It’s the age-old family dilemma. And guess what, parents? It isn’t worth the bother
One day, when my daughter, Ruby, was about 10 years old, I had a colossal argument with her about a pea. We were in Ikea in Brent Cross, north London. We had ordered lunch in the Ikea restaurant. It involved something and peas.
I had struggled to get Ruby to “eat normally” for as long as I could remember. She refused a wide variety of foods – most fruits, and most particularly any kind of green vegetable. On this day, I’d just had enough.
I was determined to make Ruby eat just one pea. Just one. It could be smothered in tomato ketchup. It could be dipped in honey. I just wanted her to eat… the… fucking… pea.
We spent half an hour discussing, arguing about and reasoning over that pea. I offered an absurd array of rewards. I don’t remember what they were, but they were princely. Whatever she wanted she could have. If she would just eat that pea. Then I began to threaten punishments. She could see she had made me angry, and it was obvious I was going to get even angrier if she didn’t Eat the Pea.
But she still wouldn’t eat the pea. And she hasn’t eaten one since.
After the Battle of the Pea, I reached a watershed. I became a lot less fussed about what Ruby ate. I don’t know if it made any difference. I don’t recall any marked immediate improvement in her eating behaviour. But I suspect that my defeat was a good thing.
Now she is 20, she has a very healthy attitude to food. She doesn’t worry about it. She loves steak tartare. She craves sushi and sashimi, she eats fruit, she’ll try most things. She has no body issues and no food issues that I can see. She has glowing skin and hair, and is a healthy weight.
She still doesn’t eat peas. Or any other kind of green vegetable, including salad. Her explanation is straightforward: “They don’t taste good.”
They don’t. But then, why do we spend so much time trying to get our children to eat them? And is it really, in the end, worth the candle?
My suspicion is that all the effort, care and concern that many families expend to get their children to “eat healthy”, may have no effect, or a bad effect. We worry too much, and this worry has as much to do with social shame, social display and a need for control as it does with healthy eating.
We don’t want our children to end up living on convenience foods, snacks and chips – partly because it is bad for them, but more pressingly, because it is bad for us. Because it is embarrassing.
Around the time of the Pea Incident, I had taken Ruby and her sister Cissy to a fancy French hotel in Mauritius. One night a week, they offered an amazing buffet. I sent the girls off to graze among the 50 or so amazingly varied and delicious platters of French and Asian food and charcuterie.
They came back with chips, white bread and a bit of chicken. That time I wasn’t even furious. I was just ashamed. What was wrong with these kids that amid all this wonderful plenty, they opted for the crappiest dishes on the menu? I just thought they must be horribly spoilt.
Perhaps this was unfair of me. But I do think many parents would feel the same. Yet it was just a meal. Why was I so upset? Perhaps the need for our children to eat healthy food is just a mask for a number of other anxieties. We want to fit in with our neighbours. We want to be able to make the correct social signals to our peer group – “I am a good middle-class person, because my children eat a varied diet and healthy food”. We are terrified our children might be overweight, which is now as much a social marker as a predictor of poor health.
Nutritional science, however, is inexact. Why did Ruby grow up with clear skin, shining hair and a healthy attitude to food despite eating very little fruit and no green vegetables and a relatively limited diet through most of her childhood?
The human body is more complex and adaptable than we realise. The Kitava tribe of Papua New Guinea subsist on a diet that mainly consists of sweet potato, coconut and some fish. They are healthy, have good skin, strong teeth and suffer from virtually none of all the “diseases of civilisation”. They don’t eat any green vegetables.
Greens are not a must-have. Nutrients found in green vegetables can easily be found elsewhere. “The human body is very clever and can adapt over generations. It can use what resources it has available,” says Charlotte Stirling-Reed of the Nutrition Society, an independent organisation that promotes and disseminates nutritional science. “If you still eat a wide variety of different foods you will get those nutrients elsewhere.
“Most of the vitamins and nutrients in green vegetables can easily be found from other sources – in meat and fish and lentils and beans, in other fruit and vegetables. As long as you are getting variety and the right amount of food every day you will be OK.
“Everybody is individual and very different. If Ruby is eating well, every day, mainly healthy foods, she will be thriving. The anxieties and concerns and worries of the parents can rub off on their children and cause fussy eating. That’s very common.”
The psychotherapist Susie Orbach, author of Fat Is a Feminist Issue, makes a similar point about adults getting over-anxious about food and sees parental anxiety as a major contributor to disordered eating. I told her that I used to get particularly upset if I spent a lot of time and effort preparing my children’s food and they rejected it.
She sees such anxiety as centring on issues of control and rejection of the offerer of the food rather than the food itself. In other words, you’re not getting upset when your child won’t eat because it’s not healthy. It’s because you perceive the child as rejecting your love. And the whole framing of the issue around health and nutrition – food as “medicine” – is misguided.
“As long as we make food ‘healthy’ or ‘good’ food an issue,” she says, “we are going to produce anxiety. We should just eat well when we are hungry. We need to be relaxed about it – like you pee when you need to. When nourishment is labelled ‘bad’ or ‘good’, it becomes part of an emotional language and therefore problematic.
“We have a society with rules, regulations and terrors about eating and BMIs and God knows what, and mothers being assaulted by industries to create body hatred. It’s induced.”
I mentioned some of the spats I had had with Ruby over food – the Battle of the Pea, and other crude tactics, such as threatening no pudding if the main meal wasn’t eaten. I would also sometimes say that if she didn’t eat her dinner she would go to bed hungry.
