United In Care’s food nutrition initiative provides families with ingredients and instructions on cooking healthy meals together
A group of young children and their parents, many wearing aprons, bounce around their kitchens cooking and watching their phones intently as Taylor Cain, a dietician from ShopRite of Greenwich, explains how to slice an avocado.
“How are we doing with our avocados? Do we have any questions? Are we all good?” Cain asked the group during United In Care’s monthly Zoom cooking demonstration. She’s met with a bunch of enthusiastic yeses as children and their parents scoop out their avocados while a whole-grain tortilla slowly crisps in the pan.
On this Friday evening in May, the families are cooking Mexican tortilla pizza as part of United In Care’s healthy eating initiative, made possible by a $50,000 grant provided by the Philadelphia-based Reinvestment Fund to United Way of Northern New Jersey, which operates the United In Care child care project.
The efforts are in line with United In Care’s mission to increase the affordability and the quality of child care and early learning for New Jersey families known as ALICE—ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) and families in poverty. The program also aims to improve the quality of life for child care workers, many of whom are ALICE themselves.
Along with the cooking demonstrations, grocery bags filled with the session’s ingredients are given to all participating providers, child care centers, and families. Meals have included stuffed peppers, Mexican pizza, a dish labeled one-pot Tuscan chicken with chickpea pasta, and an enchilada pasta bake with ground turkey.
The classes, which virtually bring together families, providers, and United Way staff, are meant to promote robust nutritional habits amongst families while showcasing healthy family interactions in which cooking together is a fun, rewarding and educational experience.
“The goal is to help children establish healthy food choices and habits that they can use throughout their lives and encourage families to do the same,” said United Way’s Child Care Specialist Amanda Krause DiScala.
The grant was initially launched through the project’s Warren County network, which consists of one licensed child care center and 10 home-based family care providers (FCCs). But the appeal of the campaign’s success led to expanding sessions to include all four United In Care networks.
Part of the Reinvestment Fund’s New Jersey Child Nutrition Innovation grant is being used to encourage participation by Warren County-based FCCs in the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). Some United In Care providers who are enrolled said the reimbursement helps defray costs of healthy meals and snacks for children in their care.
So far, the overall campaign has had a positive influence. During the cooking sessions, children ask questions, sample unfamiliar foods, stir and mix ingredients under the supervision of their parents or providers – while learning that homemade meals are often less expense and just as appetizing as restaurant or fast-food fare.
“The kids positively love the cooking classes,” said Michele McEnroe, who operates Michele’s Childcare from her Phillipsburg home. “We have tried recipes that I never would have thought of trying on my own at home. The stuffed peppers and Mexican tortilla pizza were big hits.”
Yameisha Suggs, whose children are cared for at Michele’s Childcare, said she routinely participates in the classes and tries the nutritionist-provided recipes. She makes the occasion a family adventure.
“We cook at home a lot and my children tend to be there because they like to help me season the food,” Suggs said. “We always like to try new foods and receiving the bags of groceries from United In Care is a big help.”
Jenny Kok, who operates Jenny’s Family Childcare in Warren County, incorporates healthy eating habits into her program because, in the past, she has encountered parents who allowed chocolate for breakfast or routinely relied on fast food for dinners.
“I have children who don’t eat vegetables at home but at my place they do,” Kok said. “I teach them healthy eating choices, and to drink water or milk instead of juice or chocolate milk.”
Twyla Hardy, owner of Little Folks Family Child Care in Phillipsburg said she adheres to United In Care’s philosophy that providers are a vital figure in children’s lives – helping them not only with socialization skills and ABCs, but nurturing development of healthy minds and bodies with nutritional experiences they can carry throughout their lives.
“We have a true hands-on approach to our garden where the kids plant seeds and water the vegetables,” Hardy said. “I’m always trying to think about what new vegetables we can incorporate into our meals.”
The Warren County home-based programs collaborate with a hub center, Little Wonders Childcare & Learning Center in Phillipsburg, which is owned and operated by Stacey Cummins. Cummins said the impact of the cooking sessions is far-reaching and influential in teaching children and parents how to incorporate healthy food choices into their lives.
“There’s a lot of great participation from the FCCs, the parents, and the kids,” Cummins said. “It’s very interactive and the kids get excited and do a lot of talking on Zoom. The best thing is that the recipes don’t take long, and prep is easy, and the ingredients are simple.”
Like Hardy, Cummins started an outdoor garden at Little Wonders where tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and herbs have been grown in past years. She’s applied for free garden seeds and is in talks with a local farmer about receiving free or discounted fresh fruit and vegetables. She routinely speaks with providers in her network about food options and resources.
“Oftentimes the FCCs have felt like they’re alone but now they have people they can reach out to about nutrition and saving money,” Cummins said. “They have a real support system with United In Care.”