January 2023 – Menu Planning

What is a key ingredient to serving nutritious, appealing, and cost-effective meals? Menus!

Menu planning is the backbone to successfully managing meals. Menus affect all aspects of meal service, from purchasing to preparing to serving. Without menus, staff will have to spend time each day figuring out what foods to prepare and serve to the children at meals and snacks. This is time-consuming and may lead to non-creditable meals if an ingredient or food is not on-hand. Don’t leave this important step to chance. This Mealtime Memo provides menu planning basics and many other useful resources to help create menus.

Child care programs participating in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) must have menus that include creditable foods (USDA-approved foods) and meet CACFP meal component requirements. Use this Mealtime Memo as a step-by step guide when planning and creating menus that meet CACFP requirements and are nutritious and appealing.

Child Chef Smiling

Menu Planning Steps

As you begin to plan menus, it is helpful to follow a step-by-step process. This can save you time and help to align menus with the CACFP meal pattern requirements. Keep these steps in mind when planning menus.

Step 1: Form a Menu Planning Team

First, consider forming a menu planning team to provide input on planning diverse, appealing, and nutritious menus. The team may include child care staff (cook, director, teachers), families, children, and/or a dietitian.

Questionnaire And Computer Mouse

Step 2: Gather Tools and Resources

Having the right tools when you start planning will help the process go more smoothly. You will use these tools at different stages of the menu planning process.

  • Previous menus (note changes you would like to make)
  • Sample menus to inspire ideas (links provided in this Mealtime Memo)
  • Standardized recipes with CACFP crediting information (provided within resources below)
  • CACFP Meal Pattern Charts (provides required meal components for each meal/snack)
  • Food Buying Guide and Crediting Handbook for the CACFP (includes information to determine creditable and non-creditable foods)
  • Menu Template and Menu Planning Checklist (included in the Appendix section of the Menu Planning Basics), or check out these five free CACFP Menu Templates for easy menu planning

Step 3: Determine Length of the Menu – Cycle Menus

Decide how many weeks of menus to create. A good practice is for the menu to be at least three weeks long to promote variety. Using cycle menus helps menu planners:

  • Plan accurately
  • Predict food costs
  • Reduce waste
  • Repeat grocery orders
  • Vary meals
  • Make food shopping and preparation more efficient
Cycle Menus: series of menus repeated over a specific period, (ex. 3–6 weeks). The menu is different each day of the cycle. At the end of the cycle, the menu is repeated.

Cycle menus can be flexible and easily changed. If a food on the menu is unavailable, you can replace it with another food from the same meal component. You can also incorporate seasonal fruits and vegetables and plan special meals for holidays or celebrations. Remember to note any substitutions on your planned menu.

Refer to Cycle Menus in Child Care: Preschoolers for a variety of cycle menus and standardized recipes, as well as other resources, such as “Seasonal Fruits and Vegetables” and “Cooking with Herbs and Spices.”

Step 4: Create the Menu

For ease of planning, consider using the following steps to help create menus.Meal Plan Concept. Hard Light

  1. Plan menus for lunch and supper.
    • Select the main dish first (usually the meat/meat alternate component).
    • Refer to the section below on Planning Lunch/Supper Menus for specific steps and helpful graphics.
  2. Plan menus for breakfast.
    • Add variety by replacing the grains component with a meat or meat alternate a maximum of three times per week.
    • Do not repeat food items from lunch or supper.
  3. Plan menus for snack.
    • Select two of the five meal components. As a best practice, offer two different food items and include water as the beverage.
    • Do not repeat food items from lunch, supper, or breakfast.

Planning Lunch/Supper Menus

Select the main entree.

The examples are based on a program operating five days per week.

  1. Rotate 6–8 meat/meat alternate items (cheese, poultry, beans, meat, eggs, fish, tofu, yogurt) over the course of the week. Make sure you have at least one more meat/meat alternate item than the number of days operating. The extra entrée item in your meal rotation will ensure children who attend only certain days of the week will not always receive the same foods. See the example below.
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
Cheese Chicken Beans Pork Eggs
Cod Tofu Yogurt Cheese Turkey
Lentils Ground Beef Eggs Haddock Tofu
Yogurt Cheese Chicken Beans Ham
Eggs Tilapia Tofu Yogurt Cheese
Turkey Lentils Pork Eggs Tuna

The above table was adapted from Healthy Bites.

  1. Choose entrees that include the selected meat or meat alternate (see an example based on week one from the menu above). Recipes for the entrees can be found in Cycle Menus in Child Care: Preschoolers.
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
Cheese Chicken Beans Pork Eggs
Macaroni & Cheese Chicken Alfredo Quick Quesadilla with Beans Pork Stir-Fry Spinach Egg Bake

Select the remaining menu items.

Include food items from the other meal components (grain, fruit, and vegetable) that complement the main dish. Use the menu planning principles in the next section to help choose a variety of foods.

