From plan to plate: How new food items make the grade

At KinderCare Education, we know that growth starts from the inside out. Having a healthy body means having a healthy mind and we want to nourish and fuel the children in our care to learn and grow. That’s why, over the next few weeks, we’re sharing stories about the nutrition improvements we’ve made and celebrating the extraordinary centers and sites who are taking our commitment to do what’s right for the children in our care to the next level.

When the KinderCare Education nutrition team says the menu in place at each center and site is “Kid tasted, nutritionist approved,” the phrase is more than a tagline. New items don’t make it on the menu until they meet company nutritionist Courtney Hines’ approval and get a thumbs-up from children at select centers where the center staff are part of the Nutrition Advisory Team.

The Nutrition Advisory Team is a group of 22 cooks, center directors, and Subsidy food program administrators who provide Hines with feedback about the menu. The team came together in March of 2015 and not only tests recipes and new menu items, but also provide Hines with valuable information about the logistics of preparing certain dishes in a center kitchen.

16177074132_f74b7eac12_z“We have to understand the operational impact of new menu items,” said Hines. “Do cooks have regular time to prepare it? Do kids like it? If we’re sending a new product or recipe we want to make sure they can store it and prepare it and that children actually want to eat it.”

The team has found some hits and misses along the way –feedback that impacts the menu for all 1,300 KinderCare Learning Centers.

Terrible turkey crumble
Once upon a time, KinderCare centers served an item called “turkey crumble.” While the precooked meat was intended to be a simple way to add protein to dishes, critics (children) called it “cat food.” Once Hines heard that bit of feedback from the Nutrition Advisory Team, she contacted Tyson Foods to explore other lean protein options, and to find a replacement for the dreaded turkey crumble. After much discussion, a Tyson chef created new recipes with chicken, all of which were sent to the Advisory Team to test at their centers. Children tasted the new recipes, closely examined the food and talked about it with their classmates and teachers. One recipe – a crispy chicken burrito – was particularly popular. One school-age child in West Linn, Ore., declared burrito day “the best day ever!” thus earning the new burritos a place on the menu.

Brown rice is a healthy, whole grain menu item that, unfortunately, takes a long time to cook – time busy center cooks don’t always have. When Hines learned about a pre-cooked brown rice quinoa blend that only took five minutes to prepare instead of an hour, she thought it would be a great timesaver for centers and an opportunity to introduce children to a new food. (Quinoa is a grain similar to buckwheat.) However, during taste tests children refused to eat the mix, thinking there were “bugs in the rice.” Cooks were puzzled by the proposed change.

“We can prepare rice,” they said, according to Hines. “When we know it’s on the menu we plan head for the extra cooking time. We don’t need a premade blend.”

Suffice to say, the brown rice quinoa blend didn’t make it on the menu. But that doesn’t mean Hines has given up on the idea of serving quinoa in centers. It can take 10-15 attempts – and preparing a dish in a variety of ways – before children might accept a new food, so perseverance is the name of the game with new menu items.

Hines and the Nutrition Advisory Team are still tweaking the menu, constantly searching for nutritious dishes that introduce children to new flavors and textures but that aren’t a hassle for center cooks to create. After all, variety is the spice of life!

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