It’s Nicky Davidson’s favourite time of day; the moment a group of young faces appears at the open kitchen window. “What’s for lunch today, Nicky,” they ask.

The children chatter away, watching her chop celery, and commenting on the bright colours of the vegetables and tantalising smell of spices.

“I just love it when the kids come to visit,” Nicky says. “It’s so welcoming to have the window open. We like each other and I think if you create a warm and friendly atmosphere, the children feel a part of the meal and are more likely to give it a go.”

Lunch today, at the Carlton Learning Precinct, is crumbed fish fillet and vegetable Thai curry on a bed of white rice. Afternoon tea will be apple and pear crumble with yoghurt. The vegan and gluten-free option is tofu baked slice with curry.

Children at the kitchen window eagerly awaiting lunch!

Chef special

This healthy and hearty menu is standard fare at Gowrie Victoria. Each week, the kitchen assistants design a nutritious menu around the dietary requirements of children enrolled at the services.

Nicky says the culturally diverse community at CLP gives her more scope when planning the menu.

“I find I’m able to cook a lot of different cuisines and use more spices, beans and lentils,” she says. “Nothing too hot, of course, but it helps create a wonderful flavour. I also use a lot of coconut cream, which is a healthy fat. Then I just have to be creative at hiding vegetables in different ways.”

Of course, there are days when children feel picky and want to keep it simple and Nicky says she tries to keep her carbs, such as pasta or rice, separate to the rest of the meal. “This gives them a choice and at least they’re eating something, that way,” she says. “In summer, we do a lot of salads on the side, which they love.”

Calcium is a daily part of the menu, with milk, yoghurt and chunks of cheese, and fresh fruit and vegetables are regularly on offer.

Café culture

Nicky has been working with CLP educators to involve the children in the kitchen with regular baking sessions.

She also has plans to develop the area outside the open window into a café and gallery.

“We have the weekly menu hanging in the café space and each class has been doing an art installation around their cooking experiences to hang in the area,” she says. “The children love baking. Someone bought in some lemons last week so they made lemon cake, while another class made muffins.”

Nicky says working together is the result of a strong community connection between the kitchen, children, educators and management.

Another collaborative project has been a Stop, Sip and Sigh station for staff, which Nicky and one of the educators have set up in the kitchen.

“This allows the educators to stop by the kitchen and have a cup of tea and create space for themselves,” Nicky says. “The sense of community plays a part in the wonderful energy that outsiders often comment on when visiting CLP.”

Break it down

There is a strong ethos of sustainability in Nicole’s kitchen and all suitable food scraps are sent to the compost bin, which the children help look after.

“The children learn which food scraps can go in the compost bin and how composting works,” Nicky says. “They then use the compost to build up the garden beds they’re creating around the service.”

Boxes and cartons from food supplies end up in the Recycle Station, where children can use them for art and play.

Vegetable scoop

Nicky shares her top tips for getting children to eat veggies:

“I use pumpkin as a base in hot meals, such as curries, soups and bolognaises. It’s a natural sweetener and good for the digestion.”

“Sometimes I blend vegetables into my sauces so they’re hidden.”

“Add corn. This is like visible candy for children and most of them love it.”

“If you use a vegetable regularly and highlight with other foods and flavours, they will eventually become used to it.”

“I always add one green and hope for the best!”