Why Children Should Eat What We Eat
Whenever I’m asked to edit books on cooking for children, I feel vaguely uncomfortable with the idea. It strikes me as one of those artificial constraints – organic cookbooks being another example. Why on earth should organic food need cooking differently from any other kind of food? And why should children eat any differently from us? I’m always reminded of a journalist I read about many years ago, who was commissioned to write a book about children’s food. She travelled extensively, asking people from different cultures what their children ate. Everywhere, from India to Italy, she was met with the bemused reply, ‘They eat what we eat.’ Everywhere, in fact, except the USA and the UK, where we have somehow managed to conflate something perfectly simple – feeding children – into an activity that requires an entire industry to support it.
There’s no denying that children can be tricky to please when it comes to food. Whether that’s their fault or ours is debatable, but since we’re the adults we should at least consider the role we’ve played in it. I say that as someone who has managed to produce one child who will eat anything, the more outlandish the better, followed by another who is … well, let’s just say a little picky at times. Since the easy-to-please one is the elder, I complacently thought I’d cracked it when it came to feeding children, until my daughter brought me back down to earth. But no matter how fussy your child is, it’s unlikely that a book of special recipes will be the solution. I reach for my red pen whenever an author writes, as they frequently do, ‘Children will love this.’ How can they possibly know? There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to feeding children, and recipe books that guarantee to please are making a promise they can’t keep.
There are certain things we can do to help our children eat well, and it’s notable that in the countries where children eat the same food as their parents there are few issues with fussy eaters. It’s impossible to write about what your own kids eat without sounding a bit smug, so I shall just say as plainly as possible that my children eat what we eat. This is partly out of principle but also because I decided right at the start that after a working day there was absolutely no question of my preparing two separate sets of meals. The very idea is outrageous, and guaranteed to make me feel even more of a kitchen slave than I already do. Besides, I was determined – smugness alert! – that my children would grow up eating proper homemade food, as we do, and I had already noticed how many parents feed their children rubbish from a packet and save the good stuff for themselves.
Considering how child centred many of us are these days, it seems peculiar to me that any parent would blithely take on trust the contents of a packet labelled suitable for children without actually checking whether there was anything worth eating inside. Putting a picture of the Tweenies on a yoghurt carton isn’t a guarantee of nutritional value – often quite the opposite, in fact. On the other hand, I really don’t think there’s any point going to the other extreme and wrapping your kids in organic, low-fat, low-salt, low-sugar cotton wool. Whether we opt for junk food or Gwyneth Paltrow-style purity, any sort of restricted diet eventually becomes monotonous. If we want our children to eat well we have to recognise that they’re never going to love food if they’re bored with it.
When my children were very small, I used to have happy fantasies of passing on my culinary knowledge to them. But now they’re teenagers they’re reluctant to be moulded by me in this or any other matter, and prefer me not to hover over them when they’re cooking. I’d still love to teach them how to cook but have accepted that they need to find their own way. It was very cheering to read once that cookery writer Josceline Dimbleby didn’t bother teaching her children to cook – this didn’t stop her son, Henry, ending up as co-owner of successful restaurant chain, Leon, and governmental adviser on school dinners. The eminent food writer, Jane Grigson, sensibly left daughter Sophie, now almost equally eminent food writer, to her own devices in the kitchen so she could work things out for herself. Both Dimbleby Jr and Grigson Jr grew up in a home where cooking from scratch was the norm, and that’s the best background for any future cook. The fact is, feeding children the same home-cooked food that we eat – and roping them in to help with the shopping and peel and chop the veg occasionally – means they are familiar with ingredients and the kind of treatment they require and are not averse to having a go in the kitchen. They end up building their own relationship with food, one that is based on raw ingredients rather than packets and tins.
No matter how beautifully our own dear children eat their greens or tackle a bowl of mussels, sooner or later we all come up against the challenge of feeding other people’s. I remember when one very small girl came to tea I made a cottage pie, thinking that pretty much any child could cope with that. She sat at the table, head bowed over her plate, silent tears slipping down her face. Other children had brassily demanded an alternative if they didn’t like what was on offer, or, worse, marched over to the fridge to check the contents – something that generally met with an unsympathetic response from me. But this little girl’s sad acceptance wrung my heart. A brief search of the kitchen revealed that there was nothing she would eat. I really felt for her.
I was rather less sympathetic to the dissenters at my daughter’s seventh birthday party. Determined to provide food that they would all enjoy, I took pride in making little pizzas – just cheese and tomato on top, no anchovies, capers, olives, nothing green. I also spent a considerable amount of time producing some cat biscuits, decorated with chocolate that was carefully brushed on to give a furry appearance, then completed with piped eyes, nose and ears. After a few party games, I ushered the children to the tea table and brought out the pizzas, pretty confident that they would be well received. One little girl immediately announced: ‘I don’t like pizza.’ Another said, ‘I don’t like pizza with cheese on.’ From the other end of the table came, ‘I don’t like pizza with tomato on.’ Then a fourth child spoke up: ‘I do like pizza, but I don’t feel like eating it right now.’
My husband steered me out of the room before I said anything I might later regret. In the end, about half the pizzas disappeared, although the cat biscuits were ignored in favour of a packet of supermarket biscuits, bought at the last moment to boost the numbers. However, I had learned a valuable lesson: the more effort you put into food for children, the less likely they are to eat it. Certainly, if you have an emotional investment in it or a hidden agenda, they will sense it and back off in suspicion. And that, I think, is the best argument for not giving children special ‘children’s food’ but for feeding them whatever you happen to be eating. If the food isn’t all about them, there’s much less for them to kick against.
I’ve lost count of the number of parents I’ve heard say, ‘Don’t touch that! You won’t like it,’ as their child reaches for something new. But they might like it, and if you don’t let them try, they’ll never know. The most satisfying thing about ensuring that no food is off limits to our children is that they constantly surprise and delight us with what they enjoy, which makes up for all the things they reject. Occasionally, people have implied that it’s a bit brutal of me not to let my children indulge in the pleasure of food with a smiley face embossed on it, but I don’t feel they’ve missed out and, more importantly, neither do they. Food has brought them plenty of pleasure, the kind that can be happily repeated for a lifetime, and it’s never too soon to find that out.