Meal Planning Basics & Recipes for Child Care Providers

Taking time to plan menus will help ensure that nutritional meals are served and that are in compliance with the USDA meal pattern requirements. To plan good menus, keep in mind these 5 basic menu planning principles, the children’s preferences and nutritional needs.

By following these simple principles, meals can be prepared and served that will help young children build healthy eating habits which can last a lifetime.

Basic Menu Planning Principles

Strive for balance

Think about the flavors of the foods being are served. Try to have a mixture of mild or bland flavors with some foods that have a strong or spicy flavor. Also think about the fat content of the various foods. If serving a high fat main dish, try paring it with low fat side dishes (fruits and vegetables).

Emphasize variety

Variety keeps things interesting.

  • Avoid planning the same form of food on consecutive days. For example avoid serving meatballs, meat sauce, and meatloaf on consecutive days.• Serve vegetables cooked and raw.
  • Try breakfast for lunch.
  • Include a small amount of a new or unfamiliar food on occasion, maybe as a ‘surprise’ mixed in a salad or casserole.

Add contrast

Strive for contrast of texture, flavor, and methods of preparation. Think about the size and shape of the foods being served. Serve crisp and crunchy foods with soft foods. A hot main dish with cold salads or fruit provides for an excellent contrast.

Think about color

Use combinations of colors that go together well, using at least two colorful foods in each menu. Spices, such as cinnamon and paprika can add color to food.

Consider eye appeal

Make sure that the food served looks good and tastes good! Consider the color of the dishes and plates being used as well as the color of the food. Visualize how the food will look when served.


Peas and Pasta


Photo Credit: “Pea Pesto” by Whitney / CC BY 2.0

This simple recipe fulfills the grain and one vegetable requirement for a CACFP creditable meal. When paired with another vegetable or fruit, a serving of cheese or meat, and a glass of milk, all of the components for a creditable lunch or supper will be met!

Please remember to use the child meal pattern links to determine age appropriate serving sizes for serving this recipe.

  • Yield: 4 servings
  • For the best buy, choose fresh peas with crisp pods.
  • To prepare peas, remove from the pods before cooking.
  • To store fresh, refrigerate whole pea pods for up to 2 days in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
  • Peas contain fiber, which helps to keep you regular.
  • For a printable version, please use the download button below.


  • 3 cups uncooked pasta
  • 2 cups peas
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  1. In a large pot, bring 12 cups of water to a boil.
  2. Add pasta and cook for 8 minutes.
  3. Add peas to pot and cook for 2 more minutes.
  4. Drain peas and pasta and place in large bowl.
  5. Toss cooked pasta and peas with oil.
  6. Sprinkle with cheese and serve hot.
  7. Refrigerate leftovers.

Download the Peas and Pasta Recipe

Rustic Shepherd’s Pie

The following recipe for a delicious Shepherd’s Pie, was provided by Karen Vanderminden of Village Roots Catering. It is a perfect example of a “combination dish” where a maximum of three ingredients are creditable. In this dish, the meat (ground beef) and two vegetables (potato and corn) can be used to satisfy three components. Add a bread and a glass of milk and you have a wonderful, creditable lunch or supper!

Yields one 9 x 13 pan

For the Meat layer

  • Vegetable oil
  • 1lb ground beef
  • 2 stalks of celery, washed and diced
  • 1 medium sized white onion, peeled and diced
  • 1 teaspoon of dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley
  • Worcestershire or Soy Sauce to taste
  • Dash of Hot sauce
  • Salt to taste/Pepper to taste
  • 1 bag Birdseye Baby Gold and White frozen corn (or other brand)

For the Smashed Potato layer

  • 2lbs red potato, washed and cut into quarters
  • 1 large white onion, peeled and quartered
  • 3 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 1-2 sticks of butter
  • Milk
  • Sour cream
  • Salt and Pepper
  • Parmesan cheese


  1. Put the red potatoes, quartered onions and 2 cloves of garlic in a pot. Cover with cold water. Turn on heat to high and boil until potatoes are soft and ready to mash.
  2. While potatoes are cooking…
    1. Put a splash of vegetable oil in the bottom of a frying pan. Press the meat into the pan in a flat layer to cover the bottom. Turn the pan on medium/medium high heat and brown. Let it brown! Don’t mix it around until the bottom is nice and dark. Once it is browned, salt generously and mix the meat around to cook until all pink has disappeared.
    2. Add the diced onion and celery to the meat and cook for 4 minutes.
    3. Add the dried basil and parsley to the meat and vegetable mixture and cook for 1 minute more. Remove from heat.
    4. Add 4 splashes of Worcestershire or soy sauce and 2 splashed of hot sauce.
    5. Grate in 1 clove of garlic to the mixture (off the heat) with a microplane grater, stir to combine. Check for seasoning, add salt and pepper as needed.
    6. Top with frozen bagged corn.
  3. When potatoes are cooked, drain (leaving the onions and garlic in with the potatoes). Add a stick of butter, 1/2 cup of milk and be generous with the salt. Smash the potatoes, onions and garlic all together. Add butter and salt to taste, and use enough milk to make a creamy proper consistency. Once consistency and seasoning are set, grate in a clove of garlic and add a huge tablespoon of sour cream. Mix to combine.
  4. Top corn and beef layers with smashed potato layer.
  5. Sprinkle with Parmesan and bake until browned on top.

More Recipe Ideas and Resources

This is a fabulous magazine with lots of kid friendly recipes and tips!
Chop Chop Magazine

Here is a great link to the USDA website which features many quick and easy video recipes.
What’s Cooking: USDA Mixing Bowl Recipes

Just say Yes to Fruits and Veggies. This is a wonderful website that provides lots of healthy, low cost recipes!
Just Say Yes to Fruits and Veggies

Contact Us

Call 518-798-7972
Toll-free 800-807-3224

Visit our office at:
37 Everts Avenue
Queensbury, NY 12804
Get directions to our office

Monday – Friday
9:00am – 4:00pm

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.