BY DEBRA POOLE, owner, Georgetowne Home Preschool
When I started Georgetowne Home Preschool in Ocala, Florida 20 years ago, I was more than 100 pounds overweight and had little understanding of how important eating healthy was to happiness, health, and success.
I was raised with poor nutritional habits in a poor family—we seemingly didn’t have the money or the information we needed to buy healthy foods.
This all changed when I started to take care of other people’s children. Part of my preparation for becoming a child care provider included reviewing an incredibly helpful nutrition curriculum and additional healthy eating information supplied by the state of Florida. I started to realize the importance of diverse and healthy foods. As I began practicing good nutrition, my eating habits changed and my activity levels improved dramatically. I lost 100 pounds as a result.
I had to bring this good feeling to my kids. I joined Florida’s Child Care Food Program (CCFP) to help these children eat healthy and improve their overall learning skills. Thankfully, our state’s nutrition standards are quite strong—for more than a decade, CCFP has limited sugary foods and drinks and has required fruit and vegetables at breakfast and snack time.
Florida’s efforts were ahead of its time! In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act required the USDA to develop standards for Child and Adult Food Program meals that are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This new national standard will help preschools in other states with less rigorous standards than Florida’s. I guarantee that once preschools fully buy into providing nutritious meals and snacks, their children will be happier, healthier and more productive.
Of course, we need to ensure kids buy into this concept of eating healthy. When some parents bring me their little four-year-olds, they say things like “my son is a picky eater. He only eats mac ‘n cheese or chicken nuggets and doesn’t like fruits or vegetables.”
Quite frankly, I think we underestimate a child’s ability to adapt and willingness to explore. For example, when I start teaching and working with the children, I show them a plate and say, “let’s put a lima bean on there.” If they say they don’t want it, I turn it into a fun adventure and tap into their imagination. I get out the magnifying glasses and have them check their tongues for the “lima bean taste bud” or tell them it will give them superpowers—which, when you think about the health benefits of fruits and vegetables, isn’t so far off. They love it! Sure enough, an adventurous and tough four-year-old volunteers and the rest follow suit – and soon everyone is eating lima beans and other fruits and vegetables.
We make all of our own food on site with the kids. The children smell and touch and interact with foods. We put up pictures of fruits and vegetables they’ve never seen before. And then we set up a “grocery store” in the kitchen and the kids go shopping and pretend to buy these things.
Typical days also include as much physical activity as possible, including stretching, dancing, playing, bike riding, and swimming. And, of course, we focus on learning from start to finish, with kindergarten preparatory assignments, computer work, 3-D projects, or dramatic play (acting out grocery store shopping, for instance) and group action games on our circle time rug.
People always want to know how all this is possible on a tight budget. First, I serve everything family style, which teaches responsibility and gives me the opportunity to introduce foods at the right pace and portion size for each child. I also shop at warehouses and roadside stands and avoid canned foods – buying fresh or frozen is typically healthier and tastes better, too.
I’ve found that my parents are highly supportive of this approach—they appreciate what it means for their kids, and have been inspired to eat healthier at home as well
Our emphasis on nutrition is the foundation on which our success has been built. It’s all about giving children the tools and skills they need to make healthy choices and grow up healthy.