“DO you not serve children’s food?” This questioned always annoyed me when I ran my own café. “Of course we do,” I would answer. “We serve half portions of everything on the menu.” Some parents would panic. They couldn’t contemplate giving their children anything other than chips, chicken nuggets, or sausages.
How has it become the norm to serve children such a restricted selection of unhealthy foods? Bee Wilson asks this same question in her new book, First Bite. Drawing on research from food psychologists, neuroscientists and nutritionists, she reveals how our food habits are shaped, causing us to become picky-eaters, comfort-eaters, and yo-yo dieters.
Most important is its message that we can all learn to eat better, no matter if we are aged three or sixty three.
Bee is proof of this. Growing up with an anorexic sister, she learned to please her parents by always finishing her plate and asking for seconds.
As an adult, she struggled with her weight and had a propensity to turn to sugary foods for comfort.
Now in her 40s, she has finally achieved a balance. “Eating well — by which I don’t mean clean-eating or raw-juice fasts, but regular meals of real, flavoursome food — just isn’t that complicated for me anymore,” she says.
She says that everyone — from the fussiest child to a binge-eating adult — can achieve this same balance.
Bee’s message is that nobody is born knowing how to eat. Once they are weaned off milk, parents start showing babies which foods are good and safe and which are bad and poisonous.
“Everyone starts life drinking milk,” she says. “After that, it’s all up for grabs.” While this makes feeding children sound simple, Bee recognises that there are problems. She has struggled to feed her own three children, particularly with vegetables.
She also knows that the odds are stacked against parents in the fight against processed foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat, and which are marketed directly to children.
Just how difficult it is to learn to eat healthily is proven by the fact that two thirds of people in Ireland and the UK are overweight or obese. Then, there are the 0.3% who are anorexic, the 1% who are bulimic, and the uncounted others who live in a constant state of anxiety about what they consume, fearful of carbs or fats and never able to enjoy their meals.
Bee calculates that by the time they are 18, the average person has had 33,000 learning experiences with food (based on five meals or snacks a day).
Children watch the people around them eating, and learn more about food than how it will taste. For example, they learn that certain foods (cream cakes, for one) are associated with guilt and shame, and that others (such as greens) are eaten for virtue, not pleasure.
“But there are those who can eat an ice-cream on a hot day without feeling naughty, who refuse a sandwich, because it’s not lunchtime yet, and who usually eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full,” says Bee.
“They have learned the eating skills that can protect them in this environment of plenty. It’s in all our interests to learn from them.”
The first habit we should learn from them is structured mealtimes. The second is to learn our own internal cues for hunger and fullness, rather than relying on external factors, such as portion size. And, finally, we should try to eat a variety of foods.
By feeding children too frequently, parents don’t allow them to learn what hunger feels like and they fail to recognise their body’s own cues for food.When they are offered large portions, they often overeat.
If we offer food as a first response to crying, we teach them that unhappiness is a reason to eat. And coercing them to eat teaches them to obey the plate and not their own appetites.
“All of these methods result in overeating, weight gain and bad feeling around mealtimes,” she says.
There are alternatives. Finnish parents had these same problems in the early 2000s. So much so that there was a national alarm about children not eating enough fruit and vegetables. Their government introduced sensory exploration classes as part of every child’s kindergarten education.
The aim of these classes was to educate children in the pleasures of food and to set them up for a lifetime of healthy eating.
This was achieved by getting children to explore food by using their senses; feeling the fuzz of a ripe peach, or hearing the snap of a crispbread, for example. The children would pick berries, make bread, and draw pictures of different vegetables.
The ingredients they learned about were then served up for lunch, and the children were more enthusiastic about eating them, as a result.
Bee says that we can all change our eating habits by regularly exposing ourselves to a greater variety of foods. Parents need to persevere. With the insights in this book, they may just discover that their children are willing to eat a lot more than sausages, nuggets and chips.