“It’s the experience of food, rather than the feeding of children”- Reflections from Reggio Emilia

In May 2015 I was fortunate to be chosen by Compass ELC to take part in a Canadian Study Tour that took place in Reggio Emilia, Italy. To say that this experience was life altering would be an understatement. From the moment I stepped off the plane I knew the coming week would change my professional life. Reggio Emilia was no longer just theories, videos and images that I had seen many times in resource books. I was finally there, ready to witness firsthand Reggio inspired theory being put into practice. On day four of our study tour we were offered the choice of five ateliers to attend, from food to digital mediums to living organisms. Ateliers are studios or laboratories within schools used for experimentation, to inspire inventions and extend projects or research. Ateliers are often associated with art, and offer many materials to experiment, collaborate, test theories on and be creative with. I found it fascinating that an atelier for food was being offered. Throughout my many roles with Compass ELC, cooking has been one of my passions. I love providing children with delicious and nutritious food every day. Hearing children say, “‘Wow Missy, this is great!” is what I strive for. So naturally, I chose to attend the Atelier of Food, one of the presenters being one of the school’s Cooks.
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Rodari Infant-Toddler Center Photo credit courtesy of Reggio Children ‘The Languages of Food recipes, experiences, thoughts’

From the second the presentation began, I was in awe. The kitchen was stainless steel, and was staffed with one cook and two assistants. All were professionally dressed in white linen. Additional photos of cooks and their kitchens provided further evidence of what we had witnessed since we arrived; the people of Reggio hold a very high image of the staff at each school and the children, and the schools’ environment. We watched videos of the children’s days at school. When a child asked what they would be having for lunch, the child was brought to the kitchen to ask the cook themselves. As the Cook spoke to the children and pointed to each dish he was preparing, you could see his passion and the pride in his work in his eyes. The children were able to look, touch, smell and even help prepare the food. Kitchens in Reggio schools are welcoming, being visible from the entrance, and are purposely placed in a central location to act as a link between each room in the Centres. Their kitchens have as much thought put into them as the incredibly detailed and well equipped art and project ateliers also found in each Centre. Kitchens are thought of as “a place of chemistry”, not just a place where food is prepared. They are bright and clean and have large windows to bring visibility to the cook’s contribution and care of the children and adults through their daily preparation of meals and snacks. As in any home, the kitchen in Reggio is where the family gathers, and where children always feel welcome to enter and ask the Cook questions. Further images showed young children setting the tables in the infant and toddler Centres. They placed linens on each table and then added formal table settings, including china plates and bowls, silverware and glassware. While some of the children set the tables, others gathered and placed greenery and fresh flowers on each table to help beautify the table setting and add more pleasing aromas to the dining experience. The way the children set their tables for each meal is comparable to how I would set a table at home for company. This again speaks to their high image of children. Meal times in Reggio are held in high regard. The children and educators all eat together in one dining room. Food is very intentionally and thoughtfully presented in the most beautiful manner and brought to the table and served in family sized bowls. The Cook from our atelia explained, “It’s the experience of food, rather than the feeding of children.” italy-3 Great emphasis is placed on using organic and local produce. Many of the Centres grow their own produce in gardens the children tend and harvest. The Cook shared how they strive to offer as many flavours, such as sweet, salty, savoury, bitter and sour, as possible at each meal to appeal to the children’s senses, as well as food with different textures, like soft and crunchy. The cooks in Reggio Emilia have experimented for many years to develop simple, yet highly digestible foods that children enjoy.

“But we must not forget that one of the most important links between people and food is the principle of pleasure; the pleasure that derives from using the senses but also the pleasure of discovery, the pleasure of manipulating raw materials to create foods, the pleasure of play and the pleasure of company, which at the table becomes conviviality.” Excerpt from Reggio Children publiction ‘The Languages of Food recipes, experiences, thoughts’ by Reggio Children

We were invited to help make salads to serve to those on tour that day at the Loris Malaguzzi Center. Set before us were two prep tables, and a table of local organic fresh vegetables and fruits, as well as herbs, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. We started chopping, slicing and stirring as the Cook walked around and helped us choose and experiment with the many ingredients offered. italy-6     italy-2 I found myself reflecting on the idea of an adult palate versus a child’s palate and reminding myself of what I truly believe, that children deserve elevated tastes. Cooking for children is so much more than providing full bellies with food we perceive the children will enjoy. I’ve always tried to expand food offerings and introduce new tastes to the children. Yet, this experience made me think well beyond anything I have previously offered. At this Atelia we experimented with edible flowers, radishes, peppers, melons and mixing all these with greens, combining sweet with savoury…it was fascinating and delicious. This experience continues to change my practice. I am more curious in the grocery store when searching and gathering ingredients for feasts I think the children will enjoy. In both Centres I currently support the children enjoy tending gardens, and even more so, tasting the fruits of their labour. We often ask the children what dish we should prepare with the food we harvested. I am more conscientious as to how food is presented and served to the children. As in Reggio, our organization also holds a very high image of children and their thoughts and ideas, seeing them as capable and competent. This must be reflected in our kitchens and through our dining experiences, when choosing food and preparing meals for children, and as we watch carefully to see if our creations tantalize their senses as we dine alongside the children…as family. Missy Compton, Site Supervisor for Compass ELC Apsley and Shamrock Programs To read previously posted Compass ELC Blogs, please click HERE
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Missy, far right, with fellow Compass ELC Study Tour participants from left, Lindsay Ross, Lorrie Baird, Samantha Monteith-Damario, Amy Plumbe and Kerri Riel