Is meal planning for you family child care program taking up too much of your time? Are you tired of serving the same things? In this post, I share simple child care menu planning ideas along with tons of tips that will make lunch time stress-free and manageable.
My goal is to help you make meals that kids will actually eat and will make you look like a lunch lady rock star without losing your mind.
FREE PRINTABLE DAYCARE MENU IDEAS
WHY MEAL PLANNING IN CHILD CARE CAN FEEL OVERWHELMING
A child care provider has a seemingly never-ending list of to-do’s each week. Add meal planning, grocery shopping and meal prep to the list and you’ve got yourself one busy person.
Feeding 6-10 hungry little bellies is a lot of work. Especially when those bellies housed by tiny humans of various ages: infants, toddlers and preschoolers.
Daycare Lunch Menu Challenges:
Transforming into the “Lunch Lady” was never a favorite part of my job but feeding the children comes with the territory so I was always looking for ways to make it easier yet still feed my crew healthy food options. Here are a few reasons this part of the job is difficult…can you relate?
- Toddlers and infants can’t always eat the same things as preschoolers.
- Sleep schedules may prevent you from having a full-group meal time when all of the children are present.
- Child care providers are expected to supervise the children which makes preparing a meal for a group of children challenging.
- Time, most days, isn’t on your side. (am I right?)
- Parental preferences and request can complicate what you may offer to the children (food dye, vegetarian options, gluten free…etc)
- Allergies for a child or children in your group require mindfulness in menu choices and reading the labels.
5 TIPS TO MAKE LUNCH MENU PLANNING EASIER
In order to feel like you’re winning at the whole ‘lunch lady’ role…consider the following tips:
- Serve the same meal every Friday. To do this, use meal components that hold up longer in the fridge. My favorite Friday meal was a ‘picnic lunch’ that consisted of a sandwich, carrot sticks w/ hummus, and apple slices. Serving the same thing on Fridays, cuts out one day of meal planning.
- Cook once, serve twice. Double your family’s recipe over the weekend and save the leftovers in the fridge for your child care crew come Monday. Meals that reheat well are: casseroles, mini meatloafs, lasagna, soups or chili!
- Take a peek at your grocery ad. Shop the ads and build your menu accordingly. For example, if ground turkey is on sale, serve up tacos, sloppy joes, and turkey burgers in the same week.
- Serve breakfast for lunch! Kids love this change up, plus it’s economical! Pancakes or scrambled eggs or french toast are popular choices.
- Eat outside. If this option is feasible in your setting…consider taking your meal outdoors a few times a week! You’ll be surprise by how much time you save on clean-up. Yes, pull those high chairs outside too!
How to Save Money When Creating a Child Care Menu
If you run your own family child care program, you know how quickly the cost of food can attack your bottom line. Use the following tips before and during your shopping trip to save money on this business expense:
- Check your fridge and freezer for inspiration! What could you stand to use up? Add those elements to your meal choices for the week!
- Check the ads (or cartwheel if you shop at Target) to see what is on sale. Build your meals around those items.
- Buy in bulk…but be careful not all things you buy in bulk are a good deal. Look for the items you use frequently. For me it was whole grain crackers, ground turkey and cheese.
- Serve fresh fruits & vegetables at the beginning of the week while they’re fresh. Save frozen veggies or a jar of unsweetened applesauce (buy in bulk!) for later in the week.
- Soak berries (blueberries, strawberries, blackberries) in a bowl of water & vinegar (about 8 cups of water to a 1/2 cup of vinegar. Rinse well and return to their original container and place in the fridge. This will make them last much longer! Use a colander too for easy straining and rinsing.
- Use coupons or saver cards!
- Test out grocery delivery service to see if it saves you money. While some people find delivery services to be pricey…others are surprised by how much money they save when they don’t step foot into a store! Impulse purchases can add up quickly and when shopping for groceries online you can watch your budget by watching the total add-up in your virtual shopping cart and stay within your budget.
REASONS TO USE A DAYCARE MENU TEMPLATE
Using a daycare menu template will encourage an organized approach to your planning and allow you to see the entire week or month at a glance so that you are sure to serve a variety of foods.
Find a template that works for you. Some providers prefer to use an Excel spreadsheet or a cute fill-in-the-blank template. Click on the image below for your free printable daycare menu template.
Blank Daycare Menu Template PDF
This version has been created for you, the provider. Use it to pencil in your weekly daycare meals for breakfast (B), lunch (L), and snack (S).
TIP 1: Use pencil so you can be flexible with your meal choices. If you have shredded roast beef planned for Monday, but forgot to thaw the meat the night before, you can always bump that meal to later in the week.
TIP 2: Use the space under the blue box (“Our Menu”) to jot down the current season. Our menus can look a lot different in the summer than they do in the winter. If you plan on laminating and saving your menus, this will make it easier to start to create a ‘menu cycle’.
CHILD CARE WEEKLY MENU PLAN WITH BREAKFAST, LUNCH AND SNACK SECTIONS
CHILD CARE WEEKLY MENU PLAN WITH OPEN BOXES
Child Care Menu Ideas for Each Season
As mentioned earlier, I find it advantageous to make a menu cycle for each of the four seasons. One perk to making seasonal menus is finding fruits and vegetables that are at peak freshness and don’t cost a fortune.
The four seasons can influence how and what you cook for your child care crew.
