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Smarter Mealtimes brings healthy eating nudges to early childhood care settings


The Smarter Mealtimes Movement takes the effective, research-based strategies that make the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement so successful in K-12 lunchrooms and adapts them to work in diverse early childhood education (ECE) settings such as daycare centers, HeadStart, and home care. By using behavioral economics to encourage little kids to try, select, eat, and enjoy healthy foods, these tools encourage kids to practice healthy norms and establish healthy eating habits.

The Smarter Mealtimes Movement was developed in 2017 in partnership with the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program, or CACFP, and with stakeholders in the fields of extension, child care, and nutrition. The organization is housed within the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, located in Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, and is associated with the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, or B.E.N. Center. Smarter Mealtimes resources can be found at

Smarter Mealtimes keeps many of the popular and effective Smarter Lunchrooms concepts but adjusts them to work in a variety of settings. The ECE recommendations are specific enough to result in positive change but general enough to work any early childhood care environment.* They are low-cost or no-cost and maintain choice. They “nudge” children toward healthy food decisions using principles of behavioral economics such as improved visibility and convenience of healthy foods, prompting, positive role modeling by caregivers, and taste tests of new foods. Fruits, vegetables, and main dishes (also called “entrees”) are given high priority, as are nutrition-related décor, functioning equipment, nutrition education, and communication with parents.

The differences between Smarter Mealtimes and Smarter Lunchrooms reflect the children’s developmental stages and logistical difference between sites. The strategies have been pared down from 60 to 20 and the industry language simplified so that all caregivers can use them. Strategies related to outside agencies such as the HealthierUS School Challenge were eliminated, as were references to service lines, layout, and other standards specific to K-12 lunchrooms. New strategies reflecting ECE settings include family-style meals, children’s involvement in meal set-up and clean-up, and caregivers’ participation in meals, all of which encourage self-regulation and the development of healthy meal norms.

The resources suite is designed to be used by any ECE caregiver. The 1-page Smarter Mealtimes Scorecard is supported by an FAQ page to explain common questions and a Summary worksheet to synthesize results. The Smarter Mealtime Challenge worksheet helps caregivers stay on track with implementing new strategies daily. A Flyer and Brochure give overviews of the program and are suitable to sharing with parents or through doctor’s offices, play space bulletin boards, service agencies, and other communication venues. A literature review explains the science behind the strategies in greater detail. The strategies are explained in detail in the Handbook: why they work, photos, and pro tips for easy implementation, plus a page of curated links to other helpful resources such as healthy dip recipes, a seasonal buying guide, nutrition education resources, and more!

Lastly, the Smarter Mealtimes program has made it easy to incorporate best practices and nutritional signage into any ECE space by offering free print-your-own PDFs as well as colorful cling designs for purchase (coming soon). The signs include the 26-poster-series Fruits and Veggies ABC and the 3-poster “3 easy ways…” series for caregivers detailing ways to involve children in mealtimes, model healthy behaviors, and promote fruits and vegetables.

Spanish-language versions of all of these Smarter Mealtimes resources are underway and will be released in early 2018!

Lastly, Smarter Mealtimes offers training for caregivers and families in how to use these strategies. The Healthy Food Choices in Schools Community of Practice archived webinars include a 2-part Smarter Mealtimes webinar that introduces the program and Scorecard and then goes through the 20 strategies one-by-one, with explanations, photos, and pro tips to help anyone get started. There is also a webinar detailing how to find and use resources on, which includes the Smarter Mealtimes program.

With so much emphasis in today’s social consciousness on preventing childhood obesity and promoting overall wellness and healthy habits, the need for a simple, straightforward, effective, highly adaptable, low-cost or no-cost program like Smarter Mealtimes is clear.  Please look through these resources and share them with ECE caregivers and other care providers (pediatricians, play groups, etc.). Let’s ensure the Smarter Mealtimes program and tools reach the widest audience possible and benefit every child.

*ECE settings vary widely, including but not limited to these differences:

  • daycare center or HeadStart vs. homecare
  • licensed vs. unlicensed (with the industry knowledge, training, and access to industry communication this implies)
  • meal service vs. home-packed meals, and any combination therein (snacks, beverages, some meals served but not all, etc.)
  • one age served or mixed ages
  • large population or only a few kids
  • industrial food prep and storage facilities or shared family space