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A Daycare Food Dilemma

A Daycare Food Dilemma

By Amalah

Hi Amy-

I love your column and blog. Congrats on the new house!

Based on your advice, we have adopted a Satter approach to eating at our house, so I am hoping that you may have some insights on another food-related issue.

We have a just turned 1-year-old son and a nearly 3-year-old daughter. We switched in-home daycare providers in March. The new daycare providers (a husband and wife) are very loving and involved with the children. The environment seems stimulating and the providers plan a lot of activities for a variety of ages. Both kids love the providers and overall, we are very pleased with one exception- the food served.

They serve a variety of cereals for breakfast ranging in healthfulness from Rice Crispies to Fruit Loops. For lunches, they serve multiple fruits and vegetables (though the veggies are often canned), but the fruits/vegetables are often accompanied by chocolate milk and processed foods such as American cheese, hot dogs, Spaghettios, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, white bread, etc. I have seen an 18-month-old chugging chocolate milk with his lunch on multiple occasions. At home, we typically try to eat unprocessed, home-cooked food.

Our previous daycare provider did not serve processed foods, so my daughter tends not to eat the processed food at the new daycare (though she fully partakes in the chocolate milk and fruit loops). My concern is primarily about my 1-year-old son as he is just developing his food affinities. Up to this point, I have been sending a home-made lunch with him daily. Our daycare provider has asked when he will be eating with the other kids so that he isn’t left out. On the one hand, I don’t want the little guy to stand out as he gets older as being the kid who doesn’t eat what the other kids are eating. On the other hand, I don’t want him growing accustomed to these foods that are not consistent with what we eat at home.

Other than this food issue, the care really is very good. My husband thinks that I am overreacting and that what is served at daycare won’t dictate their eating habits later in life. I’m not as convinced. Would you continue to send a separate lunch, tell the provider that there are certain off limit foods, or just not worry about this? Am I overreacting?

Thank you in advance for your advice.

Yeah. I’m fully on your side here. I’d actually go even nit-pickier and send in homemade alternatives for BOTH kids. Because that menu is completely unacceptable.

Forget long-term food habits, that day-to-day menu is LOADED with waaaaay too much sugar and sodium for just about anyone, and especially toddlers and preschoolers. Not to mention all kinds of garbage like HFCS, artificial flavors and food dyes. And canned veggies are 1) gross, 2) often add sodium as a preservative, and 3) unless the daycare is buying top-quality or organic brands (which I doubt), there’s a risk of BPA exposure from the cans. NOPE.

I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about a 1-year-old feeling “left out.” (Which: Come on. They probably want him eating the daycare food because it’s easier for them.)  You  are not overreacting when you’re looking at a daily menu that’s pretty much nutritionally bankrupt…and full of ingredients with the potential to cause real harm to your kids’ growing bodies, teeth, and taste buds. (A lot of processed foods really do warp your sense of salty/sweet in the wrong direction.)

I’ve mentioned before that at some point we do need to accept the fact that we cannot control everything our children eat and drink. And be okay with the occasional treat at Grandma’s or the fact that they get served soda at their friend’s house. But YOU, OP, are NOT at that point yet. Your kids are still babies! All that sugary/salty food is BAD FOR THEM. You have the option to send in more acceptable, nutritious food and drink items to daycare and BY ALL MEANS, you should take advantage of that option.

I did. I still do. My kids have never complained about feeling “left out” or oddballs because they don’t get to eat Lunchables or Kool-Aid. At every school/daycare my kids have attended, everybody eats at the same community table, regardless of whether they’ve brought lunch from home or are eating school-provided food. (And there’s ALWAYS been a mix, thanks to food allergies and kids/parents’ personal preferences.) Your children can sit at the table with their friends and eat their packed lunches.

My oldest cannot tolerate food dyes, so I’ve always told his teachers who added that to the classroom list of food allergies/preferences when it came to school-provided snacks or treats. So I think it’s perfectly reasonable to ask that they keep the chocolate milk/super-sugary away from your ONE YEAR OLD. The preschool my last two kids attended had a wonderful snack menu that met all my standards (fresh fruit and vegetables, real cheese/yogurt, whole grain carbs, white milk), so they ate that. But if it had been Froot Loops and chocolate milk and Oreos, you better BELIEVE I would have been sending something from home. Or lobbying for change with the school director…or looking for another school.

