Thursday, September 25, 2014

Spanish Day Care, Part II: School Lunches

Last week, I wrote about our experience with the public day care system in Barcelona but I left out a description of the school lunches as the post was getting a tad long. I decided it might be better to devote a separate post to them since after all, the lunches are my favorite thing about Roman's school. So here we are- part two of our experience with Spanish day care, the lunch edition!

One thing I found pleasantly surprising is that in school, little Spanish children eat just as Spanish adults do. If you've ever been in Spain, you'll perhaps have noticed that during lunch time, all restaurants have a fixed menu of the day including a vegetable starter, a protein such as chicken or fish, a piece of bread, and a light dessert. Normally a glass of wine or cup of coffee is included in the price. In guarderia, the little ones are served in this same fashion with a first and second course accompanied by bread and dessert to follow. This is pretty different from how I used to feed Roman lunch before he started school. His lunch used to be a simple affair of tuna sandwiches or toast with pesto and hard boiled egg followed by a fruit. At the time, I suppose I was following the American dining ritual of light lunches and more substantial dinners. However, in Spain, it's the opposite--you eat a heavy lunch and a light, quick dinner and this is a habit that is formed, apparently, in infancy.

At Roman's school, lunch is served around noon and at that time, all play stops and the kids put their bibs on, sit down at the table with their classmates and wait for the lunch trolley. I have to admit that I laughed the first time I saw the lunch being wheeled in by the lunch ladies. The trolley itself is really just a metal shelf on wheels but the dishes on the trolley are all covered with these domed, metal dish covers and something about the whole thing reminded me of room service for the honeymoon suite or something. So elegant for little babes! The lunch ladies themselves, I have to mention, are all kind and jovial women who are always greeted with delight by the children. Also, for some reason that I can't quite explain, it matters to me that all the lunch ladies know my son's name--I think it makes me feel that mealtime is personal and even familial.

Not only do the children eat how adults eat, but they also eat what adults eat. There are no hamburgers, fishsticks, or pizzas served in school. Nothing is processed and all the food is cooked on site in the school's kitchen. Above is a picture of the menu from Roman's school. It's in Catalan, so perhaps only a few of you readers can read it, but I will translate some of the weeks' menu for the rest of you. On Monday (dilluns in Catalan) in Week 1 (1a setmana), the children eat rice in a broth with carrot and zucchini as their starter, then a simple omelet, a salad and a seasonal fruit. On Tuesday (dimarts) of the same week, they eat a puree of vegetables, a beef stew, salad, and seasonal fruit. On Wednesday (dimecres), spaghetti with mushrooms, grilled fish, bread and fruit for dessert. If you notice from the menu in the column titled 'Berenars', the children also get a snack (normally served around 3pm after nap time) which is normally yogurt, more fruit, or a cookie. On Thursdays for snack time, the kids eat coca which is a typical Catalan sweet bread with sugar sprinkled on top.

This is a pretty amazing menu, isn't it? It's certainly a far cry from the sloppy joes and pizza with creamed sweet corn that I remember from my youth! I can't tell you how much I appreciate that my son gets to eat so well in school. For one thing, it has exposed him to foods I probably wouldn't have made for him, some of them because they're traditional Spanish and Catalan foods that I'm not familiar with and some of them because they never occurred to me. For instance, I never would have thought of serving a baby a salad with olives in it, yet this is a meal that Roman is served a few times a week (although he normally gives the olives a curious lick and then puts them aside). Another reason why I'm grateful for these quality lunches is because some of the nutrition burden is removed from my shoulders. When Roman eats at school, because the meals are all so well rounded from a nutritional standpoint, I don't have to stress about dinner so much. If I make a simple pasta or a vegetable soup for dinner, I don't worry that there's not enough protein or iron or fiber or whatever in what I made. I know that he consumed these things already during lunch.  The one thing I always try to do is to coordinate what I make with the school menu. So if he ate lentils for lunch, I'm not going to make lentils for dinner. It takes a bit of planning, but it's such a help to only have to worry about two meals a day rather than three.

I don't think many Spanish people are aware of how special the public daycare system is here or how refreshing it is for Americans to see kids eating 'non-kid' foods for lunch. I don't think they know that in the U.S., if you want your kid to eat well, you can't rely on the meals provided by the school which tend to be lacking in quality and diversity. In the U.S., it normally falls to the parents to provide a quality lunch from home and they also have to figure out dinner later.  If parents had less to do, providing three nutritionally adequate meals a day for their kids would be no problem, but unfortunately, that's not the case anywhere in the world. We feel tremendously thankful that there is a system here in Spain that places a high value on a healthy diet for our littlest ones.

So that's part two of our Spanish day care experience. What do you guys think? Is your child in daycare somewhere? What's it like?

P.S. If you missed Part I, you can find it here

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