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Tony Naylor: how to raise a foodie child

Food journalist Tony Naylor provides a gourmet's guide to child rearing.

All foodie parents face a dilemma. Do we induct our offspring into the faith (should there be a blessing ceremony with extra-virgin olive oil?), or do we let them find their own path? Personally, I take a highly relaxed approach to Naylor 2.0’s food consciousness.

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More by accident than design, my lad will happily demolish a tub of nocellara olives before I can say: ‘Oi! Hands off! Do you realise how expensive they are?’ He has foodie parents and, at the age of three, he’s eaten more widely and more adventurously than I had when I was 28. I grew up on Kwik Save No Frills cheddar and frozen four-for-£1 pizzas. He goes to San Sebastián pintxos bars on holiday… and then refuses to eat anything. Which is fine – he can have a sandwich later. I’ll eat his.

Other parents may actively tutor their children in the appreciation of fine food. Other parents may loudly broadcast how their little darling will eat anything. Not me. Frankly, modern life is stressful enough, without trying to persuade a toddler to eat monkfish cheeks. Ensuring that your child eats nutritiously (a boring war of attrition in itself), that they value food and can sit still in a restaurant – these are important. But trying to turn your child into a gourmet is, frankly, making a rod for you own back. A rod of uneaten black pudding, upended kale salads and angry standoffs. With that in mind, here are my alternative pointers on food and responsible parenting.


Children are idiots 

Contrary, arbitrary, impulsive idiots. That is why we do not let them vote or use machine tools. And that is why if you ever find yourself in a tear-stained tantrum over your child’s sudden dislike of, say, stewed pears, you need to dry your tears, pick the baked beans out of your hair and take a breath. They ate them yesterday. They will tomorrow. That is how kids are. The only constant about children and food is that if you deep-fry anything, they will eat it. Everything else is anyone’s guess.


If kids are hungry, they will eat 

Anxious parents often offer recalcitrant toddlers 101 options, to try to get them to eat. Don’t. Provide one option and, believe me, if that child does not eat that meal they certainly will the next.


Vary your child’s diet

Which for elevated foodies might mean, letting them eat junk. It’s natural – if only for your own amusement – to want your child to try your 99% cocoa solids chocolate, crispy tripe or squid ink risotto, but it would be cruel to deny them, as a treat, those highly processed foods that have been scientifically engineered to make their tiny minds explode. Think of it as responsible social conditioning. I would be horrified if I raised a food snob who, at a mate’s party, turned his nose up at the plastic cheese and salty snacks because he wanted Stinking Bishop and beetroot crisps.


Get strict – or get the iPad out

You want to take your children to a restaurant? Fantastic. As long as I do not see or hear them. I don’t want them running around or ordering drinks at the bar, nor do I want to listen to a long tortuous debate at the next table about whether your little cherub is going to have chips or salad. Get this: I recently saw a child scootering – yes, scootering – around the tables in a packed dining room.


Designing the children’s menu 

Chef, we appreciate your commitment to real food, but remember that there’s a fine line between creating fresh, flavoursome kids’ meals and making eating out a chore for the parents. Little kids are not interested in poached salmon. Burgers, fish fingers and sausages are not patronising. Kids love that stuff. Just make it the best it can be.


Educate your kids about the true origin of food

Beef comes from cattle, not the supermarket. Explain why you shop ethically. Just spare them the bloody, visceral detail. I once saw a small girl run screaming from a riverbank, after an angler landed a cute little fishy and promptly whacked it over the head to kill it. Oops.


…and its value

At the supermarket, put something in the food bank collection. The most important thing you can teach your children (think how this feeds into issues of waste, diet etc) is that food is a precious commodity – one that people struggle to afford. Food doesn’t grow on trees (well, not all of it).


Make your kids run around 

Childhood obesity is an industry. We fret our kids are eating rubbish and getting fat, then allow the same companies who sold us that rubbish to sell us a new healthy version. Break that cycle by insisting your kids walk to the shop before buying them an ice-cream.


Buy loads of fruit

It’s a myth that children do not like fruit. It’s brightly coloured, sweet and fun to unwrap. The only problem is that which fruit they like and whether they want it peeled, deseeded etc, changes on a daily basis. Children are annoying like that.


Should I introduce my children to modest alcohol consumption in the home? 

It does not matter. All teenagers binge drink. The ones who enjoy the occasional small glass of wine with dinner binge drink and the ones who have never touched a drop binge drink too. Blame life, British culture, hormones, but not yourself. You can do nothing about it. Other than pour yourself a large G&T and stand by with the sick bucket. The joys of parenthood, eh?


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