By Cindy Atoji Keene
Toddlers and pre-schoolers can be notoriously picky eaters, often preferring a diet of carbs and sweets over leafy greens or unfamiliar entrees. So imagine trying to prepare meals for over a thousand children a day, infant to age 6, from all different family backgrounds and ethnicities. That is a daily task for Janet Lee Rose, 56, director of nutrition at Associated Early Care and Education, an early education agency dedicated to providing affordable childcare to Boston’s working families. She not only has to take food allergies into consideration, which are becoming very common and often dangerous, but also multi-cultural influences, nutritional balance, and, of course, the fickle toddler palate. Rose tries to include authentic multi-cultural meals that are familiar to children, such arroz con polla (rice with chicken), Caribbean curried chicken, or Haitian chicken and rice, but often needs to tweak the menu. African fish stew, for example, was crossed off the serving rotation as the numbers of children with severe fish allergies increased. “We used to serve a lot of fish dishes but I took it off the menu since even exposure to it could cause a potential problem,” said Rose, who has been coordinating food service for Associated’s 135 childcare centers and family childcare homes for over 20 years.
During a recent spring weekday, over a hundred children from the surrounding neighborhoods of Chinatown, Dorchester, Roxbury, and the South End, sat down for a family-style meal at Associated’s Castle Square location on Tremont Street. Meals are prepared in the on-site kitchen, with staff that shops, prepares and cooks meals as planned by Rose, following the nutritional and safety requirements mandated by state and federal guidelines. But, said Rose, “You can plan the healthiest meals on paper, but if children don’t want to eat it, then they’re not fulfilling their purpose,” said Rose.
Q: How do you make healthy food more appealing to kids?
A: Color is a factor – a plate has to be appealing. If you’re serving mashed potatoes, cauliflower, and milk, that’s a bland looking plate, so it’s a good idea to serve a variety of ingredients. Kids also need to be engaged in fun food activities, such as making smoothies with yogurt, learning about gardening, or singing songs about making imaginary soup. This engages kids and encourages them to eat healthy foods.
Q: What meals get thumbs ups and thumbs down for kids?
A: I thought a fresh fruit platter with cottage cheese would be a nice cool lunch on a hot day, but the texture of the cottage cheese was not a big hit. I tried it instead at snack time, and it was better well received. So some meals are a matter of timing and adjustment. I also find that combining a new food or meal with something that’s familiar helps to persuade children to try it. Some kids have never seen cucumbers at home, for example, but they are used to rice and beans, so we serve them together. I want the introduction of cucumbers – or any other new vegetable or fruit – to be a positive experience for them. Good eating habits are set at a very young age.
Q: How have the eating habits of kids changed throughout the years?
A: When I first started 24 years ago, kids were eating white bread, white pasta, two percent milk and more frozen and canned fruits and vegetables. Now we emphasize whole grains, serve 1 percent milk and fresh fruits and vegetables. I see a big shift in people’s awareness to reduce the epidemic of obesity. A decade ago we were headed in the wrong direction, but people are much more aware now.
Q: What do you do with children who have very strict dietary restrictions?
A: I remember one child who was allergic to soy, corn, peanuts, eggs and a long list of other items. We sat down with his healthcare provider and worked out a plan. Often in time, children will grow out of allergies, so we’d challenge him once in a while to see if he could accept a certain kind of food, and little by little, the child was able to add some foods back in.
Q: Part of your directive is to educate families. How do you do this?
A: Not all families understand what healthy choices are. One parent told me, ‘I replaced soda with cranberry juice cocktail.’ But actually there is more sugar in cranberry juice cocktail than soda. This was enlightening for this mom. So I encourage people to cut back on sugary drinks, reduce screen time, and exercise daily.
Q: What do you usually have for lunch?
A: I’m like clockwork: I have low-fat oatmeal bread, lettuce, and Swiss cheese. I eat pita chips and drink water almost every day. I guess I’m boring in that way.
Q: Were you a healthy eating while growing up?
A: Ironically, I was a very fussy eater and very limited in the foods I would eat. My mom passed away when I was young, so my dad was left to prepare meals for my sister and I. At the end of week, he’d be completely out of options, so we’d hop in the car and eat at Friendly’s.