Jo Day – Coin Street nursery’s chef

“My door is always open to any parent who would like specific tips”

What did you do before joining Coin Street as our nursery chef?

I have been working as the nursery chef at Coin Street since June 2014. Before that, I was a sous-chef at Harrow School, where I was trained in Chinese cooking. I was also a chef for Channel 4’s Big Brother, and got to meet celebrities like Dermot O’Leary.

Last year it was reported that 84% of British parents are concerned about healthy eating; how do you make sure that the children in the nursery are given a balanced and nutritious diet?

All our new menus are checked by a dietician who may tweak certain recipes to make them healthier. For example, sweet and sour chicken, I will swap the caster sugar in the original recipe for pineapple juice, a natural, healthier alternative. I do not bake cakes for them, unless it is a birthday. Why give children sweets when they’re perfectly happy with fruit? We also try to disguise healthy foods they’ve never seen before and might be put off by, like mixing butter beans into the béchamel sauce of our lasagne.

You come up with an extensive list of diverse ingredients for the little ones’ mealtimes; can you go through the process of choosing them?

Our children are exposed to such a wide range of interesting, more ‘adult’ foods. We have started giving them a hot breakfast, which includes smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, and they really like focaccia breads, spinach, hummus, olives and feta. I think children should be encouraged to try bolder flavours, especially when they are surrounded by their peers; they’re more inclined to try things that way. Remember, sometimes an ingredient that one child finds exciting such as dragon fruit or a lychee is another child’s everyday food item – it’s lovely to see them teaching each other about their home comforts and encouraging their friends to try different flavours.

Any advice for parents who are scared to try their kids on new and exciting foods?

Don’t put too much pressure on yourselves! It’s not easy getting children to try new things, we’re at an advantage because if one tries something and likes it, another will be tempted to give it a try too. However, that can sometimes have the opposite effect – if one doesn’t like it, others might be put off! It’s all about serving appetising food in a relaxed environment. My door is always open to any parent who would like more specific tips.

Would you say there are any essentials/basics that no kitchen should be without?

Herbs, spices and seasoning – if you don’t like to eat bland foods, the chances are your little ones won’t either!

What dish goes down best with the children?

Macaroni cheese without a doubt. I put spring onions in to make it a little different. It’s even a hit with our lactose-free children, as I swap the cheese for a lacto-free version. When a child has an allergy or intolerance, I try and cook them a dish based on what the majority is having. That way, they don’t feel singled out and in my experience, a child won’t want to eat if they’re the focus. They also love salmon pinwheels, which is smoked salmon in pastry.

And what don’t they like…

Very little, actually. Although they’re quite fussy with tomatoes; they prefer yellow cherry tomatoes and turn their nose up at the red ones and, try as I might, they just don’t eat sundried tomatoes!

Is there anything more you would like to try in the kitchen?

I would love to get the children more hands on with cooking and even teach them how to cook. We have child-safe knives in the kitchen, so they could always help prepare certain vegetables with me but I find that it’s often easier for me to just get on with it – I’m sure many parents can relate to that!