Photo by Rob Bruce
Children and food. What a lot is in those three little words. A recent argument on Mumsnet and Women's Hour (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0640j5f Tuesday August 11) reminded me of the anxiety I used to sometimes feel as a parent about what, how, when and why my children were eating.
The row was about an assertion that mums today are 'addicted" to feeding their children constant snacks, On the show food writers Annabel Karmel and Joanna Blythman slugged it out, with Blythman arguing for three square meals eaten round a table and water in between; while Karmel voiced sympathy for struggling parents trying to get their children nutritiously fed and watered each day without too much stress.
Food is not just a real and necessary part of life; it also carries meaning. Eating together is a powerful thing. Recognising the rich symbolic, emotional, poetic resonance of food is important to children as well as adults. Memories around eating together. Food in children's books. Perhaps the fabulous picnic that Mole and Ratty have in the Wind in the Willows, the midnight feasts at Malory Towers in the Enid Blyton series; or Honeydukes the sweet-shop in Harry Potter.
At this year's Edinburgh Fringe, children's storyteller Marie-Louise Cochrane, also known as Mrs Mash, http://www.mrsmash.com/is doing a week-long about children and food which is about "putting children in the mood for good food". Food in her show will be mainly imaginary and she does a lot of actions, busily stirring soup or vigorously rolling out dough and patting it into bannock shapes.
Talking about food away from the dinner table can support the event when it happens.
Family mealtimes are no doubt the best for healthy growth but anyone who has made them happen day in and day out knows that they can also be hard work. Perhaps just because you are sitting round the table and talking, issues can come up. Then there are table manners to consider, the politics around who is setting the table, who is serving, who is clearing up. And then there is the food. Children can sometimes seek to exert control over their own bodies by refusing to eat, or refusing certain foods or creating rules around how the food is presented, such as about food touching other food. New things aren't always welcomed either. Sometimes I felt I could weep when I put down home-cooked fare which cost a lot to produce in terms of money and effort only to find three little noses all turned up. Difficult, especially when I was tired too. A friend of mine used to call teatime sardonically 'happy hour'.
So doing some work away from the table to create positive feelings around nutritious food is a good idea and it can help when you all come to sit down.
One of Mrs Mash's stories concerns a family of strange, grumpy little people who live in a forest but up until now they have been surviving on sticks and stones. They are surrounded by great food like mushrooms, apples and eggs and when they discover how good they are to cook and eat, they find that they feel better and are stronger and healthier.
Another is about vegetable soup. "When someone offers you homemade soup, you know you are very welcome," she says seriously.
One granny reported that after hearing this story, her little granddaughter who had been refusing soup, asked if she could help to cook and eat her granny's vegetable broth.
Feeding children health food is not easy. We live in a world surrounded by fatty, calorific, sugar and salt laden snacking opportunities which are heavily advertised. and appear exciting. Both parents and children can fall for this stuff and feel that this is the kind of "treat" that will make them feel good.
But who advertises simple, homely fare like porridge or vegetable soup? We as parents can advertise it ourselves as Joanna Blythman points out in her book "Shopped", and I do generally say instead of would you like an apple, something like: "would you like a delicious, crunchy, fresh-tasting apple?" My children laugh at me but I reckon some of it sticks.