You Serve How Many Meals?
Patty Fisher, Early Learning Indiana’s Director of Center Administration and better known as Ms. Patty around our centers, sat down with Megan McKinney Cooper, Director of Marketing and Development as well as mom to Ellie, who attends pre-K at our Federal Center, to talk about the very large and little-known food program at our Day Early Learning Centers.
M: Many people may not realize that we have full-service kitchens and full-time cooks on staff in each of our centers who feed our children nutritious food all day long. Exactly how many meals and snacks to we serve in our centers each month?
P: Well, each day we serve breakfast, lunch, and two snacks for each child, even most of our infants, at all of centers except Day Early Learning at IU Health, where we serve dinner too. That’s a total of 36,352 snacks each month and 38,852 meals – so around 75,000 total.
P: We have been rated the Gold rating from the Department of Education, so our menus follow strict guidelines for nutrition: lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, limited juice, less processed food. I create balanced meals – nothing is fried, and we try to have everything homemade. Even breaded chicken or fish is baked, not fried. I collect information from the cooks about what the kids really respond to, so we can create food that’s both healthy and makes the kids happy – so they’ll eat it.
M: Does everyone get the same thing at snack time or mealtime?
P: The menus vary slightly from center to center, but what’s served in each classroom varies as well. All of our cooks accommodate children who are vegetarians, who don’t eat certain meats, and who have allergies – any special dietary needs, we accommodate. All of our centers are completely nut-free. The trick is to create meals that all look alike, so kids who are eating tofu instead of chicken strips don’t feel left out. We make the vegetarian and meat options look as much alike as possible so no one feels excluded. And at some of our centers, our cooks prepare something unique that’s special for the center. Out at Fort, Ms. Beverly has a knack for preparing greens – collard greens and turnip greens – that the kids really like. Parents even ask her for the recipe when the kids go home and talk about it. But that probably won’t be on the menu at the other centers. The way Beverly makes it is special.
M: I happen to love Ms. Anita’s* Spanish rice at the Lilly center. What other specialties are our cooks known for?
P: Ms. Dolly’s homemade pizza (Infant and Toddler Center) is fantastic, Angie at IU Health makes THE BEST chocolate chip cookies, and Ms. Anita is known for her casseroles too. I don’t even like tuna noodle casserole, but Ms. Anita’s is really good. Ms. Alicia makes homemade meatballs that are to die for.
*Amazing fact: Ms. Anita at the Lilly Family Center will celebrate her 41st year as a cook with Early Learning Indiana this year. Yes, she’s one of our finest cooks who has been helping children grow for decades!
M: What’s something you experimented with on the menu that has become a hit?
P: That would be my crunchy Hawaiian chicken wrap. It’s a tortilla with broccoli, carrots, spinach, chicken and pineapple wrapped in it. The pineapple makes it sweet, so the kids love it. I have also added a peach smoothie to the menu – peaches and yogurt with some granola or graham crackers on top.
M: Have you put anything on the menu that was a total dud?
P: Lentils. They really didn’t like the lentils. We even had parents complain that their kids didn’t like the lentils. Beans in general – even the bean burritos have not been embraced.
M: What else should we know about our cooks and our kitchens?
P: Well, we provide formula for all babies who aren’t exclusively on breast milk. It’s a huge savings and benefit for parents, that they don’t need to provide formula every day. And, we go through so much milk you won’t believe it. We could open a dairy farm. Our State center alone goes through approximately 50 gallons each week. Little kids keep cows busy.