Unique Child: Nutrition - Feeling festive

Mary Llewellin
Monday, November 30, 2015

Cultural and religious festivals are great for celebrating diversity, and there are few more enjoyable things to focus on than food. Snapdragons’ Mary Llewellin shares ideas for creative creations

While considering this piece about celebrating festivals in our nurseries, I stumbled across an article written in Nursery World in October 2001, just a few weeks after the events of 9/11 in America.

In the article, Judith Napier wondered whether celebrating religious festivals merely paid lip-service to the world’s faiths and investigated how nurseries tackled awareness of diversity, often by focusing on exotic and colourful customs. Was this, she asked, the best way to promote understanding of the variety of cultures in our society?

Nearly 15 years later, we are still asking the same questions. With continuing conflicts and economic crises sweeping the world, our cultural mix has become even richer as we welcome people seeking a safe haven. Many of the latest additions to our country have come from other culturally similar European countries, but the new traditions they bring can still seem excitingly unfamiliar.

The Government’s response has been to introduce guidance on promoting British values, which puts an onus on educators to ‘actively promote’, among other things, ‘mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs’. Most early years providers have long recognised that in valuing each unique child and fostering partnerships with parents, embracing and learning about different cultures and religions is entirely natural. But are we guilty, as Judith Napier said, of bringing out the ‘Twinkly lights at Diwali, a bit of hand-painting at Eid’ so that we can tick the right festival boxes?


I believe that festivals are a wonderful starting point for investigating and celebrating diversity because there are so many common themes no matter what our backgrounds: sharing rituals, giving gifts and, most of all, sharing special food with friends and family. I love the Waldorf philosophy which, with its emphasis on natural learning, believes that festivals consciously remind us of the changing cycles of life and so celebrates the seasons and seasonal festivals that echo what is happening during different passages of the year.

Of course, this brings food back into focus, as so many of the foods we eat when we celebrate festivals across the world are eaten because they are in season. The joy of using food as a way of celebrating difference in nurseries is that it doesn’t need to stop when the festival ends. Those new flavours and recipes shared from different homes can work their cohesive magic all year round.

Last month, during a week of Diwali, the children at Snapdragons Horfield enjoyed making, and eating, Shrina’s special carrot halva: grated carrot cooked with milk and golden syrup until thickened, then pressed into a baking tin, sprinkled with desiccated coconut and allowed to cool before being cut into squares for serving. I think that would work well combined with oats for a carrot and coconut flapjack too, so maybe we will feature that in our winter menus.

In December, we will be celebrating Christmas early at Snapdragons Keynsham with our charity fundraising Winter Wonderland and, as well as the traditional gingerbread decorations, including a giant gingerbread man to be raffled for the charity, Raquel will be giving the festival food a bit of a Filipino twist in honour of her childhood and serving star anise marinated pulled pork.

For Raquel, Christmas was a very big deal in the Philippines, lasting for the whole of December and culminating in Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve, with a midnight mass, fireworks and a feast, perfectly reflecting the fusion of Spanish and Chinese culture that has influenced the region.

For Raquel, Christmas means lechon (roast pork), hamon (sweet-cured ham) and puto bumbong, a sweet treat of sticky purple rice cooked in bamboo tubes and flavoured with coconut and muscovado sugar often sold at stalls outside churches for people leaving midnight mass.

The significance of the rice in this treat harks back to the seasons, as November is the main rice harvesting season. She has promised us that we can all try puto bumbong this December, but she will also be producing one of her famous roast dinners for the children’s Christmas parties.

Leading into the New Year, we will be turning our thoughts to Chinese New Year. Raquel loves to make fortune cookies with the children – something she did as a child – filling the cookies with messages they have written for their families, but she also cooks some amazing Chinese dishes, including the best crispy duck pancakes you’ve ever had. The children love filling their own pancakes with shredded crispy duck, homemade plum sauce and shreds of spring onion and cucumber. Communal celebration food at its best!

This fusion of traditions and cultures sums up our modern approach to festivals. We love to discover and share the many and wonderful ways that people around the world celebrate the festivals that mark the passage of the year. In that spirit, my recipe in this December edition fuses a festive bird and some British seasonal vegetables with dried fruit and spices from North Africa and the Middle East (see box).



tagineTry this Christmas chicken tagine with sprout and cranberry couscous. Serves ten.


500g free-range chicken breast, diced into 2cm cubes

350g couscous

2 medium carrots, finely chopped

2 sticks of celery, finely chopped

100g dried apricots, chopped

400g chopped tomatoes

350g Brussels sprouts

1 large parsnip, finely chopped

100g dried dates, chopped

1 medium onion

herbs and spices: 1 tbsp sweet paprika, bunch of coriander, 1 tbsp cinnamon, 1 tsp cumin seeds, 2 cloves of garlic (minced), 1 tsp white pepper, 1 tsp nutmeg, 4 bay leaves


Put a large saucepan of water on to boil with two of the bay leaves. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large pan and sauté the chopped vegetables and the garlic for five minutes, stirring to prevent burning.

In a dry frying pan, toast the cumin seeds quickly over a medium heat, then add them to the vegetables with all the other spices and two bay leaves. Pour in the chopped tomatoes and a cup of boiling water.

Chop the stalks of the coriander, retaining the leaves for garnish, then add the chopped dates, apricots, chicken and coriander stalks, mix them in and leave everything to simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile prepare the couscous: slice your sprouts finely, heat a tablespoon of oil in the cumin pan and saute the sprouts for 30 seconds, add the cranberries.

Leave the sprouts and cranberries to soften on a low heat. Check the level of your boiling water – you need about 1½ cups – and pour in the couscous, then remove immediately from the heat, leaving until water is absorbed.

Give it a quick stir, add the sprouts and cranberries and gently combine. Cover with a lid and leave to one side until the tagine is ready. Serve the tagine with the couscous and sprinkle with the coriander leaves.

For the recipe, with pictures, see pages 18-19 of Snapdragons’ magazine at http://downloads.snapdragonsnursery.com/magazine/2015/11-January-2015.pdf

Mary Llewellin is operations manager for Snapdragons. Snapdragons Keynsham has the Food For Life Partnership Gold Catering Mark, a Children’s Food Trust Award, is accredited by the Vegetarian Society and was winner of the Nursery World Nursery Food Award in 2012 and 2014.See www.snapdragonsnursery.com

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