The stress of feeding picky children nutritious food can be an overconsuming affair for most parents. What if there’s another way?
Eating seasonally and locally has a particular relevance when you are feeding small children because not only do ingredients tend to taste better, they can be better for you. Food produced nearby can be picked when it’s ripe and ready and full of flavour. It should be fresh as it doesn’t have to be transported far and very fresh food is more nutritious than food that has been stored. The vitamin content of fruits and vegetables decreases rapidly after picking.
Buying locally produced food usually—though not always—involves using a local retailer. Independent greengrocers, box schemes, farmers’ markets and roadside stalls can all be excellent sources of local, seasonal fare. And such small-scale retail often provides a much more immediate sense of where food has come from, how it was grown and its seasonality, which is fantastic if you take your children shopping with you. You don’t have to live in the countryside to buy local food—many farmers’ markets take place in city centres and many box schemes deliver in urban areas.
While shopping locally may be a burgeoning trend, most of us still buy a lot of our food and drink at supermarkets. Of course, they are convenient and offer a lot of choice. Sometimes they can even be a better alternative, supplying something that your local farm shop doesn’t. So, while I think we should all be supporting local retailers, I am certainly not against supermarkets. I just think it’s important to use them, not be used by them.
Mail order food buying is another option for busy families and has many advantages, particularly if you have small children who don’t seem to enjoy browsing in shops. You can find pretty much anything you want from specialist mail order suppliers. The downsides are the food miles and the packaging. The latter can be excessive, particularly if you’re buying chilled foods. So use the internet and supermarket home-delivery services to source the ingredients you can’t find nearby, or to save the day when the household is ravaged by chickenpox, but don’t rely on them to the exclusion of other retailers closer to home.
As a parent, there are few things so good, so utterly satisfying as seeing your child enjoy a meal you have cooked for them. The pleasure is all the greater when you know the food you’ve given them is wholesome, nutritious and carefully prepared. More than the precise balancing of different nutrients, more than perfect presentation, more than persuading them to eat what you want them to eat, I think feeding children well should be about instilling a love of good food and of shared eating.
That, however, is not always easy. Unless you’re blessed with very pliant offspring (if you consider that a blessing), you will likely, at some point, come into conflict with them where food is concerned. If not, you will probably at least have to wrestle with your own concerns over exactly what they’re eating—how much of this and how much of that, how it has been cooked, where it has come from.
Feeding small children can sometimes be difficult, frustrating and anxiety-inducing. And no-one can take that anxiety away: like so many aspects of parenting, you have to work through it yourself because no matter how many times other people tell you it will turn out all right, you never really know that it will turn out all right until it actually does. However, I hope I might be able to lessen the stress a little. Because there are lessons I have learned, and lessons learned by the many parents I have interviewed, that are worth knowing about.
If you take only one message away from this article, I hope it’s this: try to relax. We all have varying experiences of feeding our children but almost every parent I have spoken to, when asked what they might do differently next time, said they would endeavour to worry less and relax more about exactly what, when and how their child eats. The parents who most relish and enjoy the time they spend eating together with their children are the ones who are reasonably laid-back, from the very first solid food onwards.
That’s not to say that you do not need to think about the quality of the food you give your children. Of course, you should aim to serve up delicious, health-enhancing meals, but I don’t think that’s very difficult. You don’t require a degree in nutrition to get a pretty good feeling for what’s good for them and what’s not—just basic info and a bit of common sense. And this ties into the other really important thing I want to pass on, which is that we, as parents, need to trust ourselves.
When it comes to raising our children, we are robbed of much of our self-confidence these days. Medical professionals, child-rearing experts and even well-meaning friends and relatives can all bombard us with advice that makes us doubt our own instincts. There’s nothing wrong with doing research and getting plenty of information, but don’t underestimate the importance of your own feelings when it comes to deciding the best way to feed your kids. And don’t underestimate their feelings either—all children have different needs and different appetites, as well as strong instincts about how much they need to eat.
I am not a scientist or a doctor or a nutritionist. I’m a mother, a cook and a writer. But, for myself, I can claim to be an expert only on my own children. You are the expert on yours.
When you accept this, and when you make a decision to simply do the very best that you can, I think you are well on the way to the right destination. Mealtimes with young children can be a challenging part of parenthood, but they can also be a source of immense joy, fun and satisfaction. When a meal is a truly communal experience, something a family enjoys together—the food, the conversation, even the tidying up—you are all enriched by it in an emotional as well as a physical sense. For me, that’s what it’s all about.
Try Nikki's recipe: Spinach & Onion Puff Tart
Edited extract from River Cottage Baby & Toddler Cookbook, by Nikki Duffy (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018).