A Culinary Adventure, From Gardens and Markets to Restaurants and Home Kitchens
Aug 30, 2013
10:10 AM
Local Flavor

Getting a Head Start on Healthy Eating

Getting a Head Start on Healthy Eating


A girl in the garden at Woodland Montessori

Eating healthily takes thought and effort. Getting our kids to embrace good eating habits creates an additional challenge. At home most of us can choose what we feed our families. But once we send our kids out into the world, ensuring that they continue to eat according to our values can prove difficult.

The challenge begins with preschool; so many times we have expended all of our energy just finding a place that has an opening, a convenient location, and teachers our children like. It isn’t always possible, or realistic, to be particular about the food served. But for some parents, finding a preschool with a focus on food is top priority. Christina Anderson’s son Harper started preschool this summer. “It’s very important that our son is getting a nutritious meal [at school],” she says. “We’re not fanatics about food; our son eats ice cream and has treats, but the food he eats is important to us.”

Big Oak Child Care and Woodland Montessori are two local preschools that stand out in their effort to make healthy meals, made primarily from fresh, locally sourced and organic ingredients a top priority.


Woodland Montessori is nestled in a beautiful residential neighborhood near Olin Park. Walking through the rooms, I notice immediately how the children are engaged in everything from growing and harvesting fresh vegetables, to setting their small tables where they serve themselves, to cleaning the dishes in a child-level sink. Director Erin Trondson explains, “Maria Montessori believed that children benefit from real purposeful work in their classrooms, in addition to math, reading and science...In Montessori classrooms...you will observe children learning real life skills like preparing and serving snacks to their friends, or watering the plants in the classroom.”

Elizabeth Simcock made the decision to send her son to Woodland Montessori as soon as he was old enough to attend. He previously went to a daycare closer to her work, where they provided the best food they could given their small food budget—an issue faced by many childcare centers. “There is a night and day difference in Montessori’s approach toward food,” Elizabeth says. “The food ethic is really good. The Montessori philosophy is about empowering kids, so the idea is to give them many opportunities to get involved. The menu is based around food that the kids can help make and serve.” In addition, the snacks are all organic, the ingredients are sourced locally as much as possible; the milk, for example, is delivered from Sassy Cow Creamery.

Elizabeth adds, “We were surprised at how much the kids are involved with food. It’s huge. Kids help make all kinds of food, even down to the toddler level. As they get older, the kids are actually in the kitchen helping. It is designed for them with kid-level sinks, counters...everything.”

In keeping with this holistic approach, children learn about the entire food cycle from the kindergarten teacher and the school’s enrichment coordinator Ambra Baldwin Hart. Amber, who oversees the garden and cooking programs, helped the children to create a beautiful garden. Erin Trondson says, “It is important that the children see the origins of the food. They visit the creamery to see the cows, they also harvest food from our garden, and compost the scraps. They have a deep understanding of where their food comes from and the resources our earth gives us.”

I asked one young boy who was sitting by the garden if he could identify a leafy vegetable. “Kale!” he said. Does he like it? Oh, yes. “I just grab the kale and gobble it up,“ he said. A fellow classmate says her favorite food is carrots and hummus. “They might give me cucumbers, but my favorite food is carrots.” Duly noted.


Big Oak Child Care on Madison’s east side is another daycare facility with a focus on food. It is currently run out of James Reeb Unitarian Universalist Congregation, while their permanent facility undergoes major renovation, including a new kitchen. I caught up with chef David McKercher, whom folks may know from his work as a chef at Mermaid Cafe and elsewhere. He was in the makeshift church kitchen, slicing veggies from their weekly CSA, roasting beets and thawing homemade pizza sauce for the day’s lunch. “The most important thing,” he says “is to try new things and to be persistent.”

Local parent Christina Anderson echoes that sentiment, “Harper is our first child. We want him to eat well. David exposes the kids to so many different meals, and because of that, I’m learning that Harper likes all kinds of foods.”

Christina had been considering a few daycare facilities, but when she learned that David was coming on as chef, the decision was made. “He’s incredible. The kids love him, and he knows what each of them like.” She says the personal connection that the kids have to David is also really amazing. 

The foundation of Big Oak’s food program is the CSA that they receive weekly from Vermont Valley, which is supplemented with organic foods and locally sourced ingredients whenever possible.

“Food is so powerful.” David says, “If you can cook, you are infinitely more in control of your health, and connected to your environment. It takes time, and dedication, but the reward is worth it.”  David makes the same foods he would make for adults, though he says the foods are slightly less adventurous and spicy. A meatless Banh Mi sandwich, made with a lemongrass marinated tofu, is served with the pickled carrots on the side, and the spice level is turned down a notch.

David also agrees that kids should be involved in the cooking process. Though the children at Big Oak can’t be in the kitchen, David has come up with some creative alternatives. One time he brought in a cherry branch loaded with cherries, so that the kids could have the experience of picking the fruit from the tree—then eating it! You can see why he’s become very popular with the kids and their parents.

One mother told David that her daughter was eating vegetables at home now that she had turned her nose at before. Christina says she often gets Harper out the door in the morning by asking what David is making for breakfast. “They eat better than we do,” she says with a chuckle. “I went in the other morning and there was a frittata. He made tofu curry one day, and Harper loved it.”

But even with such an adventurous menu, one thing remains seemingly universal. The kids favorite food is pizza—with both sauce and dough made from scratch. 

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About This Blog

Writing has always provided an anchor for my passions, which focus deeply on food, dance, environmental conservation and culture. I grew up “helping” my dad cultivate a prolific garden that produced too many radishes and watching my mom make almost all of our food from scratch, including horehound candy. Meanwhile I took my first African dance class in high school, which ignited my continuing quest to travel to West Africa, via Europe and South America, to study dance.

Through my travels, I learned that we are all connected by food, and our basic need to eat. Since moving to Madison in 1998 to pursue degrees in conservation biology and dance, I have developed an appreciation for the richness of our local food community, and a great desire to share it with others. What started as a personal food blog, A World of Flavors, has since grown into a business teaching cooking classes and leading local and international food tours.

I look forward to sharing culinary adventures with you through my Madison Magazine blog Local Flavor and monthly Dining In recipe column.

  – Otehlia Cassidy
Follow Otehlia on Twitter @madisoneats

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