“I want to get kids before they even get to school,” says Kat Wieczorek-Ghisso. “That’s when you can make the biggest difference.”
Kat, who owns two preschools, is passionate about the importance of helping kids build a healthy relationship with what they eat.
The co-owner and operator of preschools Paisley Park at Leichhardt and Guildford doesn’t give the chefs at her schools a budget. “Nope! I don’t. They can spend what they like.” Healthy, wholesome, organic food is “incredibly important” to Kat, who says that helping kids build good relationships with food is crucial.
“I know for a fact that when kids are exposed to wholesome, well-balanced, delicious meals, they develop positive associations with mealtimes that last the rest of their lives.” With more than 20 years in childcare, Kat is responsible for feeding hundreds of children – aged from six weeks to six years – every weekday. “That’s a huge responsibility and we don’t take it lightly.”
Indeed. Chefs are employed at each of the centres to ensure that children are fed balanced, wholesome, fresh meals every day. The menus change between the centres. At Leichhardt, where many families are from Italian backgrounds, children might eat osso buco or chicken cacciatore. But at Guildford, where the children are more likely to have Chinese, Vietnamese and Middle Eastern backgrounds, kids eat curries, sushi, noodles and rice paper rolls. “We know that if children are exposed to meals in the centre that they’re used to having at home, they’ll be more likely to eat them and enjoy them.”
Still, there are some obstacles when it comes to pleasing both parents and children. “We do have parents who come and say, ‘There’s no way my kid will eat calamari/soup/eggplant/whatever’,” says Kat. “We offer alternatives, but honestly, we rarely have to provide them.” There’s a big emphasis on autonomy, with children serving themselves from share plates in the middle of the tables, and using proper crockery, glassware and cutlery. (“We’ve only ever had one breakage,” says Kat. “And that was an adult!”) “Giving kids more control empowers them,” says Kat. “If you give them healthy options and a pair of tongs, they get right into it! They know their own appetites, they know when to stop.”
Some of the kids’ favourite meals across the centres include stir-fries, couscous and curries. For afternoon tea, chefs insert paddle pop sticks into bananas and allow kids to roll them in toppings like shredded coconut, Rice Bubbles and cocoa. Other sweet treats include homemade muffins and cheesecakes (made with natural sweeteners such as honey). Snacks like fresh guacamole with raw cauliflower and carrots for dipping are a big hit, as well as a sort of bruschetta made with rye bread, avocado, chopped tomatoes and feta. Spiralised zucchini pasta has become a recent hit, too, and at Leichhardt, kids help place fruit and vegetables in the dehydrator.
The preschools only use halal meat, and pride themselves on rarely using canned goods. Cooks at the schools make all their own jams and stocks and ensure that staples (like rice and flour) are organic. Each week, the preschools have a ‘vegetable of the week’, with the aim being to expose kids and families to different ways of serving the vegetable. Last week, it was okra, and the kids enjoyed an okra curry, okra tempura and a stir-fry with okra. This week, it’s snow peas.
The kids often get into the kitchen with the chefs (sushi is one of their favourite meals to help with). Kids also help out by picking fresh herbs for their lunches and delivering them to the chefs. There’s a focus on sustainability, too, and kids are encouraged to take their scraps to the compost bin – Kat says they get a kick out of feeding the worms in their worm farm. “It’s very holistic, the kids see how the food is cooked and then what happens to the waste.”
Kat also lends her expertise to other childcare centres looking to offer more wholesome, healthy food options. She’s collaborated with Jane and Stephen Matthews, who own the Sage Education and Childcare in Canberra. There, hatted chef Josh Tyler will whip up salmon, quinoa and kale, ‘potato pillows’ and lamb ragu for little diners. The centre will also cater to parents, offering healthy takeaway dinners for children at an extra cost. “I want to spread the word that healthy eating can be simple,” says Kat.
One of Kat’s food heroes is Jamie Oliver, whose school dinners program in the UK has been a huge success. “I want to get kids before they even get to school, though,” says Kat. Parents, Kat says, often encourage kids to eat blandly, thinking kids won’t be able to handle unusual textures or spices. “It couldn’t be further from the truth,” she says. “Kids are much more daring than we give them credit for.”
“We are setting up these kids for life, and ingraining positive choices in them. We want kids to grow up to be adults who choose beautiful, fresh, healthy food over junk food. It’s that simple. And we’re doing it.”
Images taken at Paisley Park's Leichhardt centre.