(Not saying you need to go that far, I completely understand that a good full-time daycare program is a different beast than finding a preschool. Especially in my area where there are about a million options, most of whom cater to my particular brand of hippie food neurosis. My school food menu privilege is fully in check, I swear.)

When my kindergartner expressed an interest in buying lunch at school, I let him. That whole “you must cede control and let them make their own choices” thing. Thankfully, the appeal quickly wore off once he realized the school lunches were really gross and not worth the access to chocolate milk, and he went back to a homepacked lunch. While packing multiple lunches and snacks isn’t my favorite task day after day after day, I’m grateful I still have the option to ensure my kids are eating healthy, wholesome food during our hours apart. So do you! Take that option and do not let anyone shame you for making smart nutrition choices for your children.


About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Jeanne

    August 10, 2015 at 1:51 pm

    I pack a lunch and snack for my 22 month old everyday for daycare. Initially I felt like a crazy person – the daycare’s food wasn’t terrible, just different than ours. But food is my big deal and that my kid develops healthy eating habits matters to me.

    My daughter eats her lunch and will eat some of the daycare’s fruit and vegetables. She is unbothered by this because it’s always been that way. She’s a great eater, partially because her palate is used to unprocessed foods.

    We’re not in a home based daycare so our situation is a bit different, but I would start packing both kids lunches immediately.

  • Myriam

    August 10, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    I would’ve said you were nitty-picky if it was just being about different food thatn served at home, but this is not about being “different”, it’s about being healthy, or at least “mostly healthy”. I would be very honest with them and say “we love you, but the food you serve is not healthy for kids or adults, I’ll provide the food for my kids”. Maybe look into literature you can bring them. food guides, menu templates from other daycares, etc. 

  • M

    August 10, 2015 at 2:12 pm

    I used to work at a preschool where we provided all meals.  I worked with the infants and while most ate the meals/baby food we provided I remember at least one or two that brought meals from home and it was no issue with us!  I know there was a vegetarian 2 year old, he ate a mix of school food and food brought from home and there was never an issue in his room with him feeling “different” or “leftout”.

  • Betsy

    August 10, 2015 at 2:20 pm

    To second what Amy said, we are vegetarian and our preschool, which provides lunch every day, is not.  (Despite many conversations about even trying Meatless Monday…)  I pack a PB&J  (really sunbutter&J) every day for my kids and they eat at the community table with their friends and eat their sandwich plus whatever sides the school is providing.  Thankfully, the sides are generally fresh fruits and veggies.

    I can count on one hand the number of times they’ve been upset about not eating the provided lunch.  They’re 5 and 2 and other than my annoyance over packing the sandwiches every morning, it’s a total non-issue.

  • Jeannie

    August 10, 2015 at 2:21 pm

    I have to agree. That’s not an acceptable menu. My kids are done daycare but each of them went to a centre that provided snacks, and not lunch, but the snacks were always fruit and vegetables, with occasional home baking / cheese. All just plain whole foods. The big disagreement among parents was that it wasn’t all *organic*. (They didn’t go all organic.) I am glad the care is excellent at this place, but I would be hand packing a lunch every day — and in fact in our case I chose a place I could, so that I could have greater control over what my toddlers and preschoolers ate. 

  • Emily

    August 10, 2015 at 2:25 pm

    Our daycare is the same way – In-home, run by an sweet older couple who have older-style views on what is good for kids to eat (lots of packaged things like sweet cereals and frozen french toast). So, I pack my daughter (13mo) a lunch. It works out great because I know that she’s eating things that I feel good about her eating, and she eats better at daycare because its food she’s familiar with. We’re not perfect eaters by any means, and I’m not above a hot dog here and there, but at least I know what she’s eating when she’s not in my care. 

  • Rachel

    August 10, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    Totally agree with Amy and the other comment that the daycare isn’t serving acceptable foods.  I would definitely be packing a breakfast and lunch for both kids.  It’s much different to have an occasional unhealthy meal vs ten meals a week being unhealthy.

    My son’s daycare center provides snacks only, some are healthy and some aren’t and I’m generally ok with that, but he eats a very nutritious breakfast and lunch that I pack for him. Every other Friday they provide a lunch that’s either pizza or hot dogs and I’m fine with that because it’s only twice a month (you could always consider letting your kids can eat daycare’s food a couple of times a month as a special treat).

