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    • Explain what the Child and Adult Care Food Program is and how it helps participants.
    • Summarize the 2016 changes to CACFP and how CACFP impacts meals served.
    • List the benefits of cycle menus.
    • Explain how standardized recipes help menu planning.




    Child and Adult Care Food Program

    Child care centers that offer meals and snacks through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) play a critical role in supporting the wellness, health, and development of children by providing nutritious foods and beverages. Child care providers are uniquely positioned to help instill healthy habits in young children that can serve as a foundation for healthy choices in life.

    CACFP provides guidelines for serving nutritious meals and snacks to infants and children who attend child care centers. A variety of public or private nonprofit child care centers, Head Start programs, outside-school-hours care centers, and other institutions that are licensed or approved to provide child care services participate in CACFP. For-profit centers that serve lower-income children may also be eligible. CACFP reimburses child care centers for meals and snacks that meet the eligibility requirements.

    To qualify for reimbursement, meals and snacks must include certain meal components. Meal components align with the food groups of MyPlate. Including foods from each food group ensures children receive nutritionally adequate meals.

    CACFP Meal Patterns

    The CACFP has different meal pattern requirements based on the age of the child. Meal patterns specify how much of each type of meal component a child should receive in a given meal. CACFP specifies meal patterns for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. For instance, according to the CACFP child meal patterns, an example of a reimbursable breakfast meal must include foods from the milk, fruits and vegetables, and grains components, served in the portions indicated for each age group.

    The updated CACFP meal patterns are below. Keep these for your office documents.

    You may also want to review the four-page PDF from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, Serving School Meals to Preschoolers: School Year 2018-2019 located at which offers guidance around differences between preschool and kindergarten meal patterns, and feeding preschool children in mixed age settings.

    Updates to the CACFP

    In April 2016, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service published the final rule “Child and Adult Care Food Program: Meal Pattern Revisions Related to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” in the Federal Register to update CACFP meal patterns in accordance with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The new CACFP regulations define early-education age groups as infant–5 months, 6–11 months, 1–2 years, and 3–5 years.

    The new CACFP meal patterns increase the consumption of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, allow for more nutritious substitutions, and reduce the consumption of added sugars and saturated fats. The updated standards also take cost and practicality into consideration. These improvements are expected to enhance the quality of meals served to young children.

    Here is a summary of key updates affecting CACFP by each food group:

    Summary of Key Updates Affecting CACFP by Food Groups [April 2016]

    Vegetables & Fruits
    • Establishes a separate vegetable component and a separate fruit component at lunch, supper, and snack
    • Limits fruit juice or vegetable juice to one serving per day for children 1 year and older
    • Requires breakfast cereals to contain no more than 6 grams of sugar per dry ounce. (Starting October 1, 2019, ounce equivalents (oz eq) will be used to determine the amount of creditable grains.)
    • Meat and meat alternatives can be served in place of the entire grains requirement at breakfast a maximum of three times per week
    • At least one serving of grains per day should be whole grain-rich
    • Disallows grain-based desserts from counting toward the grains requirement
    Meat, Meat Alternatives, and Dairy
    • Meat and meat alternates can be served in place of the entire grains requirement at breakfast a maximum of three times per week
    • Tofu (a soft food product prepared by treating soybean milk with thickeners) can be a meat alternate
    • Allows cheese, cottage cheese, and yogurt as meat alternates
    • Yogurt can contain no more than 23 grams of sugar per 6 ounces
    • Whole eggs are now creditable for infants and children
    Milk & Other Beverages
    • Children 1 year of age must be served whole, unflavored milk
    • Children 2 years and older must be served low-fat or fat-free milk
    • Prohibits flavored milk for children ages 2–5
    • Drinking water should be offered to children and available to children upon request throughout the day
    • Non-dairy beverages can be substituted if they are nutritionally equivalent to milk and meet the nutritional standards for fortification of calcium, protein, vitamin A, vitamin D, and other nutrients to levels found in cow’s milk
    • Limits fruit juice or vegetable juice to one serving per day for children 1 year old and older
    General Food Preparation
    • Prohibits deep-fat frying as a way of preparing food on-site
    • Prohibits the use of food as a punishment or reward
    • Codifies practices that must be followed when a provider or center chooses to serve meals family style

    The resources below provide a summary of the updates to CACFP and address best practices for implementing CACFP in your facility.

    Basic Principles of Menu Planning

    Careful menu planning is a fundamental process for successful child care food service programs. Making an effort to plan menus saves time and money; you increase efficiency, streamline ordering, and ensure that menus are in compliance with CACFP for meal reimbursement. Menu planning also allows for nutritionally adequate, balanced meals to be served to the children in your facility.

