Today’s economy requires careful budgeting and as a childcare provider, you may have developed strategies for saving money on expenses while still maintaining a quality early childhood environment.
For childcare programs providing meals and snacks, one financial challenge is to serve healthy food while keeping costs manageable. Successful food programs balance nutrition, food safety, food costs, and other resources to promote healthy eating habits, maintain a budget, follow regulations, and keep children satisfied.
The Child and Adult Care Food Program
The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) is a federal program that impacts menus and food costs in childcare programs across the U.S. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that 2.9 million children receive healthy food each day through this program, which provides reimbursement to childcare programs for healthy meals and snacks.
For childcare programs who participate in the CACFP to receive reimbursement, federal requirements must be followed when planning meals and snacks. State licensing agencies also may have regulations that apply to childcare food service.
There are strategies you can use to save money on purchasing food for your childcare program. Budgeting, cycle menus, and wise food purchasing can decrease your childcare program’s food costs while still allowing you to provide healthy meals and snacks.
Make a Budget
The first step in managing food costs is to make a budget. Establishing a budget, or spending plan, helps you balance revenues (the money that you have to cover the cost of food service) and expenditures (the money you will be spending).
There are a number of factors that can affect a childcare program’s food budget, including enrollment, federal CACFP reimbursement rates, availability of commodity foods or local farms and orchards, increases in food and labor costs, time of year, and changes in menus. These must be considered when planning the food service budget.
Before you begin, collect information that will help plan revenues and expenditures realistically. Look at bills for food from the previous year, enrollment lists, CACFP reimbursements, menus, and other reports that will give as accurate an estimate as possible.
Most budgets are planned for a year, broken down into months. Remember to note months when there are holidays or seasonal breaks, because children may attend fewer days at those times, which, in turn will affect your monthly budget. As the year progresses, check actual revenues and expenditures against projections to see where the budget may need to be adjusted in the future.
Use Cycle Menus
Many childcare programs use a “cycle” menu plan, which is a series of different menus that are planned for a certain amount of time (typically three-five weeks). At the end of the series, the menus are repeated in the same order.
In addition to saving time, labor, and storage, cycle menus save money. Cycle menus allow childcare programs to purchase frequently-used items in bulk, and to store certain nonperishable items for guaranteed future use.
Successful use of cycle menus involves planning. It can feel overwhelming at first, but this practice will save time and money in the long run. The first step to successful cycle menu planning is to assemble recipes, CACFP meal pattern information, food purchasing records, and other materials that will help you plan your menus. Next, determine the length of the menu, using at least a three-week cycle for variety.
Plan the main dishes first and then add the other foods, and look for ways to substitute less expensive, nutritious foods when possible. Remember to use the basic principles of menu planning and offer different colors, textures, temperatures, and shapes within meals, as well as a mix of new and familiar foods. Use the same meal planning principles for breakfast and snacks.
Using food records helps childcare programs make accurate projections of how much food to purchase, eliminating costly over-buying. Simple substitutions in cycle menus are easy to make and give childcare programs flexibility and variety. For example, it is simple to substitute cantaloupe for a banana when melons are available and affordable.
If you participate in the CACFP, make sure your menus meet all the requirements so you can receive reimbursement. Leave room for flexibility in the menus, so you can take advantage of seasonal produce, new recipes or special foods.
Once you have implemented cycle menus, take careful notes and observe meals so you can refine food selections and change future menus as needed.
You have many strategies for saving money on food for yourself or your family, like using coupons, checking unit pricing, buying cheaper or generic brands, and shopping for sale items. At the same time, you probably try to keep your diet as nutritious as possible. Most of the principles of smart personal shopping also apply to purchasing food for a childcare program.
Just as you would for your family, make a list of the foods you will need for the upcoming weeks. The size of your childcare program helps determine where you shop.
Membership clubs allow bulk purchases. If your program is very small, it may be more efficient to shop in a grocery store. Look carefully at your options to see which is most cost-effective.
There are many ways you can save money on food for childcare programs. Often, you can save on grains and breads by purchasing generic, unsweetened cereals and using cooked cereals and rice that are not “instant.” Generally, food in larger containers and quantities is a better value, but always check the unit pricing.
Take advantage of the low prices of in-season fresh fruits and vegetables. When produce is out of season and very expensive or not available, consider frozen and canned options.
Keep in mind that some meat alternates (such as cooked dried beans and eggs) are relatively inexpensive; so remember to include them in your shopping. Often, food is more expensive when it is individually packaged, so larger containers may be better choices. What can seem like insignificant savings can add up over a year’s time, particularly when you are buying food in large quantities.
Many expenses in operating a childcare program are fixed, but food is somewhat flexible and an area where you can use your management skills and nutrition knowledge to ensure that children eat nutritiously and your program remains financially healthy.
Marna Holland, EdD
Parent Educator, Asheville City Schools Preschool, Asheville, NC
Menu Planning on a CACFP Budget, daycare.suite101.com/article.cfm/menu_planning_on_a_cacfp_budget
National Food Service Management Institute,
Mealtime Memo for Child Care: Budgeting Basics, www.nfsmi.org/documentLibraryFiles/PDF/20080610112614.pdf
Mealtime Memo for Child Care: Purchasing for Child Care Centers, www.nfsmi.org/documentLibraryFiles/PDF/20080610015834.pdf
Mealtime Memo for Child Care: Stretching the Food Dollar, www.nfsmi.org/documentLibraryFiles/PDF/20080610015447.pdf
U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, Food Buying Guide for Child Nutrition Programs, teamnutrition.usda.gov/Resources/foodbuyingguide.html