I recently received an email from a family child care provider friend who asked me to develop a Food Brought from Home Policy. She had a parent who had requested that her child be served food brought from home rather than from the provider's planned menu. She agreed to the parent's request, but had no idea what the parent actually intended. When the parent showed up at her door with a bag of groceries and asked her to prepare, day-by-day, what the child requested, she was, to say the least, a bit shocked. So, she has already re-written her parent handbook to make sure this doesn't happen again, but also wanted a very specific policy addressing food brought from home.
Other than the obvious problem of being a child care professional and not a short-order cook, and simply not having time to prepare individual meals for children, what are the problems with food brought from home? The first issue is that some local licensing agencies simply do not allow any food from outside the child care program. If this is your agency's policy, your concerns are over; it's a non-issue. However, if it is possible for you to accept food from the outside, you need to determine if you will choose to accept it and, if so, under what conditions.
Meals and snacks that you serve in your program must meet food safety requirements and USDA nutrition guidelines. Managing that through your own kitchen or catering service is one thing, but trying to manage what a parent is bringing into the program is a totally different ballpark. I would highly suggest, because this is such a difficult aspect to manage, you make sure that there is truly a need for the parent to provide the food for their child. "My child only eats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches" doesn't really cut it; this child can learn to appreciate the foods you serve in your program. Providing that there is a true need (allergy, religious requirement, etc.), you have to make sure the parent understands the requirement that you have to provide safe, nutritious food to their child while in your program, regardless of who provides that food. Most parents aren't going to think of food safety regulations and USDA guidelines when planning food for their own child.
While most parents understand the need for food safety, there will be some who are unaware of the need for washing hands before preparing food, ensuring that food is maintained at a safe temperature prior to serving...and all of those other requirements that we have learned over our years of working with children. Many parents, even those who do a great job in providing healthy meals and snacks for their children at home, are unaware of USDA nutrition guidelines, especially in relation to which components need to be included in meals and which ones in snacks. Helping them to understand these basic requirements will be necessary before they start bringing food into your program for their children.
As a program director, you need to have a plan in place for what to do when a child consistently brings in food that does not meet these requirements. You have to be able to supplement the meal or snack to make sure that nutrition guidelines are being met and you also need to know how to get the parent the help he or she needs tosupply appropriate food for their child. You will also need to make sure that your staff understands that food supplied specifically for one child can never be shared with another child in the program.
Your Food Brought from Home Policy, shared with parents when they enroll their children in your program, will help address all of these issues, along with how you handle food for special celebrations (birthdays, etc.).