Few things are more vital to a child’s wellbeing and development than a healthy diet. And for busy parents, being able to trust their child’s school or kindergarten to provide them with a nutritious lunch means one less thing they need to worry about in the morning.
However food can be a flashpoint too. Many younger children refuse what they’re offered, presenting the dilemma of whether to give them something different or risk them going hungry. Older children often take matters into their own hands, by sneaking off to indulge in the guilty pleasures of junk food.
How can schools and kindergartens meet these challenges, not just for a few children but for dozens, or hundreds? We visited two of Beijing’s leading educational establishments to find out how they approach the issue.
At AnRic Little Montessori Room (AnRic LMR), the approach begins not at lunchtime, but in lessons. For students there, getting involved in the process of preparing their own meals is a key element of their learning.
“Food Preparation is an area of the Montessori curriculum, part of Practical Life Activities,” Jennifer Sau told us when we visited. Sau, originally from Malaysia, is Assistant Principal at AnRic LMR, where she has worked since the kindergarten opened five years ago. She showed us the child-sized kitchen where the lessons take place.
“It’s available to children once they come to school. It’s part of the classroom, and they can do it any time they want, it’s set up all day.”
Most of the activities are simple, appropriately for the age of the children attending (from 4 months to 6 years). However some might be surprised to see them using knives.
“They might be peeling an egg, peeling a cucumber, slicing a banana,” Sau said. “As for using a knife, a lot of that is presentations, working with a child, showing them how we use a knife and how we handle a knife.”
Food preparation teaches the children more than just life skills, Sau told us.
“They have to do things in a logical sequence: first I need to wash my hands, then I need to gather the ingredients, and so on. We’re really big on making recipe books, because it encourages reading, encourages independence. Designing the recipe books is the fun part for teachers, thinking about tools, ingredients and steps. They really break down doing the simplest things, even just spreading jam on bread.
“It’s also about social skills: ‘I can prepare something and share it with someone else.’ And in one of the older classes this year we’re focusing on food as a topic. We’ll talk about the food pyramid, nutrition, food groups… It brings in aspects of botany, zoology, and geography, about people from different cultures, and what they eat.”
The students themselves come from a wide range of cultures. There are children not only from China, but also Japan, the US, the UK, Australia, Indonesia, India, Finland, and Sweden. And as Sau explained, getting involved in food preparation helps with the problem of getting them all to eat the same meals.
“When children make their own food they tend to eat it more, even if it’s stuff like salads. Parents are sometimes quite surprised to find that their kids will eat a salad in school! But behavior is always a little bit different at home and at school. When children observe other children eating, it makes them more likely to try.
“The most important thing is for kids to have a positive experience of food. As long as they have one bite, if they don’t like it they don’t have to finish it. It’s all about exploring a range of tastes and textures.”
As a Montessori school, AnRic does not force the children to take part in food preparation.
“It’s all by choice,” Sau said. “Teachers can encourage it though. We do a lot of presentations, and after we do a presentation that work becomes ‘hot property’. Once the kids have seen it done, they want to do it for themselves. And we use different strategies. If we see a child not getting involved we might do it next to them.”
Generally though the children don’t need any encouragement.
“They love it!” Sau told us. “There’s always certain foods that we don’t like, it’s a matter of individual taste, but in general children love working with tools, and with food. The whole process of making what they eat is very educational, and also very enjoyable.”
She takes us through to see the students eating, and it bears out her claims. The children serve themselves, and sit quietly at tables enjoying their food and each other’s company. In a city where you can often see ayis feeding children even of school age, the level of independence and maturity on display is impressive.
As children get older though, the challenges change. Daystar Academy always prided itself on its lunches, with a menu designed by chef and food writer Lillian Chou. However when Chou left Beijing, the grumbles began – until a parent volunteer took matters in hand.
“I stepped in because couldn’t stand parents complaining any more!” Jennifer Yeh, Food Coordinator at Daystar, told us. “I was fed up with somebody in a WeChat group saying ‘my kids went home starving, they didn’t get enough, there’s not enough meat…’ Eventually it gets to the point where parents are thinking about outsourcing, and that opens a can of worms. That’s where we have to stop.”
Originally from Taiwan, Yeh came to Beijing after living for many years in New York.
“I wanted to return to the east, but Taiwan is too small, too established,” she said. “Mainland China is like the frontier, there are more opportunities.”
And that experience of different cultures made her the ideal person for a multicultural environment like Daystar.
“For me it feels natural because I speak both languages. I’m equipped to understand the differences, not just on a language level. And I’m nosy, so whenever people need help, I get involved!”
She has her own background in catering, although, as she told us, she was a late starter.
“I never set foot in a kitchen till I was 30! I didn’t even know how to make rice. Back in New York I started getting an interest. My first interest was baking, that got me into the kitchen. I started taking workshops while I was still working as a TV producer. Then, when we came back to China, I opened up the very first artisanal bakery in Beijing.”