    Basic menu planning principles include:

    1. Strive for balance. Menus should balance important nutrients like protein, carbohydrate, fiber, vitamins, and minerals with fat and sodium. Menus should also balance flavors so that menus are not too spicy or too bland.
    2. Emphasize variety. Including a variety of foods not only helps ensure adequate nutrient intake, but also keep menus interesting and appealing. Include different forms of foods and vary how they are served from day to day.
    3. Add contrast. A daily menu should offer contrasting textures, flavors, and colors. For instance, you would not want to serve a breakfast of oatmeal, applesauce, and milk to older children because they are all “soft” foods and do not include varying textures.
    4. Consider color. Use combinations of colors that go well together. A good practice is to include at least two different colors in each meal.
    5. Create eye appeal. Foods should look inviting and enticing when they are served to encourage consumption.

    Planning Cycle Menus in Child Care Settings

    Some child care facilities choose to use cycle menus, which are a set of different daily menu offerings that are served for a specified period. Once all of the menus have been served, the cycle is repeated in the same order. Cycle menus are typically set for a duration of three to five weeks, although they can be any time period. One practice is to set the cycles to be seasonal, such as fall cycle menus, winter cycle menus, etc. This allows for the ability to use seasonal foods such as fresh produce.

    There are many benefits to using cycle menus in child care. For instance, using cycle menus can have positive impacts on the nutritional quality of meals, as well as offer streamlined budgeting and preparation aspects of food service.

    Benefits of using cycle menus include:

    • More accurate forecasting and use of staffing, equipment, and food-resource needs
    • Allows for bulk ordering of ingredients, which reduces time spent on food purchasing and saves on food costs.
    • Reduction in plate waste when previously-tested menus are served
    • Assurance that menus meet CACFP guidelines
    • Ability to offer a variety of foods that incorporate different textures, colors, and flavors
    • Flexibility to modify menus to meet ordering shortages, acceptability, etc.

    Getting started with planning cycle menus involves a few considerations. Think about which cycle length would work the best in your facility. You may wish to have a shorter cycle for breakfast and a longer cycle for lunch, for instance. Be sure to consider the meal pattern requirements for CACFP for the various age groups. This is done by setting the same core menu for all ages and adjusting appropriately, either by increasing portions served or by adding on meal components. Think about your kitchen’s layout, staffing, delivery schedule, and equipment when choosing which recipes to include in your menus. Lastly, consider the “flow” of meal service from breakfast through the end of the day and make sure there is sufficient variety of foods served at each main meal and at snacks.

    Involving school-age children in the menu planning process is a great way to design meals that appeal to this age group.  You can survey the children and ask them to vote which foods (from a selected list) they would like to see on the menu. When children have “buy-in” in the meal planning process, they are more accepting of the menu offerings served.

    The National Food Service Management Institute has published a reference guide for planning cycle menus that you may wish to download.

    Using Standardized Recipes

    According to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), a standardized recipe is one that has been tried, adapted, and retried several times by a child nutrition operation and has been found to produce the same good results and yield every time when the exact procedures are followed with the same type of equipment and the same quantity and quality of ingredients.

    Since standardized recipes are prepared the same way each time, using them can streamline food and labor costs.

    There are myriad benefits to using standardized recipes in your child care facility, including consistent quality, yield, and nutrient content of meals prepared. From a management standpoint, using standardized recipes helps with controlling food and labor costs, inventory, and purchasing. The information provided in a standardized recipe can be used for record-keeping purposes and the CACFP reimbursement process. Be sure to check with your supervisor to determine what requirements your program has regarding menu approval. For example, some programs require that a nutritionist approve menus before they are released.


    What Do Cycle Menus at Department of Defense Child Care Facilities Look Like?

    Different child care facilities have different menus. All menus must incorporate a variety of nutritious foods in portions that meet the CACFP requirements for children at each age group. Look over the information in the following example of a Five Week Spring Cycle Menu. What kinds of foods are included? Is there a good variety? Are the items seasonally appropriate? How might these cycle menus help streamline the meal-planning process? Keep the cycle menu handy as you will refer to it later on in this lesson.

    What Do Standardized Recipes in Department of Defense Child Care Facilities Look Like?

    There are plenty of recipe resources available to child care food service staff that are CACFP-compliant, kid-tested, budget-friendly, and still offer a variety of flavors, textures, and colors. USDA offers some standardized recipes (see In addition, the Department of Defense has a set of standardized recipes for use at child care centers. These recipes contain the ingredients required, the amounts needed for batch cooking, the preparation directions, and nutrition information about the recipe. Use the Department of Defense recipe for Barbeque Pulled Pork on a Roll and Coleslaw. What are some features of the recipes that you notice? Is the layout of the recipes easy to read and understand?

