Diversifying dining at the daycare
Toddlers step in from outdoor play and loudly inhale. It smells delicious, they note. A visitor to the EarlyON Child and Family Centre daycare in Minden says that it smells like Thanksgiving dinner in there. When the children sit down to eat lunch, they dive into a plate of scalloped potatoes, roasted chicken and butternut squash, completely made by scratch that morning in the kitchen adjoining the play and learning areas.
The home cooked meal reflects a recent change in the menu led by daycare staff with the support of a registered dietitian who noted that the previous menu was suiting the children’s nutritional needs, but could be better.
“We did not have a bad menu, but I saw that there were just basic vegetables – it was basic,” said Kinga Baricz, daycare supervisor. “The kids were not introduced to a variety of foods.”
Baricz, alongside daycare cook Alyssa Gordon, followed provincial government guidelines and recommendations of Canada’s Food Guide to rework the menu, removing processed foods, and foods that lacked much nutritional value including cream cheese and Goldfish crackers.
Fish sticks were replaced with steamed fish flavoured with green seasoning. Instant rice was replaced with basmati rice. Cream cheese was replaced with avocado. Scraps are now added to soup bases so nothing goes to waste.
“We introduced every kind of vegetable and fruit on the market,” said Baricz. “Eggplant...eggplant! Who does that? I love eggplant, we always eat eggplant at home, but it’s never been in the daycare. And how beautiful is the hummus with the beets in it? The colours – the children were like, ‘wow!’ And they started eating it, because it was this beautiful magenta colour. Talking about the food, and what’s in it, they love it. They all line up. This is what I wanted. To make them excited. It’s not just the basic colours, you’re right there teaching different colours, and using words they’ve never heard. Like ‘parsley’. And then I give them a piece of parsley, stem and all, and say, try it.”
The children’s section of a typical restaurant menu often offers standard fare that is relatively vegetable free: chicken fingers and fries, grilled cheese and fries, macaroni and cheese.
Minden’s daycare menu reads like a menu from a weekend health retreat: Crackers with beetroot hummus. Nectarines and cinnamon raisin toast. Hearty vegetable and turkey or lentil stew with whole wheat dinner rolls. Baked stuffed avocado and corn with pearled barley and fish. Favourites of the children, who range in age from just over a year to four years old, now include garden vegetable ratatouille and pesto chicken.
“It’s different from your average mac and cheese and carb-y meals that a lot of daycares serve,” said Leah Thomas, early childhood educator.
In a daycare group she belongs to on Facebook, Thomas said she saw a post from a daycare in British Columbia in which they posted their menu.
“They were raving about how balanced their menu was,” she said. “They had chocolate chip muffins on it, and what they thought was nutritious. There was no comparison. I feel so proud of our menu.”
She said that despite the occasional hesitation about a new food, for the most part, students have adjusted well to the changes.
“Parents say, ‘I can’t believe they eat that here, I’ve tried it at home. They won’t touch it at home.’”
But Thomas said it’s motivating for some kids to see their friends and teachers enjoying the meal alongside them.
“I think that I have been surprised by what the children will eat,” said Gordon. “Before, they would eat what was there – frozen breaded chicken nuggets or food that is considered typical kid meals. The difference now ... the belief was years ago that children are picky and don’t like to eat healthy things, but I think we’re proving if you serve it to them, they will eat it.”
“Roasted Brussels sprouts with just olive oil and oregano, they’re loving it,” said Baricz.
The daycare staff acknowledged how difficult it is for many parents feeling rushed to prepare and serve healthy meals at the end of the work day, between school and extracurricular activities, and that sometimes out of a need for a quick meal parents might revert to standard foods they know the children will eat, like chicken fingers, just to get dinner on the table. It has taken the staff more time for menu planning and food preparation than in the past, but they’re becoming more comfortable and efficient with shopping and planning.
“It’s been really fun developing the menu,” said Gordon. “A nice change. It does take more time. A lot more care is put into it, rather than taking it from the freezer and popping it into the oven. You’re making it from scratch, taking the time to wash and prepare fresh produce.”
“She worked on [the menu] like no tomorrow,” said Baricz. “She puts her heart into it, and she’s amazing.”
The budget has also been slightly higher – just by about $20, according to Baricz, but it’s a cost that has been worth it for the goal of healthier meals.
Food such as doughnuts and chocolate that were being brought in from home to the daycare is now strongly discouraged. Birthday cakes were replaced with fruit in the shape of a smiley face on a plate.
“They have cakes at home, they can have candies and juices at home, we’re not going to do it here,” said Baricz. “If we’re going in, we’re going all in.”
Due to allergies or alternative diets, some kids enrolled in the daycare don’t eat the dairy or meat versions of a meal, so staff have made meals that are similar so those students feel included at mealtime, rather than having them eat separate meals.
“If we really think about it, children should feel like they are at home and cared for, because they can be stressed out leaving the house,” said Baricz.
“Based on that, I tried to somehow make sure everyone is included. If some people prefer no meat, those children should eat [a similar meal] having no meat in the food. That doesn’t mean that we can’t all eat that. We don’t necessarily have to make a separate meal for the one child who doesn’t have meat. We can have menus which we can all enjoy without the meat.”
Staff has observed a huge change in how and what the children eat, and what the staff eats too – those who used to bring their lunch from home prefer the daycare meals instead.
“I’ve never seen a group of children learn to love their veggies like this one has,” said Thomas.
She attributes the change to modelling – the educators sit with the children and eat the same lunch, having the chance to talk about ingredients or the colour of each food.
“It’s exposure, too,” said Gordon. “When I would make vegetables and dip before, the vegetables were cucumbers, celery, carrots ... now they’re much more varied: red peppers, mushrooms, rutabaga.”
In the future, Baricz has more plans to encourage healthy eating in the daycare. She hopes to be able to send recipes home or offer parents’ cooking nights to help offer guidance for mealtimes to those who want or need it. She also hopes to see the students serving their own meals to foster independence.
“We have to go by, how does learning happen,” said Baricz. “Children need to feel they belong, they’re nurtured, confident ... what that means, is we need to involve them in the food and mealtime process. We do a lot of baking and cooking with them, but also, they’re going to be OK to serve themselves. And they should. Not just, ‘OK, put your dishes away now, this is where it goes.’ No. Let them choose what they need to eat. We’re going to encourage they need to try it at least, this vegetable, one piece of it. Because if they try one, eventually they’re going to try two.”
Baricz is proud of the daycare staff and parents and caregivers for supporting the change, and excited about what the daycare is offering to the kids.
“You know what, I see a huge difference,” she said. “They do try it. They’re not going hungry. It’s working and it’s getting better and better, and it’s just a matter of time. I feel like we can do anything. The children, they’re all going to be healthier and happier because they spend their days with us. We’re there to make sure these children have the best.”