My daughter has been going to a gigantic mainstream daycare center (She's 4.5 y.o. now and has been going there since age 6 months), and their food is institutional, meeting minimum nutritional guidelines, but not what I'd like for my daughter. At a big place like that, you'd think that they would be very rigid about deviating even a little bit, but my experience has been fantastic.
When she first started solids at 10 months old, I brought in my own food while the other babies just started eating the regular menu started, and my baby was too young to know the difference.
Things started to change at age 18-24 months when my daughter noticed that her food didn't look like the other children's food. She started eating the other children's stuff off of the floor. (Yuk.) Instead of giving up and letting her just eat what the other kids eat, I took a good look at the menu, and I started sending stuff similar to what the other kids eat. So instead of canned peaches, I either sent fresh peaches or frozen unsweetened peaches. Instead of the center's high sodium canned corn, I sent either no-salt canned corn or corn on the cob. The resemblance is not perfect. I don't send white triangular toast with jelly, my daughter gets dry brown (whole wheat) toast shaped like dinosaurs, but it was close enough that she stopped eating corn off of the floor.
But I approached this with positive thinking. I told the teacher that my daughter has a combination of lots of food allergies and nutritional concerns, but that I recognized that with so many children to deal with, making accomodations is difficult for the teacher and so I told her that I wanted to make sure that we could come up with a solution that would not require any extra work or time on her part. Then I asked if they would feed my daughter only food brought in from home (nothing else except water), and that would make it easier for them so that the teacher would not have to worry about which food she could/couldn't have. I suggested that we try it for a couple weeks, and that if it turned out to be too much hassle, then the two of us could brainstorm together to figure out some way to tweak the plan so that it would work better with the teacher.
When you phrase it that way, the teachers told me that it was absolutely no extra trouble for them.
For the first couple years (when my daughter was 1 year old until about age 3 years old), my daughter was the only child who did not eat the daycare's food. Then more and more children started to bring their own food. Now my daughter is definitely not alone by any means. Yes, most of the 100 or so children eat the center's food, but I think at least ten children bring their own food.
After my daughter turned age four or so, my daughter stopped caring whether her food matches the daycare's food. For example, this morning I told her that daycare is having pretzels for snack and I know that she doesn't like pretzels. I asked her if she would like pretzels or if she would like apple sauce or plain yogurt. She requested applesauce. So at this age the food doesn't have to match the center's food as long as she can have power to make a choice. This is a good thing because I have never been able to come up with a nutritional tasty alternative imitation of Jello.
After about a year an a half,