Contributions of Early Care and Education Programs to Diet Quality in Children Aged 3 to 4 Years in Central North Carolina

Courtney T. Luecking, Stephanie Mazzucca, Amber E. Vaughn, Dianne S. Ward

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Background: Parents and early care and education (ECE) are the key influencers of young children's diets, but there is limited information about how each contribute to children's overall diet quality. Objective: This study aimed to determine what proportion of children's dietary intake occurs within the ECE setting and whether diet quality is higher at ECE centers and, consequently, on weekdays than weekends. Design: This cross-sectional analysis of a larger cluster randomized controlled trial used multiple 24-hour dietary intakes measured through a combination of the Dietary Observation in Child Care protocol and parent-reported food diaries. Participants/setting: Participants (N=840) included children aged 3 to 4 years enrolled in ECE centers in central North Carolina for whom 24-hour dietary intake was captured via observation of meals and snacks consumed at ECE and parent-report of all remaining meals and snacks. Data were collected from 2015 to 2016. Main outcome measures: Diet quality at ECE and elsewhere was evaluated using the Healthy Eating Index 2015. Statistical analyses performed: Mixed-effects models were used to determine differences in mean Healthy Eating Index 2015 component and total scores. Models were adjusted for children's age and sex and accounted for clustering within ECE centers and families. Results: Children consumed approximately 40% of daily energy, nutrients, and food groups at ECE centers. The mean total Healthy Eating Index 2015 score was higher for foods and beverages consumed at ECE centers (58.3±0.6) than elsewhere (52.5±0.6) (P<0.0001). The mean total Healthy Eating Index 2015 score was also higher on weekdays (58.5±0.5) than on weekends (51.3±0.5) (P<0.0001). Conclusions: Children consume a majority of dietary intake away from ECE centers. Overall, diet quality is low, but the quality of foods consumed by children at ECE centers is higher than that consumed elsewhere. ECE centers remain an important source of nutrition and further investigation is warranted to identify ways to support both ECE centers and families to provide healthier eating environments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)386-394
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics


  • Child care
  • Diet quality
  • Family
  • Nutrition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Food Science
  • Nutrition and Dietetics


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