    See the following video for more information on successful menu planning.

    Menu Planning for Success

    Watch this video to learn about menu planning and cycling menus.


    Note that we host a vast number of cycle menus and production resources at including bundles for Fall/Winter, Spring, Summer, and field trips. The bundles include cycle menus, inventory and ordering calculators and nutrition macros, and recipes.

    Is Your Facility Compliant with the New CACFP Updates?

    Complete the following New CACFP Meal Pattern Self-Assessment to see how your program complies with the new standards and what additional items must be addressed in order to meet the new standards. Discuss your findings with your trainer, coach or administrator.

    Completing this Course

    For more information on what to expect in this course, and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore, and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Focused Topics Essentials in Child Care Food Service Course Guide

    Please note the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines reference sources and resources to find additional information on the topics covered. As you complete lessons, you are not expected to review all the online references available. However, you are welcome to explore the resources further if you have interest, or at the request of your trainer, coach, or administrator.



    The meals and snacks served through USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) are an important part of providing proper care. The USDA has created several resources to help child care facilities implement CACFP. The document Menu Planner for School Meals: School Year 2018-2019 (Menu Planner) provides tools needed to successfully prepare and serve meals and snacks in CACFP. It contains chapters on nutrition, menu planning and development, meal preparation, procurement and inventory, menu modifications and more. Using the link below, access each section of the document. Set aside time to read chapter 2, Food-Based Menu Planning. Discuss some of the tips you feel you can use to help with menu development and planning in your facility. 



    Let’s put together the information you have learned.  Because the menu planning process can be a little different across programs, it’s recommended that you check with your supervisor about the specific menu planning process used at your program before beginning this activity.

    Below are two Department of Defense Excel calculators used to plan how much food to make as part of the spring-cycle menu. Use these Microsoft Excel files on your computer as you refer to the Five Week Spring Cycle Menu and the Barbeque Pulled Pork on Roll and Coleslaw recipes that you saw earlier in this lesson. Use these documents to practice filling out the Thursday lunch section of the Spring Week 1 Production Calculator file based on the number of children in each age group at your facility (Spring Week 1 begins on row 59 of the Production Calculator file). Next, fill out the Spring Week 1 Milk Calculator for Thursday based on the needs of your facility. Work with your supervisor to make sure you understand the process.


    Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP)a federal nutrition program that provides guidelines for serving for healthy food for children and adults in care settings
    Meal componenta food group that must be included in a meal; meal components in CACFP include milk, meat and meat alternates, fruits, vegetables, and grains.
    Meal patternthe amounts of each meal component that must be included in a meal in order to be reimbursed through CACFP; CACFP meal patterns vary based on the child’s age: birth-5 months; 6-11 months, 1-2 years, 3-5 years, 6-12 years, and 13-18 years.
    Cycle menua series of different daily menus planned for a specified period of time, usually three to five weeks. Once all the menus have been served, the cycle repeats itself in the same order.
    Standardized recipea recipe that has been tried, adapted, and retried several times for use by a given child-nutrition operation and has been found to produce the same good results and yield every time when the exact procedures are followed with the same type of equipment and the same quantity and quality of ingredients
    whole grain-richat least 51% of the grains in the product must be in the form of whole grains.




    True or false? The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) provides reimbursement for the provision of nutritious meals and snacks to infants and children who attend child care centers.


    Which is not a benefit of using a cycle menu in your kitchen?


    True or false? Use of standardized recipes can help control food and labor costs, inventory, and purchasing.

    References & Resources

    Food Research & Action Center (FRAC). (2019). Think babies state fact sheets. Retrieved from

    Institute of Child Nutrition. (2018). Retrieved from

    National Food Service Management Institute. (n.d.). Lesson 7, Standardized Recipes and Portion Control. 

    U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. (2017). Child and adult Care Food Program (CACFP). Retrieved from

    U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. (2017). USDA Standardized Recipes. Retrieved from

    U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. (2018). And justice for all posters (guidance and translations). Alexandria, VA: U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from

    U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. (2018). Child and adult care food program (CACFP). Alexandria, VA: U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from

    U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. (2019). Team nutrition. Alexandria, VA: U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from

    U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. (n.d.). Team nutrition print materials. Retrieved from

    U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020 December). Dietary guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. Available at

    WolterBeek, R., Nevada Department of Agriculture (2016). Cycle Menu Planning & USDA Foods Utilization. Retrieved from