there are few things that make us feel more connected to one another than community mealtimes. Breaking bread together is as old as humanity. It’s a time to tell our stories, to create connections, and to reaffirm the idea of who “we” are together. At one level, meal times conventions like washing hands, sitting in chairs, and passing food around the table can take on the significance of rituals or ceremonies, full of depth and meaning, not just for individual children, but for the entire group. Providers should give some thought to the kinds of rituals they would like to create for the children, but know that the most meaningful ones are always those that arise from the children themselves. For instance, as a teacher, I had trouble sitting in child-sized chairs the proper way because my knees would knock against the table, so I always turned my chair around backwards to straddle it when I joined children at the table. Of course, the children noticed, and before long, they too were sitting backwards, which then became our community’s “right” way to sit in chairs, an inside joke that rose to the level of unifying ritual.
Of course, at its most basic level, food is fuel. In the past half century American obesity amongst preschoolers has soared, much of which is attributed to diets containing too much sugar and too many highly processed foods (such as fast foods, snack foods, and packaged foods). As adults responsible for the health and safety of young children, it’s incumbent upon us to provide nutritional diets based on fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains, while avoiding sugars and processed foods, fuel for their bodies, minds, and souls.