  • K

    August 10, 2015 at 3:37 pm

    I don’t know how it is where the OP is, but here, in-home daycare providers get an extra subsidy from the state if they can prove that they follow a state mandated “healthy” menu. That menu includes an exact description of a week’s worth of meals and snacks, and includes serving sizes. It includes a list of fresh fruit and veggie options, meat/non-meat protein options, it’s a pretty big program here and might be worth encouraging your care providers to check into to see if your state offers it, too. Our in-home provider followed that, but it’s a limited list which meant that new flavors weren’t introduced often, so I still packed lunches and such occasionally. At first I did worry about being “that” parent, but at the end of the day, I’d rather be really specific about what is and isn’t okay. And I was actually surprised, when I told her that our kid wasn’t allowed to have juice, and explained about the high sugar content and how our kid was sensitive to that, she actually checked and switched her juice selection to something with much less sugar. She was grateful to have kids that weren’t bouncing off the walls as much, and because she is of an older generation, had never given the juice thing a second thought. So, stick to your guns, provide snacks and healthy meals for your kiddos. For us, being careful about what he eats has made a huge difference in his demeanor, he is definitely one of those kids that gets ramped up and then crashes and is cranky when he hasn’t eaten well.

  • Tiffany

    August 10, 2015 at 4:28 pm

    Have to agree with everyone here- for 10 meals a week, you stick to your guns. Occasional indulgences into junk food are part of life, but we’re talking about like 50% of the meals he eats. 

    At our daycare center, the meal plan is an additional charge on top of tuition, but their nutritional philosophy is close to my own, so I gladly pay the reasonable price for not having to pack breakfast and lunch myself. I’d like the menu to be a bit more varied just for adventurous palate purposes, but I can broaden his horizons at home.

  • Marisa

    August 10, 2015 at 6:38 pm

    Are you paying extra for the meals or are they included? If included, I’m sure the meal choices are based on whatever is cheapest and most likely to be accepted by the kids (enter, Froot Loops). You end up saving them money if you pay the same rate but send the same food and I’m sure they’d be happy with that. And if you pay additional for the meals, then it would be something they already ancitipate some people tp opt out of.

    You could also present it as something that would be in their best interest to implement. “Jack is so much better behaved and sleeps better without those foods. We’re going to send him the foods he does best with.” Avoids the uncomfortableness of calling them out and they might be thankful to have a kid who is broccoli-powered all day instead of one running on Pop Tart rocket fuel.

    • Marisa

      August 10, 2015 at 6:45 pm

      Blegh, sleep deprivation, just read your question again. Can they tell you ahead of time what they’re serving so you can tailor something to make the 1 yr old’s snacks similar? 

      …. Or stage a coup with the other parents to request better foods and let them know you’d be willing to pay more to help or submit recipe ideas. 

  • leslie

    August 10, 2015 at 7:37 pm

    To piggyback on everyone here: We send our kids (9 mos and 3 yrs) with their own snacks and lunch every day. In thsi day and age, asking for this kind of thing should not be a big deal .Nutrition is important, and thankfully, increasingly popular. My daycare has been extremely accommodating and when I expressed concern that my three year old might feel weird, they told me that nope, everyone just eats what they’re given. Other kids might ask why sometimes, and the daycare people just say whatever they need to (e.g. her body can’t process that food). They were totally unconcerned about that. After awhile, they started sending home menu so I could not have to pack anything for snacks or meals that she can have. 

  • Erin

    August 10, 2015 at 9:46 pm

    I’ll be the lone dissenter here – my kids go to an in-home (run by an older woman) and our daycare food sounds pretty similar, but not QUITE as bad (no fruit loops or chocolate milk or juice) and I’ve chosen to just let it go. They do the state food program so are required to have fruits and veggies but rarely are they fresh. Food is included in the cost of our daycare, so for me, it’s not worth the cost and mostly the time of packing basically 3 meals (breakfast, lunch and snack are eaten there). We eat fairly well at home (but I’m really not that obsessive about it here either) and both my 3 and 5 year old will try most anything, eat vegetables with no problems, love fresh fruit, etc. We follow the Satter approach at home and I’ve always made all of their baby food too. I really do not think that daycare dictates their future food tastes, BUT I would really talk to them specifically about the sugary cereals and chocolate milk.

