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.


Slow Cooker Swedish Meatballs

This simple recipe fulfills the meat/ meat alternative when served with grains, a vegetable and fruit, and a glass of milk- all of the components of a credible lunch or supper will be met.




  1. Add the beef broth and Worcestershire sauce to a 6-quart slow cooker.
  2. Add the pork, turkey, breadcrumbs, eggs, allspice, onion powder, 2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper to a large bowl. Mix the meat with your hands until the mixture is uniform in color and texture. Scoop level tablespoonfuls, and roll them into balls; place them in a single layer in the slow cooker. When the bottom of the cooker is covered, add a second layer, starting on the outer edge. (The outside of the cooker is hotter; meatballs on the edge will cook more quickly than those in the center.) Cover and cook on high for 2 hours, until the meatballs are cooked through.
  3. Meanwhile, rub the butter and flour together in a small bowl to make a smooth paste (which will be used to thicken the sauce). Pinch off 1/2-inch balls, and set on a small plate.
  4. Transfer the meatballs with a slotted spoon from the slow cooker to a large bowl, leaving the cooking liquid in the pot. (You should have about 1 1/2 cups liquid.) When removing the meatballs, start from the outer edges and scoop carefully. Some may be stuck together; gentle coaxing with the spoon will separate them.
  5. Whisk the butter-flour paste into the cooking liquid, 1 or 2 balls at a time, to incorporate. Whisk in the sour cream and jelly, if using. Return the meatballs to the slow cooker, and stir with the spoon to coat. Cook on high, uncovered, until the sauce is thickened, 30 minutes. Adjust the setting to keep warm, sprinkle the meatballs with the parsley and serve.


Gnocchi Gratin with Ham and Peas Recipe

This recipe served with your favorite fruit, and a glass of milk will meet all the components of a credible lunch or supper.


  • 1 (16-oz.) pkg. potato gnocchi
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
  • 1 pound ham steak, cut into 1⁄2-inch pieces
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 4 ounces shredded Gruyère cheese (about 1 cup)
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
  • 1 cup thawed frozen green peas


  1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Cook potato gnocchi according to package directions; drain and transfer to a large bowl.

  2. Melt 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter in a large Dutch oven over medium-high. Add ham and cook, stirring often, until ham is lightly browned and any moisture has evaporated, 5 to 6 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer ham to bowl with gnocchi. Wipe Dutch oven clean.

  3. Melt 4 Tbsp. unsalted butter in Dutch oven over medium-high. Whisk in all-purpose flour. Cook, whisking constantly, until mixture is light golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Slowly whisk in whole milk, and bring to a boil; whisk vigorously to work out any lumps.

  4. Whisk in kosher salt and black pepper. Remove from heat, and slowly whisk in shredded Gruyère cheese and 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, until melted. Pour cheese sauce over ham and gnocchi; stir in thawed frozen green peas.

  5. Transfer mixture to a lightly greased (with cooking spray) 11-x 7-inch baking dish. Sprinkle remaining 1⁄4 cup grated Parmesan cheese on top, and bake in preheated oven until bubbly and golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven, and serve warm.

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

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