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Early Years Cook's Training
 Grub4life offer a range of specialist cookery master classes and ...

Catering within budget, without compromising on nutrition.

We’ve all felt the pinch as food prices have been rising during the recession. Every time you hit the supermarket the bill for the weekly shop seems larger. Little wonder families are looking for savvy ways to cut their grocery bills. Grow your own veg, the resurgence of using cheaper cuts if meat and households joining forces to buy in bulk are all ways for families to save some cash. As a child care provider, you no doubt are feeling the squeeze on your food budget too, but I suspect you feel the need to be less overt about how you are trying to cut your food bills. There is a different view taken when any care provider looks to make savings on food. Less money spent implies lower standards in nutrition or food quality. Any Mum will tell you that she won’t compromise on her family’s health to save a few pounds, and it doesn’t have to be any different for a nursery or children’s centre?
Efficiency in catering is nothing new. It’s what any business which provides food to its service users has to practice in order to survive. Yet, when Grub4life has worked with both private and local authority Early Years Childcare providers (EYCs), we have been amazed at how standard catering management practices seem almost non- existent. It’s this simple; you cannot feed 30 or 130 children all day, every day without observing some simple rules on the way the budget is managed. The good news is; you most definitely can have an efficient, flexible food procurement system, and a menu which reduces waste and enables you to accurately cost your meals without compromising on taste, presentation or nutritional quality.
Looking after the pennies
The old adage of looking after the pennies so the pounds can look after themselves is not a bad philosophy to follow. There is no single strategy to save money when it comes to food, but by implementing a few simple steps you can save small amounts here and there which can make a real overall difference to your food bills.
Menu planning:
Before you start on the fine detail, you have to operate with a menu and standardised recipes in place. This should be a rotational menu which operates over 3-4 weeks with accompanying recipes that specify the number of portions they produce. The menu can of course be changed once or twice a year to reflect the seasons. Your menu and recipes can be flexible in order take advantage of special offers- for instance you may want to include a weekly Roast on the menu but leave the meat choice optional to take advantage of changing meat prices. Similarly, fish pie can be made with a wide range of fish without adversely affecting its nutritional value. Fish prices vary enormously according to availability, so specifying cod fillets in a fish pie recipe can mean more costs than necessary - Coley, Haddock, Plaice or Pollock are equally as nutritious as cod, but will make far more economical buys if cod is expensive. This flexibility can be used in a wide range of dishes and accompaniments. Suggesting the colour of vegetable meal accompaniments, rather than specific vegetables allows you to buy in season when vegetables are cheaper.
E.G Fish Pie with green and orange vegetables.
This ensures the meal is providing specific nutrients (all green veg contains folate and iron, all orange veg contains beta carotene) but allows you to vary what is served according to price and season. Spring greens in April and curly kale in October. Or, young carrots in May and Butternut squash in September.
Portion control:
There are some truly inspiring Cooks working in EYCs, and you’d be amazed how many produce terrific meals without ever referring to a recipe. However, when the Cook carries all their knowledge in their head the EYC is vulnerable. What happens if the Cook is sick? What happens if they leave? All that knowledge goes with them. From a budgeting point of view, you cannot cost a menu without a recipe.  You need the recipe to tell you the quantity of ingredients needed to produce a specific number of meals. The free website resource, www.Grub4life.org.uk  recommends recipes which produce yields of ten toddler portions - this makes it easy to produce meals for larger numbers if required. It also means you have all the information you need in order to negotiate discounts and special deals with local suppliers or wholesalers. If you don’t know how much you use of an ingredient you will always struggle to get a good deal. Waste can also be significantly improved using a portion controlled recipe, it ensures you produce the right amount of food for the number of children, and acts as a very useful tool for  child carers or dining room staff to serve the right sized portion for each child.
From a nutritional point of view, portion controlled recipes and standard menus are essential. Nutritional analysis relies on accuracy of ingredient weights and recipe yields, without these it’s impossible for you to demonstrate the nutritional value of your food.
Purchasing power:
