The conversation at the dinner table goes something like this:
My daughter: ‘I don’t like this Mummy.’
Me: ‘I think what you mean is, ‘I don’t like the look of this, Mummy’. You don’t know if you don’t like it because you haven’t tasted it.’
My daughter: ‘I don’t like this Mummy.’
Even before there was a conversation, back when it was just me, my daughter and plate of food that she didn’t much want to eat, there was a particular kind of tension at mealtimes. I would go to some trouble to make a small but well balanced meal, and she would often refuse even to try it. It’s at once unfathomable and at the same time entirely predictable that mealtimes are a battleground of modern parenting.
Like many parents before me, I concluded that if she would agree to eat french toast, then I would make french toast. And scrambled eggs. Toast with hummus. Carrot sticks. Cucumber. Pieces of cheese. Raisins. I ended up with a small repertoire on brisk rotation and I hovered over her with a plastic spoon.
One of the great things about children is that they change all the time, so just when you’re starting to feel a bit oppressed, a small revolution occurs and everything is new again. Sometimes a holiday sparks a paradigm shift, and sometimes it’s starting preschool or eating with others. In our case we got a shared nanny, and had a second child. It turns out that there’s nothing like a bit of peer pressure to encourage a child to eat a wider variety of foods.
Things had already loosened up a little, and then I found an old Ellyn Satter book from the 1980s, called How to Get Your Child to Eat…But Not Too Much. Some of the ideas in the book are quite dated but the core principle is rock solid and right up to the minute. Satter’s idea is that parents are responsible for what food enters the house, and what is offered to children at mealtimes, and children are responsible for…eating.
It seems puzzling that this breakdown of responsibilities is not obvious, but scope creep affects parenting across the board and we seem to be taking responsibility for our children in ways that are useful neither to them nor to us. These days I put the food on the table, I listen to feedback and then I wash up. Not micro-managing every bite is probably as helpful as relinquishing control of the outcome once the food is on the table. Sometimes there is a lot of food left on the plates at the end, and the waste of food bothers me as much as the waste of time. My main feeling is frustration that I can’t somehow help my kids to make the leap from palate confusion to love, because mostly what I’m serving comes straight from greatest hits of my own childhood and I am excited for my children to enjoy these foods too.
About a year ago I read Pamela Druckerman’s charming French Children Don’t Throw Food, and added some further tenets to my philosophy on the care and feeding of children. According to Druckerman, French people ‘propose’ food to children with a view to beginning a lifelong relationship with flavour. Further, most French parents insist that their children have at least one bite of everything, which sounded remarkably like my own childhood. Accordingly I seized upon the one-bite rule with enthusiasm but perhaps a little doctrinaire.
The problem with rules is that you have to enforce them or risk being inconsistent and confusing your child – woe betide the parent who decides one night that he or she couldn’t care less if little Emily has taken a bite of steamed quinoa and serves pudding anyway. Dividing food into courses and making rules about what must be eaten or tasted means that subsequent food (read: dessert) is contingent on one bite. My daughter, now aged five, is a master at forcing down a mouthful of food that practically makes her gag with horror in order to ‘qualify’ for sweets. My son on the other hand is a pretty adventurous eater, but he has a stubborn streak, and it seems harsh to tell a two-year-old that he can’t have half a banana because he wouldn’t try a mouthful of kale.
My wise and delightful father-in-law, who passed away on July 19, once advised me to be very careful about what passed into law in the family, partly because you don’t really want the bother of policing it all but mostly because you’ll lose your kids’ respect if you make empty threats. Ellyn Satter would say that I should give the kids their banana along with any other food and let them decide what and whether to eat. There’s no short cut to getting your kids to eat any more than there is to winning their trust. You just have to keep showing up in the kitchen each evening and turning on the stove.