I wonder how many people have been put off particular dishes or ingredients by unsavoury culinary experiences during childhood; fruits and vegetables not treated well or forced on us; out of season or under-ripe, lacking in flavour or unappetisingly presented. Hands up if you tried an ingredient many years later and went ‘So that’s what it’s supposed to taste like!’ On the other hand I wonder how many of us still hold the dishes our parents cooked well to be our favourites, or those enjoyed on holidays or hungry day trips; carrying as much appeal in memories of comfort, excitement or the evocative ghosts of travel as they do in flavour or texture.
My point is that we can be strange creatures of sentimentality and association, capable of swearing off things according to memories of being ill, their being bound up with unhappy times, a cruel word or simply having been sat at the table and told to eat it against our will. As parents our intentions are to feed our children healthy and tasty food and we care deeply about their nutritional intake, their immunity and their energy levels. It is the most natural thing in the world; the desire to feed our children and equally the frustration when they will not eat what we provide.
When we cook for our children we need to take of stock of what is being rendered. We may underestimate our children or confuse their tastes with our own. Children are defined by their appetite for exploration, their capacity for imagination, for creativity. They are driven by their senses, the sticky mud in their toes and the sand slipping through their fingers. They are not yet tied up in the tangled web of association and sentiment we weave as we age. The world of food is almost infinitely wide and it is we who narrow it when we assume that only the simplest flavours are child friendly or that they will not enjoy what we do not. Our girls are mad for olives, black for the younger, green or purple, for the elder who also loves whole cloves of garlic and layers of raw onion. We narrow their world of food when we force them to finish every bite with their elbows off the table and, most of all, we narrow it when we feed them processed food of poor quality with no seasonality, laden with additives which addict. Once they are used to eating foods with excessive sugar, salt and e-numbers, they are off on that spider web of association, where real food is lacking because it does not provide that sugar rush or that thing that they cannot yet quantify, but that the marketeers, who entice them with pictures of Hello Kitty or Peppa Pig, know very well will keep them coming back; keep them calling out in the supermarket. No it is we who must play with our food, because a sad plate cannot compete with Hello Kitty or Ronald McDonald or the nine teaspoons of sugar in a can of cola.
It was with this in mind that we decided to post every meal we served to our children over the last week on our Instagram feed; our tongue in cheek #aweekinbabyfood; all home-cooked and from scratch. This was less to do with seeking to inspire others than looking to excite ourselves, or to feed into some sense of collective inspiration and impetus and to try a few new things. Where food becomes exploration and imagination and creativity again. We are passionate about reclaiming the processes that, for most, have become the purview of the convenience market; about local, seasonal, organic ingredients and about learning. As we know learning often comes through trying, experimenting and making mistakes. We also know that children have their favourites and that you can’t serve them a pale impersonation of a pizza; that you have to be able to make them better. We seek to generate excitement, sensory experience and playfulness with authentic ingredients and ideas. We try to remember what it is like to be a kid and we try to learn from them. We are always surprised at the things that grab them and it is only by trying things and accepting that food will not always be touched that we give them access to the many things that they do love. We are also aware that for them, as for us, food has to look good. I don’t like them to hold food at the end of the family silver. They should hold it and get amongst it like a Rodin sculpture, what is more essential? There should be texture; crumbs and crackling; rough and smooth, silk and sand.
It is a tough gig these days to provide truly home-cooked food that competes with the all-pervading scream of the advertising and the convenience food. Looking at the long game, the future for our children and their spider webs it is essential. Understanding of responsible sourcing of food, organic farming and conversely the effects, globally of the mass producing of food makes it clear that we are on an unsustainable, destructive tack. One way or another there will be a return to not being able to demand all things at all times, or an endless supply of specific things. When it comes to meat we know that everyone will, soon enough, have to get used to the idea that their consumption will need to decrease dramatically. The wealthy nations will be the last, but they will be the most culpable. Their spirits will be the heaviest.
On a personal level I do not want any part in the meat industry. For our children I want them to be conscious and reverent when it comes to eating animals. I also want them to understand quality, the importance of local, organic, seasonal sourcing and the fact that the welfare of the animal relates directly to the health of the consumer. Nutritionally certainly, but also in the sense that health is the harmonious companionship between body, mind and spirit. This is not antithetical to thrift. It is the essence of it.
So these are the parameters that we have set ourselves for our home cooking. Our kid’s stuff must be seasonal, responsible and relatively cheap. The focus must be on the natural, plant based ingredients; the veg, the herbs, grains and spices, and it must be various; for our souls and for our health, variety being both the spice of life and the key to health. Each natural ingredient contains its own benefits and its own toxicity; we must take as widely as possible from the one and allow our bodies to recover from the other. Immoderate use of anything, however healthy or however much of a ‘superfood,’ is not a good idea, both under Ayurveda and common sense; so avocado every day is not for us. Our children’s food must be truly home cooked, free from spurious additives and balanced (not only in terms of the food groups represented but in terms of health and enjoyment, their best interests and that which they fancy. Our children will not like everything they are presented with, nor will all of it be suited to their tastes and tendencies or their mood at that moment. This is the case with all of us. Their imaginations however, their creativity and their excitement cannot be fired without a rich palate and free range. So long as our kids are healthy and vital in the present, we are playing a long game when it comes to food; we are trying to pass on the spirit of enjoyment and an understanding of true quality; at odds with the empty immediacy and poor provenance of much convenience food.