  • Alyssa

    August 11, 2015 at 9:05 am

    Could you ask ahead of time for a meal plan and send a healthy similar meal? Ex. They are having fish sticks and canned peas you could send fresh fish and fresh peas. That way they lose their “they’ll feel left out” argument. (which isn’t really an issue, but then they will get that it’s a health thing and not a “picky toddler” thing. 

  • Celia

    August 11, 2015 at 9:46 am

    I am 100% in favor of being an advocate for what your children eat.  And I believe that you should feel comfortable with your daycare.  However, I have to say that this made me feel terrible about my parenting which I know was not the goal.  I work full time plus we’re on a pretty strict budget so in the winter my 18 month old gets a lot of canned veggies because it’s what I can afford.  He also eats turkey dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches with American cheese sometimes.  Every parent knows that you should feed your kids the best food you can but sometimes you have to pick the lesser of two evils.  I just felt like I have to stick up for us mamas who can’t always get the ideal but are doing the best we can.

    • Myriam

      August 11, 2015 at 11:45 am

      Canned veggies are better than no veggies. Out of season, frozen of often better than fresh. Plus, there is no waste/spoilage. And you said it, you do what you have to do, can afford and have time to make. Moderation and diversity is key to a healthy diet, but also a healthy relationship with food! I’m a Type 1 diabetic, but even so, there are no “banned” or “bad” food, only smaller portion sizes of carbs and treats!

    • Kya

      August 11, 2015 at 1:03 pm

      Yeah, right here with you.  Wow.  I am clearly a horrible parent, poisoning my precious baby.  Too bad about the whole “food needing to be bought with money that doesn’t grow on trees” thing.  

      I mean, yes, this mother does have the option to make and send food for her kid, and more power to her, that’s great.  But were all the red alert high pitched alarm bells entirely necessary?  (Answer, no.  They were not.  A simple, “Your concerns are legitimate and your child won’t feel left out, here are a couple of scripts to use with the daycare” would suffice.)

      Seriously, the privilege was not even slightly checked here, parenthetical self-deprecation notwithstanding.  I don’t know when I’ve been so irritated or disappointed in a response.  

    • M

      August 11, 2015 at 2:44 pm

      I mean yes, the idea of feeding an 18 month old chocolate milk and fruit loops every day is horrifying, but come on, canned vegetables are now equivalent to poison? Reminds me of the fear mongering about formula.

    • vanessa

      August 17, 2015 at 10:52 pm

      yeah, there wasn’t actually a lot of privileged checked in this column. 

    • vanessa

      August 17, 2015 at 10:54 pm

      joining others in being pretty upset with this column. I actually feel a lot of goodwill towards Amy leaving me. This was SO judgey and completely ignored a lot of science and also reality.

  • What To Do About Daycare-Provided Food

    August 11, 2015 at 6:03 pm

    […] Read the full article here: A Daycare Food Dilemma […]

  • Lora

    August 11, 2015 at 7:53 pm

    I’ve been reading your column for years and this is the first time I’ve been truly disappointed in your advice. For sure there have been times I maybe didn’t agree, but your description of canned vegetables as 1) gross or 2) poisonous is not only immature but shortsighted. Some people can only afford to purchase that variety of food and should not be shamed in trying to provide their child what their budget allows.

    As this recent Feburary 2014 article from NPR states, “The plastic additive has been vilified by environmental advocacy groups. But the chemical had no effect on rats fed thousands of times the amount a typical person ingests, government scientists are reporting in the journal Toxicological Sciences.

    The results “both support and extend the conclusion from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that BPA is safe as currently used,” says Daniel Doerge, a research chemist with the FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research.”

    This type of advice is what breeds the “mommy wars.”

    • Annie

      September 23, 2015 at 1:34 am

      I also have to say that while I usually love Amy’s advice, this article really rubbed me the wrong way, enough so to actually leave a comment about it!  I have to agree with Lora’s comment about articles like this breeding “mommy wars” in that you are basically telling people that they are completely wrong and that your way is the only way if you want to be a “good mom”.  I don’t appreciate being told I’m poisoning my children either.  This advice was really terribly written and not well-thought out.

  • Maree

    August 12, 2015 at 10:58 am

    I work in home day care and in my experience kids cope fine with different lunches.

