This page covers nutrition with regards to children who bring food from home and eat solid foods. If you’re looking for more about how meals and snacks can be structured throughout the day, see here.
Food can be a touchy topic for many families. Feedback on the food a family sends in – no matter how well-worded – can sometimes make people feel like their personal character is being attacked. The values individuals, families, and cultures ascribe to food can vary wildly within a single center/program, and each staff member also comes with different ‘baggage’ about food. It’s important to sit with your own beliefs about eating before you write a policy about food – what do you want the students in your program to understand about eating? How will staff share these messages – both through words and actions?
There are many resources about how to effectively facilitate intentional, nutritious eating in children:
Some families will send in food that their student doesn’t like – possibly because they want their student to learn to like it, or because they don’t know their student doesn’t enjoy it. Some families will only send in food that their student eats consistently, leading to many days of the same foods. Some families will follow a strict food pyramid/food plate model with a variety of different foods. Some students will come in with many varieties of the same type of food (like three different kinds of grains.) Asking families to send in certain food groups each day can create a flexible framework, but could be confusing to families that aren’t familiar with them, or lack consistent access to a variety of food.
Many families will send in snack-type foods (crackers, chips) and/or desserts (candy, cookies, pastries). A blanket policy against sugary foods or ‘empty calories’ provides a visible effort to encourage nutritious meals and snacks, but can cause confusion, pressure, and shame for families that might live in food deserts or otherwise lack easily accessible healthy foods. Is it better for a child to bring in a sugar-filled yogurt and be allowed to eat it, or have it confiscated and not eat at all? What efforts will your program/center make to work with families? Some cultures expect children to ‘clean their plate’ – or eat all of the food given to them – and might be concerned if a student brings home unfinished food. Some families give their students extra food in case they get hungry, or to save for after-school activities, or simply because they don’t yet know how much food to give their student. Some families give their students less food, but the student might say they’re still hungry – the families might not know to give them more, might not have the resources to give them more, or might believe that giving them more is harmful. Caregivers that log or otherwise take note of what a student eats can share this information with families and assist in curating their lunchboxes to an appropriate size.
Where To Include
At Playvolution HQ, we recommend programs have three handbooks–a Parent Handbook, a Staff Handbook, and an Operating Handbook. Consider adding this policy to your Operating Handbook.
- When parents seem to be in doubt, confused, or have questions you don’t know the answers to, consider encouraging them to see their pediatrician for guidance.
- Many non-profits or government agencies can provide nutrition pamphlets, fliers, or even classes – consider reaching out to acquire resources your center/program can provide to families.
- Families might not know how to cut food for young children – consider explicitly stating safe food sizes and expectations, or modeling/providing information on how to prepare food.
- Some food will need to be stored cold or served warm – create explicit directions for families about where lunchboxes will be stored, if food will be heated, and how they can maintain food safety for their students (cold packs, thermoses, etc.)
- Asking families to label or separate food that’s for morning snack, lunch, and afternoon snack can assist caregivers and students with having enough food for the day.
- Families with year-round or temporary dietary preferences or restrictions – for cultural, religious, medical, or ethical reasons – deserve the same level of respect and understanding as all other families. Caregivers should work with families to understand the perimeters of their diet, as well as how their diet still provides adequate nutrition for their student, without judgement or shame.
- Some states/regions have specific policies about food allergies – these can vary from program-wide bans to requirements of doctor notes to program/center preference, so consult your local licensing agency to be sure.
- Having an office or classroom snack cabinet can be useful in a pinch, like when a student’s lunchbox gets left in the car, or when a student’s yogurt falls on their toes. (That’s a true story.)
Disclaimer: These are sample policies intended for use as a guide in policy development. Your program’s policies should be unique to your program and reflect the program’s culture, practices, and the regulations in your area.
We observe a “low sugar” policy in the interest of the children’s health and nutrition. The children bring their own morning tea/lunch/ afternoon tea each day – please do not include sweets or soft drinks. A sandwich, some fruit and a water bottle is adequate. Dairy products
such as yoghurt are not appropriate in summer due to the rapid growth of bacteria in the heat. Full day children should use an insulated lunch box and include an ice cooler in summer months. It is a good idea to identify morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea so teachers are able to direct the full day children appropriately. Due to children attending preschool who have life threatening allergies, no nuts of any kind, peanut butter or other nut spreads are permitted.
Kohimarama Montessori, Auckland, New Zealand
Parents provide all lunches for their children. A nutritious lunch is essential for growing children. We encourage you to pack a lunch which includes good, nutritious foods from at least 3 food groups. We refer to these foods as “growing foods” or “vitamin foods.” If you choose to pack a lunch with commercially prepared items, we suggest that you read the labels carefully to assess how nutritious the food is. We can warm up food in the microwave if you choose to send cooked foods; however, we can not prepare lunch foods. We discourage frozen entrees because they must be heated to a high temperature and then cooled before eating. This usually requires too much time and the child can often be too frustrated to wait. We cannot serve multiple lunches from large cans or large portions of cooked foods. Please send one day’s portion each day.
