Nursery Food: Award winner - Excellence all round

Monday, October 19, 2015

Elmscot Day Nursery and Nursery School's comprehensive approach to food offers an inspiring example of good practice, writes Ruth Thomson.

When Nursery World called Elmscot Day Nursery and Nursery School to congratulate the team again on winning the Nursery World Nursery Food Award 2015, joint owner Stephanie Molnar was taking delivery of a load of garlic. It needs to be planted now, she explained, if the nursery is to have a ready supply by next summer, and planting in the autumn, rather than the spring, gives you bigger and more flavourful bulbs.

It was this meticulous planning in all aspects of food provision, backed up by an impressive training programme, that saw the setting emerge top of the judges' score sheet for this year's award.

The nursery, based in Altrincham, Cheshire, caters daily for 25 staff and 75 children, aged from three months to five years, and is the original setting in what is now a group of four day nurseries.

The nursery has pushed for excellence through the Children's Food Trust Eat Better, Start Better campaign and Trafford Council's quality assurance scheme, the Healthy Setting Award. Also central to its success has been input from an in-house chef - currently professionally trained Mark Brooke - and qualified paediatric dietitian, Sue Pavey. But as a former microbiologist, Ms Molnar herself has always led the group in ensuring excellence in food provision and education at the nursery, and this is reinforced by nursery manager Justyna Ogrodniczek.

'As a new mum I tried to do everything by the book, and that learning went straight into the nursery when we opened in 2001,' she says. 'At every level we strive to get it right, as it's a huge responsibility.'

The end result is high-quality food provision, well-thought-out policies and procedures and clear strategies for teaching children about healthy living and food production (see box).

Commenting on her visit to the setting, one of Nursery World's food award judges noted: 'Elmscot demonstrates food excellence through its comprehensive food and nutrition policies, which are embedded in the setting's day-to-day practice.

'The seasonal eight-week rotating full daycare menu is exceptionally varied, which will support children to eat a balanced diet, and presentation is to an exceptionally high standard.

'All staff are actively involved with food service and mealtimes, spoke confidently and enthusiastically about the food provision and were very engaged with the nursery food and ethos. They were confident too in their approach to support each child in their care to eat well.'


Training programme

Achieving and maintaining these standards has been enabled largely through the nursery's training programme, much of which is delivered by Ms Pavey, who has been involved with the nursery since it opened.

Training is a priority for health, safety and parenting reasons, as well as the need for each child to eat a nutritious, balanced diet. Ms Molnar explains, 'Children's food provision is a health and safety issue, because of the associated risks such as choking or allergies, and even more so because the children are too young to represent their needs themselves. Parents also have worries and misconceptions about food.

'Training provides consistency, confidence and, of course, knowledge and understanding of the issues, how to communicate these to parents and where to access further information. It is not safe, or good customer service, for key knowledge to be held by just one or two people, and our aim is to support parents by being a centre of knowledge, expertise and sometimes even referral if necessary.'

Understanding the nursery's food policy is part of every practitioner's induction training, while in their first year, all staff must achieve a certificate in Basic Food Hygiene and attend in-house training in three main areas: child nutrition, complementary feeding and food allergy.

Training is backed up by the daily experience of eating good, healthy food at work. Ms Molnar explains, 'We offer a free lunch to staff every day - the same food as the children. By setting an example in what healthy food looks and tastes like, we educate our team in a subtle way.

'Our chefs have attended customised full-day cooking workshops for children's food at the Vegetarian Society, and another workshop is coming up at the Cheshire Cookery School.'

Menus are displayed daily and recipes and policies can be accessed by registered parents on the parent portal of the nursery website. The nursery also offers families free workshops. Led by Ms Pavey, these sessions cover aspects of child nutrition and subjects such as complementary feeding and packed lunches.

'This ensures parents share our understanding. The result of this clarity of information and level of support is that we are held in high regard and respected for our commitment to getting it right,' says Ms Molnar.


RIGHT CHOICES

'Children ultimately need to learn to make the right choices for themselves,' says Ms Molnar of teaching children about healthy living. 'Our ethos is to build a foundation that empowers children in this way.

'There are many food-related activities in our settings or activities not necessarily aiming to achieve a food-related goal but involving food.'

Teamwork is important, with practitioners talking to the chef about nutrition, food and activities, as well as keeping up to date with the gardening calendar via websites such as www.rhs.org.uk.

Seed to plate

Nursery garden

The garden has a vegetable plot and fruit trees, opening up opportunities for children to plant, tend, harvest and cook the produce they have grown. Some of the nursery's apple harvest is sent home with the children along with recipes for chutney and apple cakes.

Food-related visits

Trips to local shops or places such as the fishmonger or food market feature regularly. The local butcher and greengrocer also come in to talk about food.

Food activities

  • Food preparation, baking and cooking are regular activities, sometimes with chef Mark Brooke and kitchen assistant Rebecca Heywood involved.
  • Forest school is seen as a way of connecting children to nature, and educating them about the food chain.

Opportunities for learning

The nursery takes every opportunity to teach children about food. When a queen bee tried to take up residence in the garden, a beekeeper rescued her and later returned to the nursery to talk about honey.

Mealtimes

  • Mealtimes are valued as a social experience, a learning opportunity and a time when children can demonstrate their growing independence by, for example, serving themselves.
  • To ensure that mealtimes are inclusive, the nursery makes every effort to serve children with food that looks similar.
  • Children are encouraged to try the range of foods, tastes and textures within the hugely varied rotating menu. However, staff are never seen to be critical of fussy eaters and acknowledge any consistent dislikes.
  • The nursery operates a Children's Choice scheme, where every month, children draw their favourite food with their parents at home, and one is then picked for dinner.

Health and hygiene

Hand washing

Hand washing is given top priority and backed up by their GlitterBug, a UV machine which can detect how well hands have been washed and demonstrate how easy it is for germs to spread.

Oral health

Children brush their teeth 30 minutes after lunch or as soon as they wake from a nap. Messages about good dental health are also passed on through the Dental Playbox (www.actionforsickchildren.org.uk/ aims-dental-playbox).

Skills for life

Kellogg's again sponsored the Nursery World Nursery Food Award. Laura Street, Kellogg's UK and Republic ofIreland nutritionist, pays tribute

Feeding a large group of children with a variety of likes and dislikes, allergies and intolerances alongside trying to ensure that they consume a balanced and varied diet is not easy. Consuming a variety of foods is key to aiding growth and development. Furthermore, Elmscot Day Nursery makes it fun and look easy, although I'm sure it is far from easy.

Combining all these considerations with ensuring that children are involved by allowing them to choose recipes, write shopping lists and cook is extremely impressive. Many great chefs have been brought up around food and learned about food at a young age.

Children learn about the importance of seasonal variation and are equipped with cooking skills and an understanding of how food grows. This learning extends to the development of a healthy relationship with food, as well as discovering the social pleasure of conversing over a meal.

Hopefully this arms the children with skills and a lifetime of good eating. I still use my cookery workbooks from school to cook dinner, so who knows - they may still be cooking recipes from the Elmscot recipe book in 15 years too!

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