Karen Garloch

Day-care cooks get a pleasant surprise

Kids who like chicken nuggets and French fries are in for a surprise when cooks from 28 Charlotte day-care centers return from training at Johnson & Wales University.

New on the menu could be chicken tenders rolled in egg and corn flake crumbs – baked instead of fried.

Or sweet potato “fries” – also baked – with a spicy cocktail sauce for dipping.

Or maybe zucchini sticks rolled in wheat germ, chopped nuts and Parmesan cheese.

The adult cooks have been surprised – that healthy food actually tastes good.

“I'll eat zucchini now,” said Pamela Freeman of Dilworth Child Development Center. “I grow that stuff, but I don't (usually) eat it.”

The cooks are getting 20 hours of training to help them prepare healthier meals as a way of combating the nation's epidemic of child obesity.

“You have to work with the people who are feeding the children first,” said Robin Stybe, who teaches the course with her husband, Karl. Both are associate professors of culinary arts at J&W.

The course is made possible by a $7,500 grant from Carolinas HealthCare Foundation and donated food from Sysco Food Services.

Cooks have learned to prepare more nutritious meals by packing homemade soups and casseroles with vegetables and beans, mixing snacks of dried fruit, whole-grain crackers and shredded wheat, and using low-fat cheeses and dressings.

Not even the cooks liked everything they made.

Anna Dunn of Kidville Kovar day-care center was one of several who didn't like “green beans in cheese sauce” because they were too crunchy.

“I don't think the kids would, either,” she said. “It wasn't even appealing. But I wouldn't tell them that.”

Dunn was surprised to learn that making soup was easier than she thought. “It doesn't take a whole lot of ingredients to make soup from scratch.”

“Pork with peach and black bean salsa” was a surprise hit.

“I would never put all that together, but it was really good,” one cook said. But she worried that many children wouldn't eat black beans.

Fiesta corn got similar reviews. Adults liked it, but thought the kids might pick out the red and green peppers.

Melissa Stanley, of Leslee Lloyd Child Development Center-Bright Horizons, tested some of the recipes on her two grandchildren, ages 7 and 8. They loved orange-glazed carrots, cooked in low-sodium broth with brown sugar, orange juice and cinnamon.

But broccoli and cauliflower topped with Parmesan bread crumbs? “No,” she said, shaking her head.

Her grandchildren also didn't like the whole chunks of tomato in “Beefy Macaroni,” so she substituted spaghetti sauce in a jar. “Kids like that.”

“Of course they do, because that's what they're used to,” said Robin Stybe.

Instead, she suggested making meatless marinara sauce with canned tomatoes and fresh basil. “There is no compromise” on fresh basil, she said. “A little goes a long way.”

At the final session Wednesday, the cooks will prepare a “grand buffet” for guests, including their day-care center directors.

That prospect prompted one cook – flashing back to high school, no doubt – to wonder how they'll be graded.

No one gets a grade, promised Cilla Laula, project coordinator for the Mecklenburg County Health Department.

Just put the new recipes to use, she said. And try to get the children to “eat a rainbow of colors.”