When you’re new to the Food Program (CACFP), the essential task of meal planning can be intimidating. That’s totally understandable and why we’re offering the tips below to help you focus on what’s important and make your Food Program a success. 

The best place to start is with the Food Program meal patterns. Think of them as your roadmap to meal planning. The Food Program meal patterns (infantschild breakfastlunch/suppersnack) spell out every food component you need to include in the meals and snacks you offer. The food components are fluid milk, meats/meat alternatives, vegetables, fruits, and grains. The meal patterns even tell you the portion sizes for each food component. If you follow the meal patterns, you’re more than halfway there.

 Our hope is the tips and resources we offer below will guide you the rest of the way. Just know, that with practice, meal planning will become second nature. So, if you’re ready, let’s dig into the delicious details. 

Tip#1: Choose a Meal/Snack Combination

In the Food Program, you can claim up to two meals and one snack or one meal and two snacks per child per day. Consider the needs of the families you serve when deciding what combination will benefit them the most. For example, you can help out parents by sending their kids home already having supper, so they don’t have to cook after a hard days work. In that case, your combination might be a midmorning snack with lunch and supper – two meals and one snack. You also benefit because supper typically reimburses higher than breakfast.

Tip #2: Use Cycle Menus

A best practice is to use cycle menus – a series of menus you plan ahead of time and use over several weeks. Once you’ve used all the menus, you start the cycle over. For example, you could plan enough menus to use everyday over a 4-week period, then repeat for another 4-weeks and another 4-weeks, and etc., etc. 

You can probably see how cycle menus can help make your life easier. One way is they save you time, because you’re planning several weeks ahead. Cycle menus also help you eliminate food waste as well as reduce labor costs. In addition, cycle menus make it easy to change and substitute food components for special occasions and to meet special dietary needs of children. 

To create a cycle menu, first decide how many weeks the cycle will last, then start developing different menus for each day in the cycle, beginning with a main dish consisting of a meat or meat alternative. Be sure to use different types of meats for nutritional value and variety. 

From there, add a vegetable, fruit, grain, and milk to complement the meat food component, always referring back to the Food Program menu patterns to ensure you’re serving reimbursable meals and snacks. Software, like KidKare, will automatically check your menus and tell you if you’re missing food components or serving the wrong portion sizes based on the latest menu patterns.

Here’s an example of a full year of cycle menus for preschoolers based on the four seasons, including recipes and other ideas for food preparation, seasoning, and food safety.

You might also find these menu templates  and these sample menus helpful in getting organized and ready to go. 

For main dish, fruit, and veg pairing ideas, be sure to check out page 8 of this PDF

Tip #3: Make Good Nutrition the Goal

Your Food Program meal planning can help children develop good eating habits while they’re young by introducing them to a range of tastes as well as nutrients they need to grow up strong and healthy.

  • Grains are a healthy choice and one of the five food components in the CACFP meal patterns. At least one serving of grain per day that you serve must be the whole grain-rich variety. One easy way to include whole grains in your meal planning is to replace all bread and breakfast cereals with whole grain versions. This USDA guide will help you identify whole grain-rich foods that are creditable in the CACFP.
  • Serve more fruit than fruit juice because it has more beneficial fiber.
  • Cook from scratch whenever possible to reduce processed foods and their salt, sugar, and bad fats in your menus. 
  • For variety and nutrition, try substituting dried beans, peas, and lentils for meat once in a while. They’re less expensive, a good source of protein, and creditable as a veg or a meat alternative. Click here and go to pages 10-12 for other healthy substitutions and options.

Tip #4: Appeal to the Eyes 

We eat with our eyes. If food looks inviting, we’re more likely to eat it or at the very least try it. Kids are no exception.

  • Use different colored foods in each meal and snack. Fruits and vegetables are perfect for the job, and so are spices like paprika on eggs or potatoes. Choosing seasonal fruits and vegetables can help lower your food costs.
  • Use different textures of foods together to enhance the appearance and the taste of a meal or snack, like a creamy dip with crunchy raw vegetables.
  • Use different shapes and sizes of food to add interest. Think cubes, wedges, strips, rounds, and shredded items. On a related note, be sure to always check meals and snacks for choking hazards.
  • Add variety to your menus so kids aren’t eating the same or similar foods over and over and getting bored. Incorporating seasonal foods can help with this as do different cultural foods.

Tip #5: Build a Library of Recipes

You can never have too many recipes on hand when you want to change things up and keep your meals and snacks interesting to your kids. There are countless places online where you can find recipes. Here are just a few that were specifically created for CACFP childcare businesses:

                        Breakfast Recipes

                        Recipes for 25 Servings

                        Sample Snack Menu

                        Main Dishes




We hope these tips have been helpful and answered some of your questions. For the ultimate meal planning helper for childcare businesses, visit kidkare.com to learn about our industry-leading CACFP software and 30-year commitment to children’s nutrition.

Happy menu planning!

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