SUMMER CHILD CARE MENU TIPS:
- Minimize how much you use the oven to keep your home cooler.
- Grill extra burgers or chicken breasts during your weekend cook-out and reheat during the week for the kids!
- Serve picnic friendly foods that transport easily to outdoor parks.
- Make good use of those garden veggies and farmers’ markets!
FALL CHILD CARE MENU PLANNING TIPS:
- If you study pumpkins and apples in the fall, be sure to incorporate various forms of these foods into your menu.
- Introduce pumpkin or apple flavors in unique ways!
- Harvest foods from garden that aren’t ready until later in the season.
WINTER CHILD CARE MENU PLANNING TIPS:
- Put your crock-pot or Instant Pot to work this time of year!
- Cook up those wonderful comfort food items.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables are less prevalent this time of year so stock up on frozen veggies to gain optimal nutritional value.
SPRING CHILD CARE MENU PLANNING TIPS:
- Time to shop the ads again and load up on fresh vegetables and fruits that are back in stock.
- Get creative with outdoor friendly menu items and move your meals outdoors.
- Prepare a garden with the kids to grow your own fruits and veggies to be eating in the summer and fall.
DAYCARE LUNCH IDEAS FOR 1 YEAR OLDS
Feeding a child who is transitioning from infancy to toddler hood can be tricky. My best advice is to make sure you are communicating with the child’s parents to find out what foods they have introduced and what the plan is for feeding their child both at home and while in your care.
A pediatrician can also help you map out a meal plan for a 1-year old. Parents magazine supports the notion of a balanced diet for these little guys and gals.
“A balanced diet should include fruits and veggies; grains like wheat, rice, and oats; dairy products like yogurt and cheese; and protein from poultry, meat, fish, and eggs.”Parents Magazine
A child who is 12 – 24 months needs foods that are soft and pliable. They will begin to develop the skill of holding a spoon and drinking from a sippy cup. Here is a great list of food items and other meal time suggestions shared by Baby Center.
DAYCARE LUNCH IDEAS FOR 2 YEAR OLDS
By age two, healthychildren.org says, “Your child should be eating three healthy meals a day, plus one or two snacks. He or she can eat the same food as the rest of the family.”
This is good news! A typically developing toddler should be able to eat the same things as the preschoolers in your group! While their food may still need a little bit of prep work such as cutting foods into bite-sized pieces, you often times stop creating a separate menu for a 2-year old. They are developmentally ready to work their way to making their meal time look just like the ‘big kids’.
WHAT ABOUT THOSE “PICKY EATERS”?
Balanced nutrition in early childhood can make a big impact on teh development of a young child. According to healthykidshealthyfuture.org, “Healthy eating is necessary for healthy development. That’s why it’s so important to offer children healthy food choices; options that will nurture their bodies and fuel brain development. “
Serving a well-balanced meal and allow children several opportunities to try a new food despite their reaction the first one, two or TEN times they try it! The researchers over at zerotothree.org agree:
Gently but frequently offer new kinds of foods. Children need to be offered a new food as many as 10-15 times before they will eat it.www.zerotothree.org
What is Family Style Dining in Child Care?
One philosophy that can really support a child who is hesitant to try new foods is ‘family style dining’.
Family style dining happens when then provider or caregiver places the various meal elements in the center of the table and kids are expected to scoop their own serving onto their plate and then pass the dish to the person next to them.
Most providers I speak with are afraid to put this meal time method into practice because they are worried about the spread of germs or an increase in spills and messes.
Other providers who do utilize this style of serving at meal time say they were pleasantly surprised by how it has changed meal time.
The United States Department of Agriculture does a nice job of explaining the benefits of family style dining HERE.
Daycare Menus: More Breakfast, Lunch, and Snack Ideas & Tips
- Use a pencil to start! Flexibility is key to planning your menu.
- Use the same breakfast rotation each month and then change it up the next month. For example, in June: Serve eggs & toast on Mondays, Cereal & Yogurt on Tuesdays, Pancakes on Wednesdays, Egg sandwich on Thursdays and Muffins & Smoothies on Fridays. (Hint: You could do the same thing for snack!) Then change your breakfast menu in July.
- Serve the same thing for lunch every Friday. I always served sandwiches, carrots w/ dip and apple slices on Fridays. Carrots & apples hold up great throughout the week and this saved me one less day to brainstorm meals.
- Regarding snack: Choose 5-6 snack options you’re comfortable with and designate a snack helper for the week. He/she will choose one from the list. This will dictate which day of the week you serve the snacks on your list. (Kids love this!)
- Save your meal plans in a binder and refer back to them so you can recycle your brilliant “Lunch Lady” ideas!
- Use symbols to easily locate recipes you have saved (i.e. “P” for Pinterest or “CB” for cookbook, or “F” for favorites if you’ve saved it online in your favorites bar)
- Consider foods or meals that may tie in with your curriculum. For example, make omelettes or ice cream if you’re learning about farm animals; build-your-own pizzas if you’re learning about the letter ‘P’.
CHILD CARE MEAL PLANNING DOESN’T HAVE TO BE STRESSFUL
Lunch planning and preparation can consume a lot of a provider’s free time. Find a system that works for you.
Work to streamline the entire process from start to finish by planning your meals seasonally, being flexible and saving each menu into a weekly collection of meal ideas. Grab some of my favorite chicken recipes for kids HERE.
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