“It’s very difficult with children,” says Orbach. “You want to give them something delicious and nutritious, but children go through food fads when they are rejecting many foods. It’s just part of their development. Probably you will feel upset, but you must approach the issue in a neutral way. Don’t lose your rag. The meal table should never be a site of conflict. You shouldn’t make any threats around food.”
So, saying, “Eat this or you’ll go to bed hungry” is wrong?
“You could phrase it more tactfully, ‘I’m closing the kitchen and I don’t want you to get hungry later on.’ Or you should say, ‘I’ll leave it out on the counter for you.'”
And what if they wake at 11 o’clock and say they’re hungry?
“I probably wouldn’t feed them late at night. But then that wouldn’t happen in my household. I wouldn’t make pudding a treat. I would offer the pudding during supper. I would let the child eat the pudding first if she wanted to. I wouldn’t let them go to bed hungry. So many children won’t eat at certain stages in their development, but then they change. I would give them pasta seven nights a week if necessary.”
Both Orbach and Stirling-Reed point to the cultural factors over our difficulties and anxieties with food. This is an issue that is also raised in the book French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon. In the part of Brittany where she moved to live with her family (Le Billon is Canadian, her husband is French), the French food culture was incredibly strict. No snacking was tolerated. Proper table manners were insisted upon.
If children wouldn’t eat, they were left to go hungry. You ate together – either at school or with the family – at regular times, and you ate slowly. Food is not seen as a pacifier, or an emotional distraction or a reward or a punishment. The subject of whether food is “healthy” or not barely arises. They don’t, as Anglo-American cultures tend to, think of food to be parcelled out in indices of food groups, calories and nutrients. It is about enjoyment and variety. As a result, there were almost no fussy eaters in these traditional French communities. Kids ate pretty much everything the adults ate, and with relish.
Which is all very well when you live somewhere where everyone, rich and poor, behaves the same, and the school canteen has the standards of a decent restaurant. The French solution is unlikely to work in cultures such as the UK that are more predicated on individual choice. Billon’s (successful) struggle to get her children to eat better – even in the supportive Breton environment – stretched over a difficult year.
So what is the solution? There are plenty of books on how to get your children to eat well – a good example is Getting the Little Blighters to Eat by Claire Potter, which contains an excellent practical guide to getting children to eat a good diet. It offers the following very sensible advice.
“Don’t invite children to a power battle … when it comes to eating, behave as if you have no power. Completely let go of the parent-to-child authority that you use in other areas of life. Simply give your child their food and act as if you don’t mind whether they eat it or not. No commands, no orders, no tellings-off, no threats, no punishments, no bribes.”
This is because children want attention, even bad attention, and food is a perfect place for getting it. So as soon as you let go of the power struggle, they are liable to be more willing to eat a more varied diet – because they have nothing to gain by refusing it.
This all sounds like very good sense. I am not a nutritionist or a dietician or a psychologist. But as someone with four daughters, I have a very non-scientific, muddle-through policy and it seems to be going OK (though in the case of my youngest two daughters, my wife, Rachael, does much more of the feeding than me).
She is also tougher than me about food, possibly because she works so much harder to put good food on the table – she spends many hours preparing and cooking good fresh food, which she often has a battle to get the children to eat, particularly the seven-year-old, Esme, who for stubborn eating patterns matches Ruby. Both Lydia, my 11-year-old, and Cissy, 18, are much more tractable about food for no obvious identifiable reason – they received more or less exactly the same treatment as their sisters.
Rachael sometimes thinks I am unsupportive because I will simply not get into battles over it. I can see her point – I can even feel her point emotionally – but I long ago decided that it just isn’t worth it, because it doesn’t produce results. But I identify with her feelings very strongly, because I have been through all those feelings of anger and disappointment and rejection. In fact I still feel those things sometimes – I just try not to let them determine my behaviour.
My improvised and cobbled-together policy can be summed up thus: don’t get too stressed about the serving of food, just do your best to present fresh and varied food without making the consumption of that food an emotional battleground. “Do your best” does not mean “be perfect”, incidentally.
Eat together whenever possible but don’t make an issue about it. As little snacking as possible – but you don’t have to have an iron “no snacking” rule. Let them eat junk food, but not often. Let them eat food in front of the TV, but not often. And give them vitamin pills if they’re eating poorly – why the hell not?
Make sure the food you give them tastes good. If you don’t do that, you’re never going to get anywhere. Don’t emphasise health – make it about enjoyment. Emphasise variety over what is “good for you”. Don’t go on about vitamins and nutrients – don’t sign up to the medical model of food. Offer food they reject repeatedly before giving up, but don’t make a fuss about it. In the main, offer freshly prepared, unprocessed food, but a few baked beans and fish fingers aren’t going to kill anyone. Don’t brand any of your children “fussy eaters”, particularly not in their hearing.
Relax. If you are living anywhere like the middle-class microculture I live in, the greatest danger to your children is not malnourishment or obesity but anxiety around food. Your children will come to good food and a varied diet in their own time. Peer group pressure – so much more powerful than parental pressure – will take care of that. I suspect that Ruby became a healthy – or at least more varied – eater because her friends at secondary school and university would try different kinds of food, and she would look silly not trying them.
Try to follow principles, but don’t make them into rules. Try to be consistent but remember that you never will be. Finally, and above all, it’s only food. You are not what you eat. You are what you believe. And the belief in the diet of guilt that the cult of healthy eating has produced is not only indigestible, it is potentially toxic.