The Brazilian National School Feeding Program (PNAE) seeks to meet student’s nutritional needs during the period they remain in school. This study aimed to determine the nutritional composition of meals provided in municipal day-care centres serving children of 7–11 months (group A) and 12–36 months (group B) of age and to compare observed values with the PNAE’s and dietary reference intakes’ (DRI) recommendations. This cross-sectional study was conducted in 4 day-care centres in the metropolitan area of Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil, between June and November 2013. Food samples of six daily meals were collected during 20 non-consecutive days, totalling 120 samples. For each meal, average served and consumed portions were submitted for laboratory analysis of moisture, ash, proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, dietary fibre, Na, Ca and Fe and compared with the PNAE’s and DRI’s values. No statistically significant difference was found between age groups (P=0·793) regarding portion sizes and nutritional composition. The same menu was offered to both groups in 95 % of the meals (n 114), although the groups’ nutritional needs were different. For group A, served meals met PNAE’s recommendations for energy, carbohydrates, proteins, Na and Ca content, and consumed portions provided 70 % of the nutritional needs for carbohydrates, proteins and Ca. For group B, served portions complied with the PNAE’s values for proteins, Na and Ca. Proteins and Na reached 70 % of the nutritional needs when consumed food was evaluated. School feeding in day-care centres partially meet PNAE’s guidelines and children’s nutritional requirements, contradicting the primary objective established by the national programme.