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.
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.