Boulangerie Nanda, named after Yeh’s daughter, opened in 2008, but closed in the winter of 2016.
“It was too much for me to work against the system,” Yeh said. “There was too much regulation, I wasn’t happy any more. But because I shut down the bakery, I was able to help, because my time was free. I’m not really a chef by training, but we had a cafe, and I’d learned to make sandwiches,
and make western food. When Lillian left, the void was perfect for me to step in.”
Her first task was to re-establish the standards in which the school took such pride.
“Lillian had set up the rules, and the core values; it was so important to keep it up. For the first three months I just did spot checks on quality. A good delicious meal can easily fail in the final steps.”
However maintaining quality meant more than just standing still.
“Because of complaints, we have to change, we cannot say ‘this is the bible.’ So I made a little modification. Lilian used to have a menu for four weeks, so that’s 40 different dishes in rotation. Firstly that means staff don’t get enough practice making each dish, and it also means there’s going to be a few days that the kids don’t like anything on offer.
“So we chose what according to our experience were the most popular dishes, and put them on a two week rotation. That gives the staff a chance to really get them down. Then if it all goes well, a few months later we’ll take a few things out and replace them with new recipes.”
The school has come up with an innovative way to develop these new recipes, and to get the students excited about them. They’ve launched an “Iron Chef” challenge, in which four local chefs will take turns to devise and present new dishes to the kids.
“But we’re not competing!” Yeh told us. “We’re drawing the talent from the community. There’s our chef Xu Guang from the kitchen here, we’re going to elevate him to master chef. There’s Alan Wong, the owner of Hatsune, who’s a parent here. Then there’s Asher Gillespie from Pie Squared, who’s a neighbor and a very good friend of Alan. He’s not a parent, but his specialty is pizza and pasta, so the kids will love it.”
The fourth chef is Yeh herself.
“Each of us will contribute two dishes,” she continued. “If this kick off is successful, we will open it up to other parents who are chefs.”
But the chefs will have to comply with Daystar’s standards, Yeh explained.
“We limit the vegetables to be local and seasonal. So if you want to use eggplant, it has to be the right time of year.”
This requires more effort than just turning up at the supermarket.
“We’re engaging with farms to plan their planting according to our needs. So we’re talking about ‘one year later, we want 200 kilograms of cabbage.’ It has to be baby steps one at a time. Beijing Farmers’ Market help us to make the bridge, they become our conduit. They are the expertise that we rely on. We come back to farms they certify.”
And that’s not all that’s special about the food at Daystar.
“The uniqueness about our lunch program is that we make all the sauces,” Yeh said. “You will not see any canned sauces in our kitchen! We make our own sour cream. The pasta is organic, imported from Italy. The sugar is Korean organic, the soy sauce, vinegar, miso, all organic.”
Government regulations add another layer of complexity to the planning.
“For meat, we go for pork and beef; we are not allowed to eat chicken because of avian flu. And because we’re under Education Bureau jurisdiction, no uncooked vegetable can be served!”
Despite this Yeh is proud of the variety of food served.
“We have two dishes a day, one Chinese and one western (this includes Japanese). We tell the students, ‘Each time you have to decide, don’t put the two foods together on the same plate. You’re welcome to come back and have a second round!’ Every day we have a vegetable medley, there’s always a soup. And rice, mixed with either millet or with brown rice. So far I have to say the kids definitely have the full nutritious value daily for lunch.”
We sampled the lunch on offer that day, and can report that it was delicious as well. Yeh’s passion for her role is evident.
“It’s a joy to work with kids,” she told us, “they always say ‘hi’ to me. I want the lunch to become the highlight of the day. It was stressful in the past because each rotation had about 25 minutes to eat, including washing hands, and walking there. So kids develop survival skills, they have to eat fast to get a second serving.
“We’ve changed it now to 50 minutes including recess time. I already see that the kids’ tempo is all changed. They eat slower, talk slower, everyone is more relaxed. That’s what I love to see. From now on I don’t want to hear any more about kids not getting enough food.”
However she has no truck with children complaining if their favorite dish isn’t available.
“Imagine you go out with your parents, if your favorite is gone it’s unlikely your parents will order more of it. They’ll say there’s four other dishes – this is just as delicious. If you don’t try it, you will never know.
“The staff may be on the way with more, but they have to bring all the food from the main kitchen. So I say ‘you can wait, or you can try a new dish.’ And most of the time they will try something new.
“And in that case I’ll call that day a success, because my motto is, if I change one person a day, I’m happy.”
Photos: Courtesy of Daystar, AnRic Little Montessori Room
This article originally appeared in beijingkids’ October 2017 issue.
Download the digital copy here.