Why does my toddler eat better (or worse) at daycare?

Does your toddler eat better at daycare?

You pick up your little one from daycare at the end of the day, and their teacher says they ate great, and you’re like, excuse me? Because they do NOT eat great for me at dinnertime at home! 

Or it might be the opposite, and you’re trying to figure out why they are not eating at daycare. 

After working with toddler parents for years in my private nutrition practice, and talking to teachers who work at daycare, I gathered the most common reasons why they might be eating better (or worse) at daycare.

I always recommend a chat with their teacher, too, especially if they are not eating at daycare. You can work together to troubleshoot and come up with a plan. 

Why toddlers may eat better at daycare:

  1. Routine
    • At daycare there is a predictable daily routine, and this can help them eat better for a few reasons. First, it means they are not grazing throughout the day or drinking milk outside of meal/snack times ( known appetite killers). Second, pre-meal routines help kids transition from playtime to mealtime, which can mean they are more focused on eating.
  2. Expectations
    • Teachers at daycare likely set clear expectations and boundaries for behavior they want to see at mealtime. When it is very clear to your child that this is mealtime, it is not play time, and there won’t be another opportunity to eat for a few hours, they know that this is when they need to fill up.
  3. Peer pressure
    • Another 2 year old is not going to be telling your kid to eat the tacos because “everyone else is doing it”! But there is some research supporting the idea that kids who see their peers eating a vegetable are more likely to eat it. So when your child sees their friends eating and enjoying certain foods, it’s possible that they feel more comfortable and inclined to eat it too.
  4. Specific options
    • Usually, daycare doesn’t have a pantry or cabinet of snacks that your little one can freely walk into and choose something else besides what is offered. At home, they may know that if they whine enough or go get something from the pantry, that they don’t have to eat what is originally offered. Usually at daycare, the meal is the meal.
    • Also, daycare usually serves 3 to 4 different items at a meal, giving your little one options to choose from. So you may get a report that they ate well even if they don’t eat every item they were served.
  5. Time of day
    • Many toddlers just eat better earlier in the day. They frontload their calories – which is a good thing in terms of giving their body the energy it needs to play and learn. So sometimes they simply eat better at daycare and then don’t have much of a dinner appetite because they already met their calorie needs for the day.
  6. Physical activity
    • It’s possible that they are hungrier at daycare if they’re more physically active than a typical day at home. If they’re out on the playground, doing activities inside, etc. they can have a bigger appetite.
  7. Pressure dynamics
    • Appetite can shut down if they feel pressured to eat certain foods or a certain amount, or if they feel stressed at the meal for any reason. Sometimes eating at daycare is a more relaxing environment than at home, and they’re able to eat more freely. 
      • Think about this with an open mind. Sometimes with the best of intentions, we end up getting in their face a little too much, staring at them, waiting for them to eat. Or maybe there’s another sibling who is often crying or yelling at mealtime. There can be many reasons why they may feel stressed at mealtimes.
    • The opposite can occur, as well. Some kids respond to pressure by eating more to please the adult; so if at daycare they are routinely told to eat more, or are even fed by the teacher, it may lead to them eating more than they otherwise would. 

Why toddlers eat worse at daycare

In addition to the above point about pressure dynamics, there are some common reasons why your toddler eats worse at daycare than at home. Or maybe they don’t eat anything at all while they’re at daycare.

  1. New situation
    • The most common complaint I hear from parents is that their toddler just started at daycare or started in a new class, and they aren’t eating. It can take a few weeks to adjust to the new setting and routine before they feel settled enough to eat. 
    • If this happens, I would recommend a big snack after school while they are transitioning, so that they aren’t melting down by dinner time.
  2. Too stimulating
    • Some kids get distracted by the presence of other kids. They may also be more interested in socializing than eating. If the teacher suspects this is the case, maybe they can seat your child in a quieter area for a few minutes to focus on eating.
  3. Not enough time
    • Usually there is enough time given to eat, but for especially slow eaters, this can sometimes be an issue. The teacher should be able to observe and let you know if this is happening. If you’re sending food from home, try to have food in packaging that your child can open by themselves (if possible) to avoid them having to wait for their teacher to do it. That can cut into their eating time.

There’s one more thing I want to address that can come up if you pack their lunch for daycare.

Sometimes, the teacher will ask that you don’t send certain foods because your little one “doesn’t like it” or isn’t eating everything. You probably have realized that your toddler can be hit or miss on certain foods, and won’t always eat them, even if they like them. This is normal! 

I hate to see lunch variety reduced because the teacher comments on it to you. For new or less liked foods, send a smaller portion. But you don’t have to quit sending a variety altogether, especially if you’re working on combating picky eating.

Do you need new ideas for packed lunches?

If you are packing lunches to send in and would love some new, healthy, easy ideas, grab a copy of my Toddler Lunch Guide! You’ll even learn my tricks to pack a week’s worth of lunches in under 15 minutes total.

And I’ve had lots of moms tell me they print out the “throw and go” lunch building blocks guide to keep on the fridge to quickly piece together a well-balanced lunch!

toddler eat better at daycare

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Hi, I’m Kacie!

I’m a mom of two and a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. I offer e-guides and e-books (go to my Shop page), workshops, brand partnerships, and nutrition counseling. Check out my blog for nutrition and feeding tips for your little ones.

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