We include good nutrition and eating habits as part of our curriculum. At lunch time, each child will be encouraged to eat the most nutritious food in his/her lunch first.
If you would like some ideas for lunches, the teachers or Director can offer some suggestions or provide other resources.
Since we do not have refrigerator space for lunch boxes, please include a frozen cold pack in your child’s lunch box each day lunch items need to be kept cold.
American University Child Development Center, Washington DC, USA
In all classes, children will need to bring a morning snack consisting of about two different food groups and a drink. Water is always available to students in the classroom.
Children whose time slot goes to 12:15 or after will need to pack additional food for lunch. The school supplies a nutritious snack at about 3:00pm and it is posted in each classroom and in the office. The lead afternoon teacher shops for and prepares the snack each day.
The school policy is to avoid sharing of snack and/or lunch food. This allows parents to monitor what their children eat, prevents children from eating food they are allergic to, and allows children to enjoy their own lunches.
Hard candies of any kind, popcorn, hot dog rounds, whole hot dogs, whole grapes and anything grape-sized, such as cheese cubes, present a choking hazard to small children and are not allowed.
Packing Your Child’s Lunchbox
Snack and lunch are not only exciting, social moments, they are also a well-needed opportunity for your child to refuel after the demands of a busy preschool day. For many children, the lunch they eat at school will be their biggest meal of the day; therefore it is important to make this meal count nutritionally. Start your lunchbox meal planning in the market. Read labels. Most foods packaged for individual consumption are higher in fats and calories, and lower in nutritional value than food packaged for family consumption. They are also much more expensive. Invest in a lot of very small plastic containers. With these, you can make servings closer to the amount your child is likely to consume.
When packing your child’s lunchbox, try to make a well-rounded meal by packing a variety of food. Following are some suggestions:
-Melon, apples, oranges, kiwi, bananas, applesauce, raisins or other dried fruit, grapes (cut in half for a child under four)
-Fruit can be cut in different ways, e.g. apples/oranges sliced in rounds – presenting something familiar in a new shape often reawakens interest. A new mix (kiwis and watermelon) is good for this too.
-Carrots with ranch dip, cucumber slices, celery filled with cream cheese or peanut butter, cherry tomatoes, peas, green beans, corn. Frozen vegetables can be packed straight from the freezer to the lunchbox – they will thaw.
– String cheese, tofu, hard-boiled eggs, nuts, trail mix, yogurt, pizza, quesadillas and burritos are common sources of protein in preschooler’s lunches.
-Provide cheese, p b & j sandwiches, sliced luncheon meats (in a sandwich, or just rolled up on their own), cottage cheese, tuna, chicken (something to dip it in is fun), turkey dogs sliced lengthwise, beans.
-Rice cakes, pita bread, bagels with cream cheese, muffins, whole wheat crackers, whole wheat pretzels, pasta sprinkled with parmesan, a slice of whole wheat bread (made into a half-sandwich), a FEW chips, like three or four, granola or other cereal, fruit juice sweetened cookies (such as Health Valley Brand), fruit bars, granola bars
-Fruit juice is often not nutritionally rich. Pediatric nutritionists suggest herbal tea (try Celestial Seasonings Wild Berry Zinger and Orange Zinger sweetened with one teaspoon of honey per quart).
-Give juice, diluted with water. Always check for added sugar when buying little boxes of juice.
Some Additional Tips
-Blue ice in the lunch box helps to keep food cold.
-A short note in a child’s lunch box can make snack time special.
-When introducing new foods, offer just one at a time. If your child turns it down, try it again in a month. Tastes change.
-Beware of nutritionally deficient foods, such as Jell-O and pudding, that tend to fill your child’s stomach and prevent having an appetite for more useful food.
San Diego Cooperative Preschool, California, US
1. Students eat lunch at the picnic tables outside. The preschool does not provide lunch. The lunch must be brought by you or purchased from our hot lunch program. The milk is provided by the preschool whether you bring a lunch or order from the hot lunch program.
2. Healthy snacks are provided by the preschool in the morning and afternoon.
3. If sending a child’s lunch, include a nutritious lunch filled with breads, fruits, vegetables, and some kind of proteins such as meats, cheeses, peanut butter or nuts. Do not send sodas, candy, sweets, chips, or a lot of prepackaged foods.
4. Gum is not allowed at school.
Ontario Christian Schools, Ontario, Canada
Have a Parent, Staff, or Operating handbook you’d like to share with us for use in our policy samples? You can upload PDFs here.
Thoughts on this topic? Share them in the comments, we’d love to know what you think.