For south Charlotte’s Ballancrest, a healthy future starts in the kitchen

Ballancrest Academy cook, Jason Shaw, seen here at a healthy cooking class. The program teaches cooks healthy tips to take back to their child-care facilities. Photo courtesy of Ballancrest Academy

by Erica Oglesby

A healthy future for a lot of children starts with healthy eating habits. That’s the message Healthy Futures Starting in the Kitchen wants child-care facilities to learn.

“(Healthy Futures) is for child-care cooks and teaches them basic nutrition and gives them time in (Central Piedmont Community College) kitchens to learn basic skills,” Priscilla Laula, health educator at the Mecklenburg County Health Department, said.

The five-week course was developed by the health department in partnership with Johnson and Wales University of Charlotte in 2008 as a way to help address childhood obesity. It is grant funded by Smart Start of Mecklenburg County.

“It is really important to get children started out right with healthy foods,” Laula said.

The program has seen 100 child-care facilities “graduate” in the Charlotte region, with child-care cooks taught basic nutritional knowledge geared toward helping them prepare healthy, delicious foods that get children excited about healthy eating.

Chefs are given all the tools and tips they need to learn cooking skills vital to preparing healthy meals, from what foods have significant nutritional value to how to cut and prepare certain vegetables and meats.  They come together in a classroom setting in the culinary kitchens at the community college’s main campus to offer each other new ideas and techniques in an environment where they too can enjoy the food.

“It is a program with lots of perks and encouragement,” Laula said.

Laula says the program is a great way to educate child-care cooks on the importance of healthy eating habits on young children, as many cooks operate under no nutritional standards.

“We want children to learn to enjoy and taste healthy foods,” Laula said. “There are so many children who don’t get a great start” with healthy eating.

The program also gives cooks suggestions and tips on ways to introduce healthy foods to children who are often picky eaters.

“The message is if (the children) don’t like it this time, don’t give up,” Laula said.

That’s one of the core concepts program participant Caroline Walker, managing partner of Ballancrest Academy in south Charlotte, walked away with.

“The kids’ response has been a little bit mixed, but that is the message… don’t give up trying,” Walker said.

Walker participated in the course in April with her child-care facility’s cook, and has since brought back much of her knowledge to Ballancrest’s kitchen. The facility already was striving to provide healthier food options for the young mouths it feeds, serving its children all organic fruits, vegetables and dairy products.

“We try to do a really healthy menu here,” Walker said.

Walker wants Ballancrest to address the issue of childhood obesity in the U.S. head on, which was one of the reasons she was intrigued by the Healthy Futures Starting in the Kitchen program.

“We do have such an epidemic of obesity in our country and (Healthy Futures Starting in the Kitchen) has been able to give us a new exciting way to look at some of these recipes,” Walker said. “It made us a lot more creative in serving healthy foods.”

Walker says some of the new recipes have gone over great with the children, and others have taken time for them to enjoy.

“One thing that has been really, really successful for us is a fresh spinach salad,” Walker said.

But even when plates are pushed away and disgruntled voices chime in their dislike for certain healthy foods, Walker knows she is giving the children at Ballancrest an opportunity to start life with healthy eating habits under their belts, and to her, that’s worth the effort.

“It is so hard to go back and change once a kid” has bad eating habits, Walker said. “It is about giving them those healthy choices and giving them those options.”

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