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
  • Macaroni & Cheese
  • Asparagus
  • Raspberries
  • Milk
  • Chicken Alfredo
  • WG Noodles
  • Steamed Green Beans
  • Nectarine Wedges
  • Milk
  • Quick Quesadilla with Beans
  • WG Tortilla
  • Sweet Potato Fries
  • Honeydrew Melon
  • Milk
  • Pork Stir-Fry
  • Brown Rice
  • Yellow Pepper Strips
  • Blueberries
  • Milk
  • Spinach Egg Bake
  • WG English Muffin
  • Jicama Sticks
  • Strawberries
  • Milk
Whole milk is served to 1-year-olds. Children 2 years and older are served either 1% or fat-free milk.

Selecting Food Items

To plan nutritious menus that have eye appeal and variety, consider the basic menu planning principles below.

  1. Focus on Good Nutrition
  • Serve a variety of whole grains
  • Include whole fruits and veggies instead of juice
  • Reduce processed foods, prepare recipes from scratch
  1. Strive for Balance
  • Balance flavors (mild, spicy) & textures (creamy, crispy)
  • Use herbs and spices to balance flavors
  • Balance high-fat with low-fat foods
  1. Emphasize Variety
  • Include different foods daily
  • Vary the main dish
  • Use different forms of foods (raw, cooked)
  • Mix in new foods
  1. Add Contrast
  • Add different textures (soft, crunchy)
  • Vary sizes and shapes (cubes, wedges, rounds)
  • Pair different types of foods (heavy, sweet, starchy)
  1. Think About Color
  • Include a variety of colors (at least 2–3 colorful foods per meal)
  • Add colorful fruits & veggies
  • Sprinkle herbs & spices for a pop of color
  1. Consider Eye Appeal
  • Consider the total presentation (how foods look on a plate)
  • Use a variety of colored bowls, plates, trays, cups
  1. Other Considerations

Sample Menus

You do not have to create new menus from scratch. Sample menus may spark creativity. You may change any of the meals, rearrange the order, or make substitutions within a meal. Here are a few examples. Some include standardized recipes with crediting information.

Sample Menu (click to enlarge)

More Information

Mealtime Discussion Prompts

During mealtime, spark positive conversations with children about menus and mealtimes using the questions below.

  • What is your favorite meal on the menu?
  • What is your favorite meal to eat at home?
  • If you could add one food to the menu, what would it be?
  • What new food would you be willing to try in the future?
  • How many colors do you see on your plate?
  • What shapes do you see on your plate?
  • Which foods are crunchy, squishy, soft, or creamy?
Children Meal1
Recipes Clipart 800x533



Arizona Department of Education. (2022, August). Sample menu. https://cms.azed.gov/home/GetDocumentFile?id=5b648ff61dcb2509e41fe234

Idaho State Department of Education. (2016). Idaho CACFP menu toolkit. http://ccfprtconference.weebly.com/uploads/7/9/9/8/7998708/idaho-cacfp-menu-toolkit-final.pdf

Institute of Child Nutrition. (2022, July 8). CACFP child meal pattern poster. https://theicn.org/resources/1482/cacfp-meal-pattern-posters-and-infographics/116958/cacfp-child-meal-pattern-poster-2.pdf

Institute of Child Nutrition. (2022, July 13). Menu planning basics: A guide for CACFP operators in child care. https://theicn.org/icn-resources-a-z/menu-planning-basics-cacfp

Institute of Child Nutrition. (2022, July 14). Cycle menus for child care: Preschoolers. https://theicn.org/icn-resources-a-z/cycle-menues-for-child-care-preschoolers

Institute of Child Nutrition. (n.d.). Child nutrition recipe box. https://theicn.org/cnrb/

Institute of Child Nutrition. (n.d.). Child nutrition resources. Child Nutrition Sharing Site. https://theicn.org/cnss/resources

Institute of Child Nutrition. (n.d.). New CACFP lunch/supper recipes. Child Nutrition Recipe Box. https://theicn.org/cnrb/2022-cacfp-recipes/

Kansas State Department of Education. (n.d). Healthier Kansas menus – CACFP. Child and Adult Care Food Program. Child Nutrition & Wellness, KSDE.

National CACFP Sponsors Association. (2022, August 24). Five free CACFP menu templates for easy meal planning. https://www.cacfp.org/2022/08/25/five-free-cacfp-menu-templates-for-easy-meal-planning/

National CACFP Sponsors Association. (n.d.). Around the world menu. https://dpi.wi.gov/sites/default/files/imce/community-nutrition/pdf/around_the_world_sample_cycle_menu.pdf

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. (2022, April 18). Crediting handbook for the child and adult care food program. https://www.fns.usda.gov/tn/crediting-handbook-child-and-adult-care-food-program

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. (2022, May 2). Multicultural child care recipes. https://www.fns.usda.gov/tn/recipes-cacfp

U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food and Nutrition Service. (2022, July 11). Food buying guide for child nutrition programs. https://www.fns.usda.gov/tn/food-buying-guide-for-child-nutrition-programs

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. (2019, May). Healthy bites: A Wisconsin guide for improving childhood nutrition. 2nd ed. https://dpi.wi.gov/sites/default/files/imce/community-nutrition/pdf/HealthyBites.pdf

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. (2021, April). Snack inspiration. https://dpi.wi.gov/sites/default/files/imce/community-nutrition/pdf/snack_inspiration.pdf

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. (n.d.). Sample menus. https://dpi.wi.gov/sites/default/files/imce/community-nutrition/pdf/cacfp_sample_menus.pdf

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