Helping children eat healthier both at school and at home

Getting children to try new foods can sometimes be a battle of wills. Getting them to regularly eat nutritious foods can be almost impossible. This is where Emily Leahey, nutrition community consultant at Mercy Ardmore, steps in with Cooking with a Twist — a cooking class that mixes practical skills, food science and a large side of fun.

“I really want kids to have kitchen confidence,” Leahey said. She achieves this by teaching skills based on the age of the particular class. For example, recently she taught a group of elementary-aged children how to make pesto sauce. Making the pesto also reinforced a science lesson about superfoods. 

“We talk about food science a lot,” Leahey said. “They all learned the four ingredients of pesto [basil, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil] and why each one is a superfood.” 

While the students were unsure of the pesto at first, they ultimately loved it, telling her the pesto tasted like pizza.

Leahey said that children often show off their new skills to their parents once they go home. Sometimes this can lead to the entire family making a change in their diet.

“Parents are driven to what kids want,” Leahey said. “One young man now only wants ‘brown’ bread. So now they only buy brown bread at that house.”

In addition to Cooking with a Twist, Leahey also works directly with school cafeterias. One of her major duties in cafeterias are lunch tray studies.

“They’re tray assessments,” Leahey said. “I actually take photos of what kids are eating and what’s left on the tray afterwards. Then I find a percentage of food waste.”

This allows cafeterias to discover which food items are unpopular so they can replace them with things the students will actually eat. She has done this for all of the local schools, and she described her method of choosing which days to visit each school.

“I wanted to choose meals at every school that were similar or had the same feel,” Leahey said. “I never went on pizza day or chicken nugget day because those days, kids almost always eat it all. We’re looking at meals we can upscale.”

Leahey then gave a few examples of her findings.

“Some students will live off vending machines, and they’ll go get food right before lunch,” she said. “They get hungry and fill up before lunch time, and that’s one reason some don’t eat their meal.” Some students even bring their tray back without having eaten anything on it.

“That’s so frustrating for the cafeteria staff because it’s a waste of money and they have put so much thought and work into it,” Leahey said. “They’re incredible women who work really hard and they do such a great job with the limitations placed upon them.”

Leahey said that the tray studies are also showing some positive signs of change. 

“They’re actually eating a lot of the fruits and veggies,” Leahey said. “They’re actually not eating as much of the processed foods. They knit pick at that stuff.”

Leahey hopes that school lunches will receive increased funding to make even more positive changes.

“I promise you if we can get more funding in school cafeteria lunches, we’ll see more drastic changes because that’s what the kids will want to eat,” Leahey said.