As healthy eating habits begin from a young age, Eeyou Istchee’s daycare chefs have an important mission that is often overlooked. However, they were recently the focus of an ambitious collaboration between the Cree Nation Government’s Child and Family Services, the Cree Health Board (CBHSSJB) and the Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec (ITHQ).
A new rotational menu and recipe book specifically for Cree daycares was launched during a week of training at Montreal’s Delta Marriott Hotel. These menus will be on rotation until a summer/fall edition is released with updates to come twice a year.
“It was a really nice experience,” said Lilian Kandiliotis, Institutional Food Services nutritionist for the CBHSSJB. “All the cooks from the communities stayed in downtown Montreal and did a one-week cooking course at the ITHQ culinary institute. We did a bunch of menu items that went directly into the recipe book.”
Kandiliotis has been working with cooks from Eeyou Istchee’s 16 daycares since 2007, providing training and support to help improve their menus, kitchens and equipment. After the CNG consulted the ITHQ about developing new recipes and customized training for its early childhood centres, Kandiliotis worked with the institute’s Nicole-Anne Gagnon to explain their unique needs.
“The basic idea was relatively simple: it was necessary to make the children eat better but also to make them discover the pleasure of eating healthy,” Gagnon told HRI magazine last summer. “During my stay there, I became aware of the difficulties these cooks encounter, but I was also able to measure their incredible will and their love for our profession.”
Gagnon worked alongside the cooks for three days to “feel the pulse” of daily life in a Cree daycare kitchen and was impressed by the facilities and their pride in reclaiming traditional foods. It was quickly agreed that a staff mobilization would be beneficial for addressing training gaps, teaching new techniques and, above all, for enabling them to meet and evolve together.
“It was really to stimulate the cooks, to refresh their passion for cooking,” Kandiliotis explained. “To revamp their skills and concretize that they’re the foundation of the nutrition and health of the children at the daycares. What they do is so important and they’re undervalued much of the time.”
This training was only one part of a larger revitalization initiative of Child and Family Services that involved all 500 staff from Cree daycares coming to Montreal to participate in targeted workshops over the course of one week. Separate cohorts arrived the weeks of February 24 and March 2 so operations could continue in Eeyou Istchee.
“They put a real focus on special needs, which was really needed,” said Kandiliotis. “They have workshops for all – lots of cool stuff on picky eaters, food allergies, a focus on protection of Cree culture and language. Mine is just one of many stories.”
The recipe book was officially launched March 5 with a special dedication to Paul Ottereyes, a highly respected chef who sadly passed away last year just days after collaborating with Gagnon in Waswanipi. Child and Family Services presented his family with the book at a remembrance ceremony in Montreal.
“They’ll be remembering his life, career and all the wonderful things he did for the children,” Kandiliotis shared. “He was very involved with some of the recipe implementation, the production of the book and the project. A recipe has his name on it – Paul Ottereyes’ Panna Cotta. It has his touch with the blueberries, raspberries and small winter leaves. He liked to go into the forest and knew the flowers, herbs and mushrooms.”
Among the 40-plus recipes are many international dishes, such as chicken jambalaya, Japanese burgers and Greek pastitsio. There are also exciting new ways to integrate vegetarian ingredients. Using beans and lentils in baking recipes, for example, increases the fibre, making them delicious and nutritious.
“What’s good about the recipes is that you can throw traditional food in any one of them,” said Kandiliotis. “Instead of chicken use ptarmigan or goose, or if you’re making one of the stews, instead of using beef you can use caribou or moose very easily. It’s very interchangeable and flexible to the traditional diet.”
Less traditional foods were tested with the children in Eeyou Istchee. For example, among the three “magic dips” to be served with sliced vegetables or crackers.
“We do little tastings but the first time they’re not used to the taste and texture,” Kandiliotis noted. “The second time more and more children try it. It’s a process. You have to keep repeating it – it can take up to 10 times to make a new food habit.”
The book aligns with recent recommendations from the Canada Food Guide, which encourages more plant-based eating and highlights different sources of protein. While Kandiliotis approves the traditional Cree hunting diet, wild meats aren’t often served in daycares due to safety regulations from Quebec’s Ministry of Agriculture.
This may soon change as early introduction of traditional foods in a child’s diet has been identified as a Cree Nation priority. The CBHSSJB already has authorization to serve traditional food to patients at the Chisasibi Hospital and at all of the Board’s 21 food service points by providing specialized training that makes the hunters and butchers receiving the meat the inspection crew.
“They know how to inspect if it’s something you can eat or not eat,” said Kandiliotis. “Most of this information comes from our Elders. When children eat traditional foods, they lick the plates.”