More than anything, we hope that their food will be delicious and authentic. Consulting with the kids is important and I know that there have been times when I have accused my children of being fussy when recipes haven’t worked out, when I know in my heart that they are only being discerning. I have come to trust their views. When our eldest decided that she must try bubble-gum ice cream we were happy to oblige in the knowledge that she would understand the non-ingredients she was tasting and revert back to the vanilla, pistachio and lemon gelato she loves from our local deli. I know that there are many things that I love that I don’t always fancy at a given time, and that I don’t want to eat the same thing every day. I know that this applies to children too. I know that breakfast is often a wasted opportunity, limited, like all those boxed-in cereals and crappy biscuits.
Sometimes documenting something allows you to look at it through another lens or a glass more objective. Taking pictures and showing others our kid’s meals made me feel very proud. Of our kids. Because they truly have the imagination to explore and the refinement to discern. They have always responded to those theatrical and fun meals, to messy dipping and taco stacking and building their own but the proof still has to be in the eating. Our standpoint is soft hearted and hippy-dippy, I sense. A good cry from the ‘if you don’t eat it, you don’t eat,’ and the withholding of pudding, the scolding for getting their hands in there. My argument is that eating is something that all animals instinctively wish to do. A primary drive. If we do not want to eat it is because we do not trust the food. And if, as humans, or maybe as the first world, we have retreated from nature in this respect, it is because we have retreated from nature. We have wilfully produced synthetic things designed to make children want nothing else. We have allowed the market to control our homes. We have decided that weight loss equates to health. So a concentrated, dried, shaped strip of fruit from no particular place becomes one of our children’s five-a-day. Five, by the way, being an arbitrary number, plucked from the air. An estimation of what we might reasonably expect people in this country to aim for. Shoot for many more, in smaller quantities, and include herbs and spices; those potent little conveyors of micronutrients and immunity.
Our governments do very little to promote an understanding of the properties and uses of particular ingredients further than the vague food group to which they belong. They do not speak to quality, provenance or seasonality of ingredients. Department of Health and NHS guidelines on healthy eating really focus on managing the major problems effecting the country as a whole. One such major problem is obesity, so guidelines focus on reducing saturated fat and promote the use of low-fat alternatives, skimmed milk and reduced fat dairy. It is common in Western and allopathic thought that a particular symptom is treated without a holistic view of health in general. For high blood pressure for example, an Ayurvedic doctor would seek to understand the root cause of the hypertension and to treat the patient holistically and gradually. An allopathic doctor will prescribe medication which will bring blood pressure into check. The problem is that the patient will be taking the medication for the rest of their life since the imbalances causing the hypertension are not treated, only this immediate, most worrying, symptom. Long term medication carries a great deal of risk and damage in itself.
Similarly ‘low fat’ options may be effective in treating the national symptom of obesity to some extent, but it is clear that, on an individual basis, whole milk and dairy products are better for health as a whole and the government guidelines are an emergency measure which are not aimed at me or my children and probably not yours. If our kids have a balanced diet generally then low fat options are unnecessary and inferior. But then we knew that already. Our grandparents always told us so. Ayurveda is rooted in a profound belief in nature and our place in it, and disease is generally held to be caused by turning our back on natural principles. When even the foodies believe that the answer is to eat avocado every day whether it is in season or not, regardless of whether these superfoods are over-farmed; we know that we must rely on our own learning, intuition and experience. My intuition always leads me to whole natural products, the natural properties of which are not interfered with. Whole good fats; butter, olive oil, coconut oil, ghee, rapeseed and nut oils will balance the bad ones when we cook for ourselves and our children sensibly; good cholesterol will also balance the bad. Fat and cholesterol are essential for health. Cholesterol is naturally synthesised by the body when not available through diet. We just need to choose well and use them moderately and in variety.
For me, and I believe for kids, food must be exciting and visceral, colourful and textured, playful and satiating, for holding and feeling, smelling and tasting, for sharing and for looking at, for community. Rich in flavour and yielding rich memories of our childhoods. It is all these things naturally, without help from manufacturers; until we are bound up in those webs and lifestyle becomes something you buy or ape. Doing the best for your kids should not be easy, but we should trust their still-natural souls and ours too. We should not entrust Peppa Pig or Elsa and Anna with their health and enjoyment. We should embrace our parental responsibilities, get them involved and have fun, pizza parties and campfires. Done right, their own spirit will show in your food. Child’s play.
Catch up with what we made and how it went down via our #aweekinbabyfood hashtag, via our Instagram account @thebalanceplan