Warning: Smug post ahead. (Ah, who am I trying to kid... they're all smug!)
It is unusual for me to write a Proper Parenting Post. Not least because I am anything but a Proper Parent... as proved on multiple occasions by the archives of this blog, which my children will no doubt be using as evidence against me in later years. However. Over the past few months I've been asked on an oddly frequent basis the following question. How Do You Make Your Children Eat? Or, perhaps more accurately, How Do You Make Your Children Eat Such Bloody Weird Things. And so I thought I'd devote an entire blog post to the one part of parenting I think I might currently be getting right.*
Now, this could be luck, it could be design, it could just be that my children happen to treat every meal as though it is their last. I have no idea what it is which makes them happy to consume just about everything, with their favourite foods being as diverse as olives (I am 32. I have only just made myself like olives), smoked salmon, quinoa, broad beans and that all time Best Food Ever... Brussels sprouts. (Which I have only just learnt has a pluralised 'Brussels'. Every day's a school day.) However, in answer to the questions, and in the hope that it might help someone else... this is what we did:
1) Baby Led Weaning. I could lie and say that we did this because we thought it would encourage our children to eat a wide range of foods. The reality is that we did this because we are lazy. (Sorry Neil. I am lazy!) Having said that, I think it was good for getting them used to lots of different flavours and textures very early on. Nine times out of ten they'd just eat whatever we were eating (laziness strikes again), so there has never been a distinction between 'child' and 'adult' food in our house. Which I think is important. No child wants to think there's something good you're eating that they're missing out on. Hence the smoked salmon obsession.
2) Nursery. Peer pressure from a very early age. It's incredible how often children will eat something when they're sat in a room of other children, all eating the same thing...
3) Choice. But - and this is important - controlled choice. It's unusual for me to just plonk a plate of food in front of my children and expect them to eat them. They will usually get a choice. The choice will be something like: 'Mushroom and quinoa risotto, or Spanish omelette with salad'. (I love how I'm pretending I am a cooking guru. That is a choice, but only on a day when I'm finishing work early. Most of the time it's more like 'EGGS ON TOAST OR BEANS ON TOAST, DECIDE NOOOOOOOOOOOOOW.') And then they get to decide. If they can't decide mutually, then I get to overrule them and make the decision for them. Am trying to encourage their development of strategic team building skills (as opposed to just hitting each other) at an early age. Similarly, they always get a choice of drinks. That choice being: 'Milk, or water?' Both of which they therefore drink in vast quantities. (Until they get distracted by a display of Angry Birds Fruit Shoots in Waitrose. Bloody marketing ploys.)
4) Open Discussion On The Health Benefits Of Food. Some of you will disagree with me on this, but we have an open dialogue in our house on the importance of eating certain foods in order to stay healthy. They know we should be trying to eat a minimum of 5 different types of fruit and vegetables a day. They know drinks with sugar in might make your teeth fall out. They know you need lots of protein to help you grow and make your bones strong. They know if you eat too much sugar (we worry less about fat, because of course there are so many 'good' fats) then your body won't work as well and you won't be as healthy. They are however children, not saints. They both still love to eat sweets and cake and puddings, however they both appear to currently have the ability to self regulate, particularly when it comes to sweets - I regularly get half full packets handed back to me. I am not naive enough to think this will last, but at the moments it feels like they're getting a sensible message and listening to it.
5) Minimal Snacks. This will be a bit controversial, but it's very unusual for me to give my kids a snack between meals. Past the age of about 2, when they need lots of smaller meals rather than 3 big meals, I don't believe any child (or adult, for that matter), really needs to eat between meals. It often means that by the time they come to sit down for their meal, they're not actually that hungry, which is where some of the problems start...
6) Zero Tolerance. IF YOU DO NOTHING ELSE, DO THIS. Contrary to popular belief, I do not force my children to sit down and eat all of their meals. They can eat as much or as little as they want of what is on their plates. BUT... and it's a big BUT... if they don't finish what I've given them to eat, there is NOTHING ELSE. No pudding, no fruit, no crisps, no sweets, no snacks... NOTHING. (The exception to this is where they're eating somewhere other than home and have got too large a portion... but then we pre-agree what they need to eat if they want to have something else.) They don't then get anything else to eat until their next meal, or, if it's dinner, until the next morning. They might whinge a bit about still being hungry, but you know what: they're not going to starve. And I reckon it's this, more than anything else, which has had the biggest impact on their eating habits.
I hope this answers some of the questions I regularly get asked. We do not get it all right. And I'm sure in the next few years they'll go through phases of faddy eating, and you can laugh in my face about this post. But, based on Mr Jamie's caviar tantrum alone... they're not doing a bad job.
*Feel free to remind me of this smug proclamation in 6 months' time when they're refusing to eat anything but Cheerios and jam.