Healthy and happy children are involved in what they eat
Offering children plenty of healthy food options and getting them involved in food preparation, where possible, is very much the philosophy of Clodagh Collins who runs Apple House childcare in Blackrock, County Dublin. With one in four school children in Ireland either overweight or obese, it has never been more important to focus on children’s eating habits. Apple House, which opened in 2009, is a home from home for children who attend the centre after school. It caters for up to 40 primary school children whose parents are out working.
As Collins explains, when the children come to the centre, they’re tired and hungry after the school day. Before the staff members at the centre help them with their homework, the children are given a snack that is both replenishing and good for concentration.
“The snacks are laid out on a table, ready to go. We do home-made cranberry granola bars which are very popular. We also do home-baked apple and banana muffins and there’s always plenty of other fruit as well as carrot sticks with hummus. We also do fruit kebabs. The children love them. Even if they don’t like everything on the kebab, they’ll try whatever is on it to get to the next piece. It’s a bit of fun.”
Through listening to children talk about their food likes and dislikes and what they eat at home, Collins has learned that simple foods go down best. In the early days of the centre, she served dishes such as Thai green curry and couscous but discovered that children favour plain food and generally don’t like spicy dishes.
“Their taste buds for spicy food will develop in later years. You don’t have to worry about getting them to eat food from all over the world. That will gradually happen as they mature. I find that they like dishes such as shepherd’s pie and spaghetti Bolognese.”
To ensure that the children consume enough vegetables from the food pyramid, they are liquidised into dishes such as spaghetti Bolognese or chicken curry. “A lot of the children won’t eat peas so they’re liquidised into the sauces. Broccoli is a vegetable that the children actually really like. We sometimes do taste tests. If children don’t want to eat something, we encourage them to taste it anyway. It can take eight or nine tastes before they’ll like the food.”
Children don’t want to be dictated to about what to eat: “If you give them choices, you’re giving them respect. If, for example, we’re making a stir fry, we cook four vegetables and they can pick two of them. This sets them up for success.”
While health and safety regulations preclude children from cooking in childcare centres, Collins gets the children to help out by picking apples from the centre’s garden which are used for baking apple muffins. The children enjoy mixing baking ingredients and wearing aprons and chef’s hats.
“We have an herb garden so the children are regularly out with their watering cans. They pick parsley and chives to garnish food.”
Knowing the provenance of food is something that is instilled in the children that attend Mary Geary’s childcare in Carrigtwohill, County Cork. Geary’s husband, Oliver Sheehan, who is involved in this crèche and after school centre, has a farm nearby which is leased out to a local farmer.
“The children sometimes visit the farm and they make the connection between what is on their plates and the animals that they see,” says Sheehan.
Geary’s childcare, which caters for up to 180 children from six months to 12 years of age, opened 30 years ago. It employs a full-time chef.
“We have menus that we rotate every two weeks and we serve fish once a week. There are a lot of dietary requirements so we do gluten free food for some children.”
Through trial and error, the centre learns what children like to eat. “We used to serve expensive lamb but discovered that a lot of the children don’t like the smell from it. So now we give them turkey instead and they absolutely love it.”
Pizza is always a good bet for children but ready-made pizzas are often high in fat. “We serve home-made pizza. We make our own dough base and give the children a choice of healthy toppings.”
Fizzy drinks are not allowed in the centre. “From time to time, children come in with fruit juices that their parents give them. But we’re very conscious that some of these juices, if concentrated, can be harmful for children’s dental health.”
Sheehan plans to expand. “We’re going to put in raised beds in the garden so that the children will be able to grow their own vegetables.”
That will mean exercise as well as healthy food – a win/win for today’s child, spoilt for choice but in need of direction.