Cooking for children might seem like a no brainer: chicken nuggets, grilled cheese, tater tots. The food seems simple enough but there’s a lot more to it than that. Maybe you’re serving the kids the food they like, but what about the fruits, vegetables and other nutritious options that parents and teachers are looking for?
“It’s so much more than just pandering to kids,” said Greg Ingles, President and Director of Sales for Food2You, a catering company that specializes in childcare centers. “It’s about finding something that sounds delicious to me, and then figuring out how to make that child palatable.”
Adults verses children
Ingles’ venture into children’s catering came about thanks to the constant competition he faced within the Chicago area on a daily basis. With so many traditional catering companies vying for the same large-scale events, Ingles decided it was time to take a step back to re-evaluate where they could find the most success.
“We decided we needed to find a segment that had less competition in it,” he said, “so we looked at what our business was doing well at and childcare centers was it.”
Photo courtesy Food2You
Making the switch to children’s catering was almost like a breath of fresh air for Ingles, who had spent years working long hours with opinionated adults.
“When you come from a fine dining point of view, childcare centers are fun and stress free,” he said. “Adults have a lot of opinions, whereas kids have very few.”
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But the challenge then becomes how to create menus for childcare centers that avoid pandering to the children by only offering the food they love.
“When we write our menus, we’re careful not to pander to children and all the flavors they love,” he said. “We have to please the parents, the teachers, the directors; we have to really shoot down the middle and make it palatable to the kids.
“We start from our fine dining point of view, the idea of this is what we want to serve and then it becomes how can we can make this work for kids and taste good?”
Photo courtesy Food2You.
For their menus, Food2You developed a weekly and daily rotation divided between breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack. Today’s menu includes: homemade granola, vanilla yogurt, apples and milk for breakfast; whole grain macaroni and cheese, peas and carrots, and fresh cantaloupe for lunch; and house made blueberry snack bread and milk for an afternoon snack.
“It was tricky because my heart never wanted to compromise on quality, but we adapted, we changed and we’ve really had amazing success with it.”
It’s time to serve
As you can image though, catering for childcare centers is so much more than just preparing a healthy and delicious meal for kids. When working with childcare centers, catering companies have to a follow a strict set of federal guidelines and regulations to ensure the health and safety of the children they are feeding.
Previously, Food2You would deliver food to the childcare centers where they would then be responsible for setting up, serving and cleanup. The food was then served family-style where the children would then help themselves as way to encourage sharing.
“These kids eat however they want,” Ingles joked, “if they want to dunk their burger in milk they do it, if they want to grab food off their friends’ plate, they don’t care. It’s just really heartwarming to watch kids eat when they enjoy the food.”
Photo courtesy Food2You.
However, that was then.
COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on Food2You and the way food is served at childcare centers. For starters, the food has to now be delivered in a touchless way. The Food2You staff can no longer enter the childcare centers to serve, therefore the food is handed off to teachers who will then serve the food to the children. Gone are the days of family-style, serve-yourself lunchtime.
"These centers are locked down like army bases now because they are so petrified of closing again,” Ingles said. “But some of these teachers are getting burned out because they’re having to do so much more.”
Beyond impacting delivery and serving operations, Food2You has also had to rethink some of the food items that they serve as well.
“We had to go to a lot of dry snacks rather than yogurts or cheese sauces because that gets hands dirty and sticky,” Ingles said, “and kids were licking their fingers, touching their neighbors and playing with their neighbors.”
Ingles said he believes that a lot of the practices that have come out of the pandemic will stick around for the foreseeable future because they have learned so much.
"A lot of this is the new normal, and a lot of this is going to be here to stay,” he said. “There’s too much that’s happened, there’s too much that we have learned that we have to keep. But, we’re just excited to go back to what we know how to do well.”
Ingles offers a few words of advice for any caterer who is interested in expanding into childcare centers:
“It’s a very tricky end of the business and it took us a very long time to figure it out because you have to rethink everything that they do; your special event mind won’t naturally transition into daycare.
“One of the most difficult things to get past is the amount of money you have to serve one child. You have a set budget to provide breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack without raising your plate price. But, if you do your homework, and commit to it, you can really be a success at it.”