I N  S I C K N E S S  &  H E A L T H

Childcare's Role In Promoting Nutrition & Physical Activity

Childcare is an environment where children can establish healthy eating and physical activity habits. Many of the daily activities that childcare programs provide, such as meals and snacks, physical activity, and nutrition education, are the foundations of lifelong healthy habits. Childcare programs also have established partnerships with families and can be a powerful, positive force in encouraging healthy habits in children’s homes.

Obesity in early childhood is a serious problem. According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for children ages 2-5, nearly 15 percent are considered obese and 25 percent are considered to be overweight and at risk for becoming obese. Even in early childhood, being overweight can have negative effects on children’s physical, social, and emotional development.

You Are A Role Model!

Childcare providers play a variety of roles in helping young children adopt healthy behaviors. One of the most important is that of a positive role model. Children who see the adults in their lives eating nutritiously and enjoying physical exercise are more likely to adopt those habits themselves.

Success as a role model requires an honest self-appraisal. If you eat with the children, do you promote positive attitudes about food? If your own meal differs from what the children eat, does it reflect that you believe in eating nutritiously? When the children are engaging in active play, do you participate enthusiastically? If you do, children will notice. If you do not, that is noticed, too.

Suggestions for Meals and Snacks

Food eaten at childcare may account for one-half to two-thirds of a child’s daily caloric intake. Therefore, it is essential that the food served be of high nutritional quality. Many childcare programs use the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) meal pattern requirements for planning menus. An additional resource for planning meals and snacks for children over two years of age is the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Several items in the Dietary Guidelines offer guidance related to children’s weight management, including keeping total fat intake to between 30-35 percent of calories for children 2 to 3 years of age and between 25 to 35 percent of calories for preschool-age and older children. The Guidelines also emphasize the importance of fruits and vegetables, with an emphasis on incorporating variety and using fresh produce when possible. The importance of whole grains and low-fat and fat-free milk and dairy products in the diet are also important parts of the Dietary Guidelines.

When you plan meals and snacks, strive to limit foods that are high in sugar or fat. A frequent problem in young children’s diets relating to sugar is the use of sweetened beverages, so it is important to be conscious of what children are drinking as well as eating. A more fiber-rich alternative to juice, for example, is whole fruit.

Another good alternative to sweetened beverages is water, which should be readily available. Learning to quench thirst with water is a positive habit that can develop early in life.

Children who are younger than two years should not have fat restricted in their diets; but after the second birthday, fat should be gradually decreased until, by age five, their diet has no more than 30 percent of calories from fat. Examine your menus for high-fat items that could be replaced with healthier, lower-fat alternatives.

In addition to limiting foods with low nutritional value, other childcare mealtime and snack time practices can have positive effects on children’s health. Healthy eating patterns and habits should be modeled by staff.

Cultivate a pleasant atmosphere for eating, where children can eat at a relaxed pace and enjoy their food and the company of adults and other children. Avoid using food as a reward. Children establish attitudes about foods early, and rewarding oneself with food is a poor habit that can last a lifetime.

Nutrition Education

Positive nutrition education is important for young children, who begin to form ideas and opinions about food early. The Caring for Our Children recommendation is for the childcare program’s nutrition plan to include activities that help children develop knowledge and skills that empower them to make healthy food choices. Nutrition education is most effective when it is integrated into other areas of the curriculum and through daily activities.

For example, a childcare provider might share a book about vegetables before introducing a new vegetable at lunch. Children may also have the opportunity to grow a vegetable in a windowsill garden and then eat it as part of a meal or snack. Mealtimes provide an excellent opportunity to promote nutrition education within the context of a daily meal.

Recommendations for Physical Activity

Physical activity, like nutrition, is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) recommends that infants’ physical activity promote the development of movement skills and that toddlers should engage in a minimum of 30 minutes of structured physical activity and 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity each day. The NASPE recommendation for preschoolers is a minimum of 60 minutes of structured physical activity each day, along with at least 60 minutes and up to several hours of daily unstructured physical activity.

Several studies indicate that policies and practices in childcare programs significantly impact children’s physical activity. Examine your childcare program’s policies on physical activity, and look for ways to help children become more physically active, both outdoors and indoors (e.g., inclement weather).

Some factors to consider include how much time children spend in environments, such as outdoor playgrounds, that promote physical activity. The Caring for Our Children guidelines emphasize the role of the outdoor spaces in developing gross and fine motor skills.

Another important aspect of physical activity is intensity. Children need both moderate and vigorous physical activities. Encourage active games, dance, and movement during the day, and integrate physical activity throughout the daily schedule.

Remember that you are a role model, so children are much more likely to want to participate if they see your enjoyment and enthusiasm in being active. NASPE emphasizes the importance of childcare providers showing children positive attitudes about fitness and viewing physical activity as a lifelong pursuit.

Childcare providers serve as important role models in shaping children’s attitudes about food and physical activity. Childcare provides daily opportunities to demonstrate healthy behaviors that can positively impact children’s health and wellness throughout their lives.

Marna Holland, EdD
Parent Educator, Asheville City Schools Preschool, Asheville, NC


Active Start: A Statement of Physical Activity Guidelines for Children Birth to Five Years, National Association for Sport and Physical Education, www.aahperd.org/naspe/standards/nationalGuidelines/ActiveStart.cfm

Child & Adult Care Food Program, www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/care

Dietary Guidelines for Americans, www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines

Physically Active for Life, www.pbs.org/teachers/earlychildhood/articles/activeforlife.html

Preventing Childhood Obesity: Tips for Childcare Professionals, New York State Department of Health, www.health.state.ny.us/prevention/nutrition/resources/obchcare.htm

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