While the rest of the world has been avidly watching Jamie Oliver challenge the concept of school dinners, and trying to figure out how to translate his ideas to their own kids’ schools, here in Toronto a catering company dedicated to providing children with healthy, nutritious meals has been going strong – and growing rapidly – for the past five years.

Real Food For Real Kids (RFRK) is the brainchild of David Farnell and his wife Lulu Cohen-Farnell. Shocked at what daycare centres were offering as snacks to their charges, the Farnells started sending their son Max to daycare with his own snacks and lunch because they wanted him to have healthy, tasty, nutritious food. The idea grew and RFRK now cooks up thousands of meals every day that are sent out to daycares, schools and camps across the GTA.

At a recent open house for care providers, staff from schools and daycares were invited into the RFRK kitchens for a tour and to sample some of the items on the new menu.

David Farnell led visitors through the warehouse and storage areas, explaining how products were chosen, and then through the kitchen where he demonstrated some of the huge kettles and industrial ovens that are used to prepare meals for kids across the city.

Because RFRK believes in knowing where your food comes from, they also had some of their producing partners on hand so people from the schools and daycare centres could meet the farmers that grow the food that ends up in their facilities. Faul Farms, Jensen Cheese and Lincoln Line Orchards were among the producers on hand to offer samples of beef, cheese and dried apples and cider.

Guests were also encouraged to sample some of the new menu items which included maple and mustard chicken, lima bean salad, cheese tortellini (shown above), New Brunswick lemon salmon, maple ginger beef, Yukon gold mashed potatoes, and samurai zucchini salad.

I was surprised to discover that these items were all flavourful and interesting. So often we think of “kids food” as either overly sweet and garishly coloured, or bland and boring. But the RFRK philosophy is that kids should eat the same food that grown-ups eat, only in smaller quantities and with care to keep it all natural and healthy.

When I spoke with some of the daycare workers who were there for the tour they told me that the kids really do love the food. Pasta is a favourite, of course, but most kids at least try everything on the menu and cleaned plates are typical. And the teachers and daycare workers find that the kids concentrate better and have a more stable energy level throughout the day if they eat the healthier food provided by RFRK instead of junk and sweets.

Meals are made with healthier alternative ingredients; white sugar is replaced with honey, maple syrup or fruit puree; instead of white flour breads or pastas the kids get whole wheat, spelt or kamut; brown rice, quinoa, millet or amaranth replaces white rice; and butter gets the boot to be replaced with healthy spreads like hummus, pesto or bean dips. Meats are all locally- and ethically-raised and are free from hormones or anti-biotics.

RFRK also accommodates kids with food allergies – whenever possible the regular menu is made without potential allergens (such as the mashed potatoes, which are made with olive oil instead of butter) and the whole facility is nut free. They’ll also make alternative menus available for kids with allergies to wheat or dairy. In the warehouse where the orders are ready to ship starting at around 7am the next morning, Farnell pulls out a box with special foods for one child who appears to be allergic to everything (poor kid).

And lest it appear that RFRK just does savoury foods, think again. They make a variety of all-natural baked goods on site (their facility is in the old Dufflet cake factory on Dovercourt Road) including cookies, muffins, and loaves. They’ve also recently paired up with Sweets From the Earth to provide vegan, nut-free (and wheat-free if requested) cakes for special occasions. So kids can now celebrate a classmate’s birthday without the cupcake police taking away their treats.

While the majority of the menu items are made on site each day from fresh, local ingredients, Farnell does explain why they use some pre-made products. Items such as crackers, tortilla chips, dried pasta and chick peas and brought in pre-made if they are all-natural and do not contain extra salt, sugar, colours, additives or preservatives. Farnell gives President’s Choice organic crackers as an example, “We couldn’t do a better job ourselves,” he explains. “And the product meets our criteria in terms of health and nutrition.” He also points to a huge skid of canned chickpeas, explaining that they make a better quality hummus because they are pressure-cooked, and that RFRK goes through so much hummus (the kids love the stuff!) that it makes sense to buy the canned peas.

Not having kids myself, I’ve never given a lot of thought to what goes into feeding kids, but RFRK certainly offers up what I’d want to see my kids eating if I was a mom. After watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution series (and his UK school lunch series) I have to admit to being horrified at what passes for a meal in schools throughout the western world. Getting kids to switch from a menu of junk food to healthy nutritious foods probably isn’t easy (one of the hand-outs I came home with was a list of tips to help transition kids to a more balanced, adventurous diet), and no doubt, getting them started in preschool or daycare is the easiest way to instill healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.

Talking with the Farnells, it’s obvious how much they believe in what they’re doing. Their enthusiasm is infectious and you can tell that they really, really care about providing kids with the best food they can possibly get. Based on the items I sampled, these little kids are eating really well. If I had kids, I’d insist that their schools or daycare centres offered meals and snacks from RFRK. The organization is working on starting a family dinners catering service as well. Now if they’d only set up a lunch delivery program for grown-ups, I’d be all set.

 

Yogurt and granola parfaits – one of the healthy tasty snacks RFRK clients enjoy.

 

Mini pizzas on whole wheat baguettes with Jensen cheese.

 

The kids really dig the all natural dried apples and pears.

 

That’s a whole lotta pasta – whole wheat, of course.

 

Bins packed and ready to go – hot food is prepared in the morning and it’s all shipped out starting at 7am.

 

The RFRK pantry demonstrating some of the products used in the meals.

 

Mashed potatoes, lemon salmon, ginger beef and samurai zucchini salad. One of the sample meals on the new RFRK menu.

 

Part of the kitchen – these huge steam kettles can cook hundreds of portions of pasta at a time.

 

And finally, RFRK doesn’t deny kids the occasional treat – what the kids don’t know is that these chocolate cookies are super healthy and good for them.