Whether you are an independent nursery, a local authority EYC or part of a national chain you have the power to negotiate preferential rates with your suppliers- providing you have standard menus and portion controlled recipes that is.
You might be small, but have you ever considered approaching other independent nurseries to join forces in purchasing? In a similar way to co-operative retailors, co-operative purchasers can operate more efficiently than individuals in the market place. You don’t all have to use the same menu, but by buying in bulk from local suppliers and then dividing fruit and veg, meat, milk etc. between you, discounts of 10%-25% are very achievable. Local suppliers are often keen to advertise their links with local businesses too, so you might want to consider displaying your local food supply network in the nursery. It’s a good marketing tool and USP for the nursery and goes down very well with parents.
Local authorities: 
The vast majority of local authorities have negotiated central food purchasing from contracted suppliers. While, this can be effective at achieving discounts it does restrict EYCs from taking advantage of any other opportunities.  Grub4life saw a prime example of this in one London Children’s Centre which is situated next to a fantastic fruit and vegetable market. The Borough had contracted fruit and vegetable suppliers who at one stage were charging over £2 for a pineapple when the next door market was offering  three pineapples for £1.  But the children’s centre couldn’t buy the cheaper pineapples because they no longer had a petty cash facility.  We’re glad to report this situation has now changed and a lovely range of different fruit is available at the Children’s Centre.
Nursery groups:
Over the last decade Grub4life has worked with some of the major nursery groups in the UK. Originally we were amazed to see that so many had very comprehensive policies on education, CPD and child safety, but almost nothing established when it came to food. No policy on nutrition or safety and no thought about how food was being purchased. Some were using on-line supermarket shopping and delivery.  On the face of it seems like a convenient idea. However, many nurseries report problems with on line shopping. If an item is out of stock, inappropriate alternatives can be sent instead. This can be as simple as diet yoghurt being sent instead of full fat yoghurt which affects the nutritional balance of a meal. It can be more serious, cereals and snack foods containing nuts have been sent as an alternative to nut free brands. This could clearly have disastrous implications but could very easily be overlooked by staff. Fresh foods, particularly cold meats are often delivered to nurseries with very short use by dates. This results in wastage, or the nursery having to alter menus to use up ingredients.
Some nurseries are unsure about whether they should use supermarket budget ranges or stick to premium brands only. Budget fruit and vegetables are just a nutritious as premium or organic fruit and veg; they are just not as uniform in size and shape. Processed foods, like cereals, fruit juice, cold meats and bakery goods may vary nutritionally from the mainstream brands. Fat, salt or sugar levels can be significantly higher in budget ranges so it’s important to compare labels before choosing. While on line shopping does allow you to take advantage of Buy One get One Free and other special offers, for a nursery group it is a long way from being the most efficient way to buy food.
Grub4life has worked with a number of nursery groups to help them plan and negotiate food supply from catering Wholesalers.  While this can be a big project, the savings that can be made with economies of scale cannot be ignored. The key tools you need are planned menus, recipes and very clear ingredients’ requirements. You’ll also need an accurate estimate of your annual or monthly group food spend. Some wholesalers are clued up to the needs of EYCs and understand the nutritional need of the under 5s, others are not. Some common ingredients to ask if a wholesaler can supply will soon enable you to sort the wheat from the chaff.
Ask a wholesaler if they can supply:
Tuna in spring water?
Canned pulses in unsalted water?
Low salt stock cubes?

If you get a negative response to these simple requests- we’d suggest you move on.
Providing good quality, nutritious food that young children will eat is not easy, your Cooks and their skills are paramount in achieving this. But, many Cooks may not have the experience in managing budgets and suppliers in the same way other caterers do. This can be learned, and shouldn’t stop you as an EYC gaining competitive suppliers who can provide what you need at a price that’s right.
By combining common catering management skills with your Cook’s expertise you can provide excellence in the food you serve. Just in the same way as any other area of the nursery, you can also minimise the amount of money being needlessly wasted.
For more information on how Grub4life can help with any area of your food provision contact nigel@grub4life.org.uk

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