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Cooking and Sharing: Providing high-quality nutrition in your program

Early childhood educators can help influence children’s healthy eating habits. Sharing a variety of new, nutritious foods with children encourages them to try different flavors, textures and food they may not get to experience at home. 

Many early learning programs want high-quality nutrition as part of their programming, but they may rely on families to provide children’s daily meals. These “lunchbox schools” face additional considerations when planning their program’s nutrition practices.

Faith Lutheran Preschool in Phoenix is one of those programs. As a Quality First participant in the Phoenix North region, the preschool developed a robust set of nutrition practices after participating in the Empower PLUS+2.0 program.

Alma Cortes, director of Faith Lutheran Preschool, shared how she and her staff put new practices into place that can be added to your program.

How does your program support high-quality nutrition?

At our program, families provide lunches, and we provide a morning and afternoon snack. So our nutrition practices are a combination of what we do and how we work together with families.  

  • Focus on fresh – We are purchasing more fresh fruits and vegetables and avoiding canned items. For example, instead of serving a prepacked fruit cup, we offer fresh pineapple and strawberries. Instead of apple sauce, we serve fresh apples. We don’t serve juice. Instead, we serve fresh fruits and offer water or milk to drink.
  • Partner with families – We encourage families to send nutritious foods. At enrollment, we provide families with flyers and information about nutrition. These flyers provide ideas for what to pack in their child’s lunch. It also provides nutrition information about portion sizes, grains and healthy eating. We encourage bento boxes as a tool for packing their child an appealing meal.
  • Share ideas and recipes – We have a board in our hallway with recipes and really simple food ideas that parents can use when packing their child’s lunch. It’s in a location that’s easy for parents to see every day. 
  • Celebrate in healthy ways – When we are celebrating holidays with the children, we ask for families to provide nourishing snacks, such as a fruit tray or veggie platter. 
  • Gardening and tasting – We have two gardens, and each classroom (with the exception of the infants and toddlers) has their own garden bed. The children have grown lettuce, radishes and peas. When the vegetables are ready, the children get to taste what they have grown. Then we share with families about the new veggies their children have tried.
  • Make meals a social learning experience – The teachers sit and talk with children during meals. They model good eating habits and lead conversations by pointing out the different types of foods that each child is eating.
  • Offer hands-on cooking experiences – This summer we did “Cooking Around the World.” This allowed the children to touch and taste a variety of foods from cultures they may have never experienced before. For example, for Mexico we did tortillas, beans and cheese as part of the experience. It was such a positive thing for the children and the teachers. Now we do cooking experiences in the classroom on a regular basis.

Where did you get the ideas and what resources did you need? 

A lot of the ideas came from families and the other teachers. For example, some teachers said they would rather not have cookies and cupcakes when celebrating different special events or holidays. So we brainstormed about what else we could offer to enjoy during celebrations. We came up with a lot of different ideas; like banana with yogurt, or rice cakes with peanut butter, instead of just serving sweets like, ice cream and caramel.

To make it work, we developed written policies on food for the employee handbook and the parent handbook. In our policies we make it clear that we will encourage and model healthy eating habits, and that we don’t allow fast foods or convenience foods like chips, donuts or cookies.

To make the most impact on the children, we needed the staff to be on board and be good role models for healthy eating. The teachers know that if they are eating in the classroom, it needs to be something nutritious, like an apple or peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The teachers know that they can’t have fast food cups or fast food logos in the classroom.

How is this practice improving the quality of your program and what have others noticed?

I think what we are doing is improving the children’s health by providing a wider variety in their diets and teaching them about nutritious foods. The families notice the difference in the types of foods their children are interested in, and they love it.

After our preschool class made bean and cheese tacos as part of the Cooking Around the World unit, one child told their dad, “I want beans.” The father said his child had never had beans before trying them at school, and now the child is asking for bean and cheese tacos at home.

We are noticing that the children are becoming more curious about different types of foods and eager to try new types of foods that they haven’t seen before. Recently a teacher was eating seaweed as part of her meal in the classroom. The children said they wanted to try it, so we got parent permission to do a tasting activity and let them try the seaweed. They loved it!

What might you tell a colleague if they were to be interested in incorporating similar ideas?

I would tell them to try it. They might think the families will give them a hard time, but if they stick to their policy, they will be successful. The families will support the policy, because they will see their child trying and enjoying new foods.

I would also say that focusing on nutrition will be a change for the entire program: the staff, the families and the kids. Even small changes can make a big difference. When we changed to incorporating fresh fruits and veggies, it made a huge difference for us.

NEW! Nutrition Resource for Arizona Child Care Providers

Meal Quality Arizona – This document provides requirements and effective practices for developing menus and meals that support healthy growth and development.