For her scholarship exam in food technology, year 13 Carmel College student Courtney Adolphe was determined to do something to benefit families. The families Bellyful supports were just what she had in mind.
Courtney Adolphe knows first-hand what a family in need requires – and it’s certainly not dinner-time struggles.
Courtney began nannying for the family next door at 14, but three years later the father was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Courtney knew a long and emotional journey lay ahead for this family, and she was determined to do everything she could to ensure the two children’s home life was as comfortable as possible. (He’s now cancer free.)
Among other household duties, Courtney often fed the children. ‘Because of the stress, the children both developed an intolerance to gluten-based products and became uninterested in meat. They were often sick and fussy, and I quickly realised what a constant daily struggle dinner time can be – especially ones without support from their wider families.’
So, at a young age, Courtney saw what a struggle it can be in the kitchen and at dinner, especially when significant change, such as a new baby, or a life shock such as an illness, can throw a functional family completely out of balance. A few years on, while in her final year at Auckland’s Carmel College, Courtney drew on her experience for her scholarship food technology project.
‘Through caring for this family, I had seen another common issue; the lack of gluten-free and vegetarian products on the market, especially available as a ready-to-eat meal. I undertook a lot of research into what makes a healthy dinner and it became my goal to help provide struggling families with a beneficial, nutritious and delicious meal.’
When Courtney discovered Bellyful, and its work delivering frozen meals to struggling families, she knew she’d found the focus for her project. ‘I thought, “This is an organisation I can really relate to”. I had been thinking about a meal kit for mothers of newborns, but once I got in touch with Bellyful I decided to work alongside them to produce a gluten-free, vegetarian dinner meal,’ says Courtney.
She met Nic Cronin, the North Shore branch coordinator, who gave her a brief to create a meal that is vegetarian and either gluten or dairy free. That’s a reasonably big ask in itself, but as Bellyful’s purpose is to fill young children’s bellies with nutritious food, it also had to be toddler friendly. It had to be delicious when cooked in large batches, then freeze well, but be quick to heat, retaining its texture. In short, it had to tick all possible boxes to provide a stress-free meal for a family dealing with a newborn or illness.
Courtney was up for the challenge. ‘I researched what nutrition new mums needed, plus what they lose during pregnancy. I wanted to make the meal nutritious for everyone but also fun for kids.’
Then she got into the kitchen, where developing the perfect meal took quite a few tries. ‘My first vegetable bolognese was too runny; a frittata I made was yummy but after freezing and reheating it was definitely average. I made a kumara curry, but that would have been too expensive.’
The vegetable bolognese showed the most promise, so she revisited her recipe, tweaking it until it had the right consistency. She incorporated health-promoting legumes, including kidney beans and lentils, and added carrot for extra fibre.
‘I was constantly evaluating and eliminating stuff, while keeping in mind salt content. I also had to think about how easy the recipe was to shop for and cook up. I’d wanted to use fresh garlic but that would take too long for the Bellyful cookathon volunteers, so I changed that.’
‘I did small test batches to start with, but then did some bulk cooks to make sure the recipe would still work when upscaled at the cookathon. I’ve given quite a few meals away to my nanny family, my cousin, friends and neighbours, but we still have 10 meals in our freezer. I think my family are a bit over vegetable bolognese!’
She also tried her efforts on a wider test audience, asking them to fill out questionnaires once they had cleared their plates. ‘They were very honest,’ she says. But clearly they liked it, with one parent commenting that the meal was, ‘very attractive for the children – it felt like a treat for them though it was still healthy and satisfying.’
Another benefit of developing a vegetarian bolognese is its versatility. ‘Depending on the family’s preference, they could add pasta, rice or corn chips to the dish,’ says Courtney.
Now at Auckland University of Technology studying for a Bachelor of Health Science, with a view to paediatric occupational therapy, and still nannying, Courtney says it was all worth it. ‘I love helping people and I love children.’
Not only did her work developing the dish garner her an ‘outstanding’ mark in her scholarship subject, it’s resulted in a tasty new meal Bellyful offers its families.
Nic Cronin is very impressed. ‘We really appreciate all the work Courtney’s done for Bellyful and our families. She was lovely to work with, and her knowledge, work ethic, energy and enthusiasm truly are outstanding.’
Courtney says the project has also given her a strong sense of community, the struggles many families face, and how the delivery of a simple but delicious meal can make all the difference – especially if it eliminates meal-time meltdowns.
Words by Lee-Anne Duncan. Images by Paula Ward.