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.

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Notes/Citation Information

Published in Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, v. 120, issue 3.

Copyright © 2020 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

This manuscript version is made available under the CC‐BY‐NC‐ND 4.0 license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/.

The document available for download is the authors' post-peer-review final draft of the article.

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Funding Information

Funding for this project was provided by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health (grant number R01HL120969). The project was conducted out of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a Prevention Research Center funded through a cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (grant number 1U48DP005017). Support was also received from the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (grant number NIH DK056350) and the Washington University in St Louis Center for Diabetes Translation Research (grant number P30DK092950).