When Annalisa James bought Incy Wincy’s nursery in Bedale, North Yorkshire in 2013, she wanted to move away from ‘chocolate Mini Rolls and baked beans’ and overhaul fully the setting’s approach to food.
Five years later, the nursery has won the 2018 Nursery World Award for nursery food, commended by the judges for the ‘good food culture embedded throughout its practice, with balanced and creative menus’.
Nursery manager Sarah Moon-Gatford says the key has been establishing a relaxed approach to food that runs through all aspects of the setting.
‘We waited a long time before entering the Nursery World Awards because we felt that changing your approach to nutrition can sometimes be just a token gesture,’ she explains.
‘We wanted to fully embed our approach. We didn’t want to turn it into an agenda item, or make it specifically linked to an issue like mental health or obesity. Food isn’t taught in a slot at the nursery; it’s just part of daily life.’
FUN WITH FOOD
Fun ideas such as the Star Baker initiative have enabled the nursery to establish a vibrant food culture across all areas of its practice. At the beginning of each term, a small group of children don their aprons and accept the Star Baker challenge to cook a new recipe every week for ten weeks.
Money they raise from selling the products to parents is then invested back into ingredients, baking equipment and books for them to use. At the end of the project, all children who take part receive a Star Baker certificate with all the skills they have gained listed on it, not just limited to cookery. ‘There’s lots of hidden maths in Star Bakers,’ explains Ms Moon-Gatford. ‘What is nice is that we get to look at all the extra opportunities food brings. Of course, it’s important for health, but it can be important for education too.
‘Food can cover all areas of learning. There’s maths in cooking, or in growing vegetables. There are new words to learn, like “scrumptious”, or the names of tools we use in the garden to grow fruit and veg.’
Children learn where food comes from in their walled garden and greenhouse, and staff have benefited from the support and resources of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).
‘The RHS School Gardening Awards scheme has five stages and we’re up to number four,’ says Ms Moon-Gatford (see box). ‘It has helped us all to be more confident in growing veg. Although we like the children to experiment with food, we talk about washing everything we pick and we discuss how we don’t want to pick all the things we find.
‘With the rise of things like Forest Schools, we do still need to be aware of the risks and keep children safe even with food. We encourage them to give food to our chef so he can decide what to use.’
Nursery chef Rob Hartley provides a wealth of expertise garnered from his previous job in a Michelin-starred restaurant. The nursery kitchen opens onto the dining area where children have their own cupboard for ingredients and bowls, and also onto the playroom.
‘The children can smell, see and hear everything Rob does, so he can’t talk like some chefs do!’ says Ms Moon-Gatford. ‘Lots of people were surprised he wanted to go into nurseries, but he enjoys the challenge.
‘When we go out to a restaurant, we want things full of double cream and butter, but Rob has to decide how he can make food taste as good as that without using those kinds of ingredients, because they’re not healthy. He’s very good fun to have around, he’s a very calm character and very approachable, so the kids love him, and he takes everything in his stride.’
FOOD AND PARENTS
As a day nursery for funded children, working with parents is key to ensuring that healthy eating is embraced fully at Incy Wincy’s. Strong communication begins with pre-registration home visits to share dietary details.
Information about meals and snacks is shared on a parents’ forum and through open evenings, daily conversations and the nursery’s website. The nursery also provides take-home meals for parents that can be ordered in advance and are properly chilled, labelled and packaged.
‘We are aware that a lot of our parents are very busy, and even as adults we are not always very good at looking after ourselves,’ Ms Moon-Gatford explains.
When the housekeeper who made the puddings to go with the meals left the setting, the nursery decided to enlist the help of its smallest chefs.
‘We thought why not let the children help, because they’re good cooks. So, we gave them a £15 kitty to buy ingredients with, they cook pudding and portion it up, put it in bags and label it, choose what to charge and then anyone can buy some using an honesty box.’
Ms Moon-Gatford says this too can provide extra benefits for children. ‘Parents often pay for things nowadays on their phone or by card,’ she explains. ‘We talk a lot about coins in nursery, but how would children necessarily know about them? Often there is no change in their house. So, this kind of idea helps them really use money in practice.’
FOOD AND STAFF
Incy Wincy’s also scored top marks with the Nursery World Awards judges when it came to staff training and knowledge of nutrition and hygiene. Staff meetings focus on portion sizes with visual demonstrations, and staff enjoy participating in bake-offs.
‘Our staff are generally quite young so they didn’t necessarily know how to cook or grow veg,’ says Ms Moon-Gatford. ‘It means they can really enjoy learning from and getting involved in the activities.’
Meanwhile, the nursery’s links to the rural community in which it is situated are strong, with regular visits to the bakery, butcher, local market and farms. ‘Most of our local community is involved in food in some way, whether growing it or making it. That is what they do day in and day out, so it makes sense for us to address it,’ explains Ms Moon-Gatford.
Above all, however, Ms Moon-Gatford stresses that food should be just another part of the children’s day, and should not be something to get too worried about.
‘It can just be silly things sometimes, like making sure the cutlery is the right size for the different age groups. It doesn’t need to look pretty; it needs to be able to be used,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to take away from what we do, because it’s complex, but we feel food should be easy, fun and everyday for children. People shouldn’t get too hung up on it.’
‘Nursery World Awards 2018: Initiatives - Nursery Food’, www.nurseryworld.co.uk/awards