Food is supposed to be the easy bit. Everyone likes good food. And children love to eat. So why is it that getting children to eat well, to prefer to eat well, is no longer a simple project? It may sound simple on paper – especially in shiny recipe books – but in the kitchen it’s another matter. In the kitchen a previously jolly Emma can shrink in a matter of seconds to a myopic preoccupation with the fat that marbles the meat on her plate. While her brother Alex will be quietly licking the olive oil from his plate where a mound of broccoli was.
It doesn’t matter if you are Jamie Oliver himself, every child exercises power in the kitchen by eating fussily. I discovered this early on, years before I considered having a child. I’d gone to have lunch with an old friend, who was in the garden when I arrived. Her son Toby was busy with a tip-truck, shovelling lawn clippings into the back of the truck and moving them about the garden in a happy busy way. Carolyn was on her knees planting.
As we went inside to set the table for lunch, Carolyn said something that gave me a start. ‘Sometimes, she said, stirring soup on the hob, ‘I’ll get so tense just before Toby’s supper time, that I’ll have a quick whisky to calm me down’. I glanced across at her, looking nearly as surprised as I felt. ‘You know’, she went on, ‘some days he’ll take an hour to eat his supper. Or he won’t touch it at all, even when it’s as simple as a boiled egg and soldiers’. And she rolled her eyes and laughed, intimating that – without a child myself – I couldn’t possibly imagine the scene she described.
Small children are exquisitely adept at pushing their mother’s buttons in the kitchen. They know, without having to say anything, how keen their mother is for them to eat well. They’ve never heard of vitamin A or selenium, of course. But they know that if they say yuck to all vegetables of a certain colour, or texture, they’re guaranteed a reaction.
Children don’t fib. They can lie, but not fib. If they don’t like something they won’t beat around the bush. If broccoli is on their ‘on no account to be eaten’ list, they simply won’t deign touch it – except to push it to the side of their plate. After all there are so many nicer foods to eat, that their mother (or father) will relent and give them if they stick to their guns. So why should they eat broccoli?
Small children are ideologues in the kitchen. They think they know what they like with such a passion that no amount of persuading can convince them otherwise. Toby is grown up now. But when he was three his favourite colour was red and his least favourite vegetables were broccoli and sweet potato. Full stop. And he enforced his dislikes with a zeal that reflected the powerlessness he felt over what was spooned on to his plate at meal times.
Mummy says I have to eat broccoli and sweet potato. Therefore I refuse to eat broccoli or sweet potato. It isn’t the broccoli that is the problem. It’s mummy making me eat it that’s the problem. And so Toby pushes his plate away and digs his heels in. Meanwhile my friend frowns and frets about her son’s vitamin intake.
When I myself got around to having children, I wasn’t an easy-going mother in the kitchen. I cared about what my children ate from day one. I made them eat their vegetables, just as my mother made me eat mine. My husband disagreed, but I felt instinctively that nutrition was more important than food preferences. I might disguise certain foods, but they were still there, hiding.
Thankfully our vegetable wars are now past (bar with my husband, who won’t touch salad, zucchini or aubergine). My daughter Emma no longer eats one sweetcorn kernel at a time. She doesn’t sit for an entire meal with a piece of meat gristle stuck inside her cheek. Whereas she used to get a kick out of making a fuss with her food, she now takes pride in not making a fuss, and gets genuinely upset when she doesn’t like something I’ve cooked.
In theory this should make my job as a mother in the kitchen easier. Yet weirdly it hasn’t. What I realised, a couple of years ago, is that if I wanted my family to appreciate good food, I had to be able to cook it. I don’t care so much about healthy food, a concept I find tiresome, or restaurant food – which my children don’t particularly like. I mean food that my family genuinely enjoys eating and that is good for their bodies too. I had to be good at cooking flourishing food.
I’ve never considered myself a particularly good cook. I’m a fairly good cook. But even a fairly good cook requires a certain fluency, if she’s not to spend her life pouring over cookery books, or feeling burnt out every night half an hour before supper. Once I had a family to cook for I needed a deeper understanding of cooking than I’d got away with previously, when I had a few set dishes and winged it the rest of the time.
I never thought, before having a family, that not being able to make a pie crust, or a thick hollandaise, really mattered. Nobody noticed. But now it does matter. If I’m not to become bored out of my mind cooking the same things, I need to be able to be more adventurous in what I cook, and to lead from the front in terms of introducing new dishes.
But sometimes I struggle to be gracious. I don’t remember signing anything that said that I’d be cooking seven evening meals a week for the foreseeable future, plus lunch and breakfast. I was never trained to do three entirely different housekeeping tasks at once. Look at the bottom of my heavy cooking pots, and see the carnage there – the holes in the enamel that Le Creuset boasts never happen.
Night after night I serve flourishing food. I try my best to make light of what seems an endless carnival of meals. Thankfully family is grateful for my efforts, even my less than wonderful dishes. As I stand in my kitchen each evening, psyching myself up to cook something I myself would like to eat, I feel invisible solidarity with every other mother (and father) who is standing in the kitchen at roughly the same moment, wondering what to rustle up for dinner.