Jacquie Bull is the chef at the University of Guelph's Child Care and Learning Centre.

The most popular item on the menu at the Child Care and Learning Centre (CCLC) at U of G is not what you might expect to be preschoolers’ top pick. Chef Jacquie Bull calls it “chickpea stew,” and it includes chickpeas, sweet potatoes and other vegetables flavoured with turmeric and a variety of spices. “It’s so good for you,” she says. It’s also a big hit with her young diners.

Bull, a Guelph grad with a master’s in geography, studied cooking at the Stratford Chefs School before starting at the CCLC almost a year ago. She has enthusiastically taken on the task of revamping the menu to focus on more fresh fruits and vegetables.

“We have fresh produce delivered twice a week,” she says. “Before, soup came out of a can. Now all the soup is made from scratch. The tomato sauce is made from scratch. We also serve fresh fruit three times a day.” Bull has also switched out the cookies that used to be served as snacks with options such as veggies and hummus or yogurt-based dips.

Making meals healthier and fresher isn’t her only challenge. Of the 125 children Bull feeds each day, 30 have allergies, dietary restrictions or special dietary needs.

“My approach is to make as much as possible that everyone can eat,” she says. “We serve steamed vegetables with a little olive oil and garlic, for example, rather than margarine.” She finds that cooking from scratch — she even makes the salad dressings — allows her to adjust ingredients to avoid allergens.

Preschoolers are notoriously picky eaters, but Bull has had great success with meals that aren’t traditional choices for kids. “Parents tell me their kids have never eaten so much!”

Foods are served “family-style” on platters in the middle of the tables, so children can take as much or as little as they want. The staff will talk about what’s being served and highlight seasonal vegetables. Bull finds that children are influenced and encouraged by seeing other kids at the table eat and enjoy the foods.

She also incorporates vegetables whenever possible. “The cheese sauce on our mac and cheese is cauliflower-based,” she explains. The very popular meatloaf is packed with grated vegetables, adding flavour and texture while increasing nutrition.

Bull is still making changes. “I experiment with my recipes constantly,” she says. “Once I find something they really like, it goes into the rotation. We have a four-week rotational menu, but it allows flexibility. The menu might say ‘vegetable soup’ but it doesn’t specify the recipe, so I can include seasonal ingredients and vary the textures and flavours.”

As a result of frequent requests, she is also exploring an option of offering prepared meals that busy parents can purchase to take home when they come to pick up their children. To enhance her own skills, Bull is planning to study human nutrition at U of G.

Her advice for parents of picky eaters? “Don’t be put off if your child won’t eat something. Their appetites will vary. Just keep offering them healthy foods, and let them choose how much they want to eat.”