Do you remember the days when the chefs or cooks ruled their kitchens with the power of the Taskmaster? They would know if we had crossed the threshold and woe betide anyone who moved anything! This is now changing and I, for one, am glad.
Last Spring, we partnered with Ceeda (the leading provider of independent research and intelligence for childcare providers) to create and implement a nationwide survey to ascertain more insight amongst staff, parents and chefs about the role of the chef in the Early Years and their training needs.
This was a logical step to evaluate the first phase of the LEYF designed, Cache accredited Level 2 Diploma in Food Production and Cooking in Early Years, designed to strengthen the important roles chefs play in educating staff and parents and influencing children’s life-long relationships with food.
We began the survey by asking how chefs spend their time at work. Whilst the majority took lead roles in activities such as heating food (90%), food procurement (82%), food preparation from scratch (73%) and menu planning (73%), they were far less likely to initiate conversations with children and parents about nutrition and developing associated resources (though input was still evident in these areas).
In comparison, one in three nursery managers (33%) and 42% of owners reported taking a lead role in menu planning. Whilst they were the least likely to cook, 44% of managers and 43% of owners were at the forefront of food procurement. Getting the children involved in trying new foods and making healthy choices was very much led by the staff.
When it came to training, the majority of catering staff (87%) said they had a catering qualification but actually the dominant qualification was Food Safety and Hygiene. Whilst this is essential, it doesn’t cover children’s nutrition or the procurement, cooking and presentation of food that reduces waste and inspires the children to eat.
One observation we noted was that talking to chefs directly was tricky. Many don’t have direct email addresses at their nurseries, so everything was filtered through the admin or manager contacts. There is also a lack of professional forums and networks for staff working in these vital roles, suggesting a degree of isolation but presenting an opportunity to bring colleagues together for mutual support, professional development, and advocacy.
Of those who did respond to the survey, they asked to be called chefs. This did not surprise me. Ten years ago, when I started reviewing the roles of the chefs at LEYF, I asked them the same question. They all requested to be called chefs. They felt it fitted better with their professional profile.
Thankfully, chefs have now begun to recognise their role as food and healthy lifestyle advocators for the children but want to learn how to deliver this more effectively, especially to support parents who often ask for advice.
This resonated with the feedback from owners, managers and staff who think chefs should receive help to deliver food-related activities to children. This makes me very happy because this is included in all job descriptions for LEYF chefs. Some absolutely love this, others are terrified. The children, however, respond really positively to the chef leading cooking activities because they feel like chef apprentices.
One in four parents said they were concerned about their child’s diet, with many commenting that challenges to providing a healthy diet at home appeared complex – with deep rooted structural issues such as work patterns and low income being common factors. Time pressures were cited as a major barrier to providing a well-balanced diet at home. Food poverty is also prevalent with over one in four parents saying they couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals often or sometimes during the last 30 days.
Interestingly, there was a request for bite-sized practical cooking and advice sessions for parents delivered by trained chefs to help them meet their child’s nutritional needs.
Fundamentally, it’s evident from our research that chefs need the backing of their management teams to give them permission to do more training and form a professional network. This will help them to build their profile and professional confidence across a range of knowledge and skills relating to child nutrition and healthy eating.