Dinners for beginners

Rose Prince wishes she’d benefited from Bee Wilson’s advice when trying to get her own children to eat their greens

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

First Bite: How We Learn to Eat Bee Wilson

Fourth Estate, pp.415, £12.99, ISBN: 9780007549702

Never mind teaching children to cook: they need to be taught to eat. Obvious? Totally, but this is the choosing part of eating, not the chomping and swallowing we are born to do. Yet, terrific survivors that omnivores have proven to be, they do not know poison from medicine unless told so. So, if you were a cave baby all those eons ago, your cave parents would have pointed out the poisonous berries from the nutritious ones, and later on taught you which animals to hunt.

Today’s infants face rather more complicated food lessons, and their parents a horrendous task if they are to bring up a brood with good eating habits and perhaps more importantly a relationship with food that is just as healthy. Bee Wilson’s First Bite: How We Learn To Eat is one of the books that makes me wish I could have my time again. I would guess from the bibliography that she has read every standard work on the psychology of eating, digested all and spat back a condensed form that even so shows what a galling task we face if we are to teach our children to eat in the modern world.

What if we don’t? There’s obviously the obesity epidemic to show that more than a quarter of the population are eating wrong and poor diet is the biggest killer, ahead of smoking and air pollution. There are myriad eating disorders, from mild to serious mental illness, and no amount of pre-programming is going to solve the problem.

Everyone has personal tastes, inherited, learned or just there. ‘Human tastes are astonishingly diverse, and can be mulishly stubborn,’ Wilson says. ‘Even within the same family, likes vary dramatically from person to person [tell me about it].There is no such thing as a food that will please everyone.’

Well, McDonald’s burgers please an awful lot of people, millions and millions. But I know what she means. The question is, how do we influence or not influence? Matters are made worse by the availability of convenience food. Buying ready meals passes on a number of messages: they are liberating to some, loaded with guilt for others.

Those who do cook, however, are constantly challenged by outside forces (‘Milly’s mummy always gives us pizza.’) I struggled at mealtimes, trying to persuade my children to eat foods I believed were good for them. If they refused, I concluded that they personally disliked these foods. We talk over our children’s heads. ‘Joe hates fish,’ we tell other mothers. The infant Joe hears this and agrees, possibly for the rest of his life. But maybe Joe did not like fish that day because he saw desperation. ‘Eat this, Joe, it’s good for you, please — please. Here comes the aeroplane with the yummy fishy wish. Nyeeee-wowwwww.’

Joe thinks, what is she up to? Then the wilful little soul gets it that meals are more interesting when mum acts the aeroplane if he says ‘no’. Wilson advises we keep a straight face, citing a remarkable experiment by the Chicago paediatrician Dr Clara Marie Davis who spent six years studying what would happen if children’s appetites were allowed to blossom without the interference of preconceived ideas. She offered unweaned infants 34 foods, giving them free rein to eat what they wished. Among these were bananas, liver, milk, sea salt, turnips, bone marrow and apples.

Davis found that in the early stage of her study, the children showed enthusiasm for everything. They did not realise they were not meant to like certain items, or prefer others. Davis did discover, however, that once they had tried everything, they began to develop preferences. They overdid some foods, then developed passions for others but their health did not suffer. The lesson is, keep your face straight when trying something new, never show you care if they reject it, then go back to it when the time is right.

Wilson has her own moment resolving a problem caused by forcing healthy foods on one of her young children. ‘I backed off, and my son slowly broadened his horizons.’ She managed to feed him the hated food — carrots. ‘I stood well back, as if lighting fireworks, and he freely took some in his hand.’ I loved this — feed a child right and you diffuse a bomb. I enjoyed Wilson’s personal anecdotes. They remind me of marvels told by parents over these years. Sod the scientific studies; mothers and Mother Nature will take care of things.

Unlearning bad habits is possible, though not easy. We all know that picky eater who was fussy as a child and is still dissecting everything on the plate half a century later in a Michelin three-star. Bad memories of rank and bitter cooked vegetables will have Picky claiming to hate ‘greens’ when in fact grey is the likely colour of the ghastly dish. Can he or she be persuaded?

It comes to this: what is perceived as good is probably bad, and bad is most likely good. All you have to do is change your mind. Is it so very difficult to know hunger from love? First Bite reveals much more about feeding, eating and the very complicated way in which personal problems can manifest themselves in eating disorders, a subject to which Wilson adds her personal, useful insights. Not everyone is vulnerable, and I think that as a parent I got away with a lot. But I should have been more studious, and I’d have liked to have this book by the bed even if in those days I was too tired to read.

There is hope. ‘We are like children in our fussiness and love of junk,’ Wilson says. ‘But we also remain like children in that we have a capacity to learn new tricks, one that we seldom credit ourselves with.’ So, begin again. Lose the aeroplane.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £10.99 Tel: 08430 600033. Rose Prince, is the author of The New English Kitchen and The Good Food Producers Guide.

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Show comments
  • King Kibbutz

    What’s the difference between brussels sprouts and bogies?

    I never could get my kids to eat brussels sprouts.

  • William Matthews

    My parents embraced the threat of violence and starvation technique: “You’re not leaving the table until it’s finished” and “You eat that or you eat nothing” or “You’ll get a clip round the ear if you don’t finish those parsnips”. Still, after 40 years, I know well, god hid parsnips, turnips and swedes in the ground for a reason. Unlike the proud brussel sprout, which he presented for all to eat and enjoy.

  • evad666

    Simple solutions work the best, came across one Mum who told her young boys they could fart with impunity as long as they ate their sprouts.
    Result two small boys happily putting sprouts in Mums trolley.

  • My rule with my sons was simple: they had to give any new food I prepared a taste and if they didn’t like it they never needed to try it again.
    At a very young age I was calumniated as a “picky eater” and traduced as a disobedient child because I hated most vegetables and the rest of my family enjoyed them. My brothers—sadistic bastards but gannets at table—were considered good boys and generally allowed to act as they pleased because they always ate everything on their plates whereas I found (and still find) the taste and smell of turnips, parsnips, carrots, broad beans, Brussels sprouts and other Satanic vegetables quite revolting. I was not only defamed; I was also physically punished for finding disgusting food disgusting.
    I remember wasting birthday wishes on my second, third and fourth birthdays—for, as a young, innocent and gullible lad I was deceived by my duplicitous family into believing that wishes could come true when blowing out the candles of a birthday cake (and I did not thoroughly learn the lesson until I was four that, like siblings, most adults could not be trusted)—by fervently wishing that I could like vegetables.
    My parents lied to me: they told me that the vegetables I hated were essential for life; though I have avoided eating disgusting vegetables all my adult life I have survived without them. They also treated me as a simpleton: just because I could not see carrots or turnips mashed with potato, for instance, did not mean I could not taste them; making attractive designs with horrid food did not make it taste better.
    Once during my childhood someone mentioned with some incredulity how some neighbours would place bowls of food on the dining table so that each person could select for himself what he preferred; how I, who was obliged to endure whatever putrid portions others plated for me, envied the children of that family!
    It will not astonish you to learn that I never forced my children to eat anything.