    In defence of the provider healthy food options are hard. You often get no support from the parents who view some interesting things as healthy and you don’t have the option of letting them go hungry if they won’t eat. 

    My line in the sand is on drinks other than water and plain milk and to insist that the first snack of the day be only fresh fruit. Go much further than the and I get push back from parents.

    • Maree

      August 12, 2015 at 11:01 am

      Oh and I feel perfectly fine giving my own kids tinned tomatoes and canned legumes- they are great convenience foods that are also healthy – I don’t know what the problem is with them?? 

      • F

        August 17, 2015 at 1:48 pm

        Because they are actually rather high in salt.

  • Shelbey

    August 12, 2015 at 12:20 pm

    I, like a lot of other commenters, also send my 2 year old with her own food. My daycare doesn’t have bad food per se, but…well, mine is better! And at first they asked about it a few times, but now they just know and its not a big deal. She will eat the fruit provided and the veggies (canned, but oh well). So far she has not complained!

  • Christine

    August 13, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    I don’t know that I’ve every disagreed with Amy before, but I too felt like this was an extreme response.  It vilified not only this daycare provider, but also those of us who do resort to these food options on occasion or frequently (for whatever reason).  I also think it was missing appropriate consideration of the loving-daycare-provider dynamic.  My nanny occasionally serves my kids things I wouldn’t select, but I understand that she loves my kids and is either: trying her best; has different beliefs about what is most healthy; or occasionally likes to give them a treat – so I don’t nit-pick her every choice.  And I remember that they get my preferred food choices when they are home, and that they are only in the nanny’s care for a few years.  They are not going to be stunted because she buys fruit cups (so do I) and selects the ones in syrup instead of in juice like I would.

    Of course, it goes without saying that the advice regarding food dye sensitivities and other allergies is something that should definitely be raised.  And as some have mentioned, if this were my daycare, I would bring up the Fruit Loops and Chocolate Milk as well – maybe mention casually that I’d rather they not get used to the sweet options.

  • Brenda

    August 15, 2015 at 4:14 pm

    Maybe something along the lines of “I’d really like to keep giving you my business, but in order for me to be comfortable, I’m going to ask if you’re willing to make sure that my daughter eats the food that I bring.”  Something to lay down some boundaries, which you have the right to do.  The flip side is, they can say no.  Then you need to go looking again for another provider, or fold and let them serve whatever they want.

  • vanessa

    August 18, 2015 at 8:10 pm

    Also find it frustrating that Amy hasn’t returned to address the very legit concerns in her response. 

  • Angie

    August 23, 2015 at 10:23 pm

    To be fair, Amy is moving and, according to Facebook and Tiwtter, the closing on the house they are moving into fell apart completely on Friday due to issues with the relo company. Her boys start school tomorrow an hour from the house they just sold and have to move out of. It sounds like everything is packed and in transition, and Noah probably doesn’t do well with lack/major change in routine, not to mention a toddler like Ike, so… I imagine she will be back to weigh in when her hands are a little less full.

  • Elizabeth_K

    August 26, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    Our beloved daycare provider gave our first son his introduction to ketchup, which he still loves, bought store made cake, covered with blue frosting, and gave him ENDLESS amounts of love. We quailed over the food (more because this was our first born and we were still making his food organically at home — not something that happened with the next two) but realized her love, peace and joy were worth some food discomfort. I remember feeling so flustered (grabs pearls, says, but MY BABY is getting SUGAR!), but also feeling so happy he was there. It’s a tough call — but we never packed a lunch, just dropped off breast milk and let it go. 

  • Betsy

    September 1, 2015 at 11:13 am

    I would maybe tell them you would prefer your kids not eat fruit loops and chocolate milk. Anyway, doesn’t chocolate milk make all those kids crazy hyper? If I was a daycare provider, I wouldn’t want to deal with toddlers who had just chugged chocolate milk! As for the other food issues, meh. If your kids are not obese, are physically active, and are eating healthy at home, I really don’t think that eating spaghettios and American cheese at daycare is going to negatively impact their health. Both my kids went to a wonderful daycare provider who served stuff like that. They knew that they would only get those things at her house; it didn’t really cause any problems with their diets at home. And they are perfectly healthy. I wouldn’t stress too much, but also I wouldn’t worry about offending the providers by packing your own food– that is certainly your right!