Getting kitchen smart

County program teaches tots’ caregivers to cook healthy

by Erica Oglesby

Donna Green, the sole cook at The Sunshine House in Mint Hill, recently completed the five-week course Healthy Futures Starting in the Kitchen through the Mecklenburg County Health Department. Children at The Sunshine House are eating healthier because of Green’s training. Erica Oglesby/MMHW photo

For many children, a healthy future starts with healthy eating habits. And that’s the message Healthy Futures Starting in the Kitchen wants local childcare facilities to learn.

The five-week Mecklenburg County Health Department course was developed in partnership with Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte in 2008 as a way to help address childhood obesity. It is funded through a grant from Smart Start of Mecklenburg County and is free for caregivers.

Among the program’s recent participants is The Sunshine House, 5825 Phyliss Lane, in Mint Hill.

Healthy Futures Starting in the Kitchen “is for childcare cooks and teaches them basic nutrition and gives them time in Central Piedmont Community College kitchens to learn basic skills,” said Priscilla Laula, health educator at the ­Mecklenburg County Health Department. “It is really important to get children started out right with healthy foods.” The program has graduated 100 childcare facilities from the Charlotte region since its start in 2008. In addition to Mint Hill’s Sunshine House, other graduates of the program include Thompson Child & Family Focus near Matthews.

During the classes, childcare cooks are given all the tools they need to learn cooking skills vital to preparing healthy meals for kids. Cooks learn what foods have significant nutritional value, how to cut and prepare certain vegetables and meats and offer each other new ideas and techniques while enjoying the food they prepare with their young clients in mind.

“It is a program with lots of perks and encouragement,” Laula said.

With most childcare cooks operating under no nutritional standards, Laula says the program is a great way to educate them on the importance of healthy eating habits on young children.

“We want children to learn to enjoy and taste healthy foods. There are so many children who don’t get a great start (with healthy eating,)” she said.

The program also gives the cooks suggestions and tips on ways to introduce healthy foods to children who are often picky eaters.

“The message (of the program) is if (the children) don’t like it this time, don’t give up,” Laula said.

The Sunshine House in Mint Hill participated in the program in April 2011. With more than 100 children to cook for each day, cook Donna Green enjoyed the Healthy Futures Starting in the Kitchen curriculum and is working to put that knowledge to work in The Sunshine House’s kitchen.

“The program was very informative,” Green said.

Learning the proper way to use a knife to cut vegetables and how to incorporate different vegetables into meals, Green says implementing healthier standards in the kitchen has been fun.

“I do different vegetables in the casseroles now,” she said.

Feeding the children at The Sunshine House breakfast, lunch and a snack, Green says she has to get creative when trying to think of child-friendly recipes and recently introduced the children to turkey wraps.
“They really liked them,” she said.

She has also started serving fresh salads, which also were a hit.

“We do salads often; the kids like the salads,” she said.

The program also helped Green meet other childcare cooks, some she still stays in contact with and has been able to draw a lot of ideas from others in her line of work.

“We got a lot of ideas from a lot of cooks,” she said.

Though Green’s time in the program is over, she hopes The Sunshine House can continue to make strides in helping its children become healthier eaters and would encourage other childcare facilities to take the challenge as well.

“I highly recommend (Healthy Futures Starting in the Kitchen),” Green said. “It is a wonderful program.”

Want to know more?
For more information about Healthy Futures Starting in the Kitchen or to enroll, visit

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