Operation Tomato: my mission? To get my son to eat one of those red things that he absolutely HATES.
Well, when he says he HATES tomatoes, what he really means is that he does the clamped mouth manoeuvre when faced with one in its round and raw form – even though he scoffs them with gusto in lasagne, spag bol and pizza.
Preferring him to eat rather than suffer tantrums at the table, I have found myself denying there are tomatoes anywhere near him even when it's tomato soup.
It's quite ridiculous. So I turned to Fiona Faulkner, a chef and mum-of-three who converted the fussy eaters in her home and tells desperate parents like me how to do it in her new book 25 Foods Kids Hate (and How to Get Them Eating 24 , which covers carrots, broccoli, peppers, avocado, spinach, cauliflower, fish, meat and lentils.
"Essentially my approach is a three-pronged attack; giving vegetables a marketing make-over, encouraging kids to play with their food using a bit of 'gastronomy psychology' and of course the recipes themselves which I hope inspire parents as much as kids," she explains.
In her opening section, The 25 Rules Every Parent Should Read Before Bribing With Chocolate, she spells out my role. It's not just to cajole and beg and plead, apparently. The ones which hit home to me were to see cooking as an activity I could do with my son, get him to help with the shopping, grow our own and market food through appearance – which is how kids judge a plate – rather than telling him "it's good for him", which he couldn't care less about.
Her tricks include dressing carrots up in craft sessions; introducing broccoli with the smallest stems possible and calling them Baby Trees; playing 'hide the sweetcorn kernel' in your mouth; drinking out of hollow peppers; potato printing; calling spinach 'magic leaves'; mushroom-stroking; and fruit skewers.
She also says I need to relax (what? Is she mad?), neither reward nor punish with food and ban snacks.
By this point I started to think "who is this woman? It's all a bit, you know, impossible, unrealistic and yummy mummy for me". Until I read on and discovered she advocates smaller portion sizes, not forcing kids to eat every scrap, letting them choose what they want and give it to them once a week, allowing sweets, letting them play with food in the cooking process by helping to mash and stir, plus my very own favourite, employing the distraction technique from time to time with munch bowls of raw veggies in front of the TV. Now here's a woman I can work with.
So we began Operation Tomato. First stop, the greenhouse, which is bursting with them. My son has marvelled at them growing from seed so it was easy to employ Fiona's first tactic – the Tom Tom Tomato Game, which encourages kids to use tomatoes in a variety of different ways without eating them. So Paddy threw one, squelched one with his fingers, kissed one, stuck googly eyes on one and then after a few days – bingo – he had a bite, which he chewed a bit then spat out.
Sticking to Fiona's 'be patient – don't panic' and 'persevere' tips, we set about making her Inside-Out Tomato Sandwiches. I sliced off their heads while Paddy scooped out the flesh which we mixed with sauted breadcrumbs, cheese and pesto before putting the filling back into the tomato hollows and sticking them in the oven for a few minutes.
And do you know what? He actually tried them without a fuss and polished his off.
It was a lightbulb moment. Fiona's book, which has loads of easy recipes which can be 'tarted up' for big people too, hadn't just worked wonders for my son, it also showed up my attitudes to food and made me realise that using stealth to control my son's eating wasn't doing either of us any good. I have relaxed and backed off with the threats and while my son isn't exactly begging for tomatoes in his salad, he can now look at one without making sick noises.
That's good enough for me.
25 Foods Kids Hate by Fiona Faulkner is out now.