With a growing number of families cutting down on meat, or ditching it altogether, Under 5 magazine editor Rachel Lawler speaks to vegetarian settings to find out how they are making a vegetarian menu work.
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Under 5. Find out more and subscribe to the magazine here.
A growing number of families are reducing the amount of meat in their diets. According to a recent survey by Waitrose, almost 13% of the UK population – or one in eight people – is now vegetarian. A further 21% of people say they are cutting down on the amount of meat they eat – sometimes called “flexitarian”. This means that a third of the population is now completely avoiding meat or reducing the amount that they eat. This flexible approach is spreading into the early years sector, as some settings cater to parents changing attitudes towards their diet.
Harman Mohal, a registered nutrition professional for the Early Years Nutrition Partnership (EYNP), explains: “The addition of vegetarian menus in early years settings can help make meals more varied and gives vegetarian children a chance to eat the same as everyone else.” Meat-free meals can also bring additional benefits for children, “A balanced diet is key for good health and including vegetarian meals can be a good way of getting extra vegetables and pulses into the menu,” she adds. “Settings should always have vegetarian options available where needed, and at EYNP we suggest that once a week the protein sources offered at lunch and tea should all be plant-based.”
Crossley Mill Nursery, a small charity-run setting based in Hebden Bridge, offers an organic vegetarian menu across three meals a day, with snacks in between. Georgina, nursery cook at the setting, says that the menu has helped them stand out in the local area. “A lot of people seek us out because are a vegetarian nursery,” she says. This is despite most of their families eating meat. Georgina explains: “They like the fact that their children will be getting lots of veg while they are with us each day.”
While Crossley Mill has its fair share of fussy eaters, the setting finds that children generally respond really well to its healthy menu, with lots of parents asking for a cookbook of Georgina’s recipes. “You can see right into my kitchen from the nursery, so I’m not hidden away and the children can see what I’m cooking and know who I am,” Georgina says. She makes sure that children are getting all the nutrients they need, following guidelines from the Soil Association’s Food for Life Early Years Award. The children have also helped growing vegetables in the garden and cooking activities, recently making pizzas as part of a “P” themed series.
Georgina says that the biggest challenge for them is managing allergies, but its experience catering for vegan families has really helped them here. If something needs to be replaced for child’s allergy, she tries to replace “like for like” so that everyone is eating the same. “It encourages them to eat more when they’re all eating together,” she says.
The meat-free approach has helped children embrace vegetables more easily. “I see a lot of recipes involving ‘hidden veg’ but we don’t do that here – they know what they’re eating and have a really good relationship with food,” she explains. With so much of their menu based on vegetables, Georgina says that it’s important to source quality items in order to get the tastiest meals. “You want to make sure you’re getting the very best ingredients for children, so look for good suppliers in your area,” she says.
A meat-free menu is also working for Clowns Nursery in Golders Green, London. The setting provides full-time care for up to 170 children across eight different classes, offering up to three meals a day and two snacks, depending on how long the children spend there. The setting has a fully pescetarian menu, serving fish but no meat. Zeby Cole, head chef at Clowns, explains: “We have children from so many different backgrounds here but we wanted everyone to feel like they were eating the same dish as their friends.” Rather than serving a selection of halal, kosher and other meals, the setting opted for the meat-free menu as a way of bringing everyone’s lunchtime together.
The setting offers a healthy menu, using the government’s Better Start guidelines. Zeby hosts regular ‘cooking clubs’ with the children each week. They get a chance to make a dish ready to take home with them at the end of the day, while learning about healthy recipes. “I find that if they know what is in their food, then they are more happy to eat it afterwards,” he says. All of the setting’s meals are available for parents as recipe cards both in reception and online. “We get a lot of people asking us for recipes of dishes their child really liked.”
The biggest challenge for Zeby’s team is keeping the menu exciting throughout the year. “Create a seasonal menu so it’s always different,” he says. “Look for different herbs and spices, which can really change the whole dish.” However, he still thinks that removing meat from a setting’s menu can be really beneficial. “Not only for humane reasons, but also for their health,” he says. “My advice for other settings is to not be scared of vegetarian meals. There are thousands of meat-free recipes on the internet,” he suggests. “People always used to think that you need meat-and-two-veg with each meal but that’s now that’s quite old fashioned.”
Meat free ideas
Harman Mohal’s vegetarian recipe ideas:
- Bolognese-style sauces made with lentils or meat-free mince and pasta
- lentil soup
- cucumber and bean mini wraps
- houmous (or other bean-based dips) served with vegetable sticks and pitta bread