First Bite by Author Bee Wilson
I had lunch recently with a friend and her nine month-old daughter. The baby chewed on a little piece of toasted flatbread, then on the edge of a picture book. Finally, she grabbed a full-sized metal fork, exploring the feeling of steel tines against her tiny pink gums. ‘Don’t worry, she’s fine’, said my friend, in response to my look of consternation. ‘She does it a lot in cafes, but people are so shocked’.
Afterwards, I thought about it and realised she was right. I had been slightly shocked, even though her baby was not in any danger, and indeed looked delighted with her new toy. It seems we expect toddlers to put everything in their mouths except for forks. A baby with a metal fork in her mouth is like an adult eating food from a knife. Whether it’s in fact safe isn’t the point. It’s the onlooker who feels precarious, because some kind of deep taboo has been broken.
The utensil for babies, everyone knows, is a spoon. It’s the most mild-mannered of cutlery. Silver spoons are no longer given so much as Christening presents, but parents still put our faith in spoons when feeding babies (unless we are doing ‘baby led weaning' where parents eschew cutlery altogether and give a baby free range with chunks of hand-held food).
Spoons cradle food, like a baby cradled in a Moses basket. To see a baby taking first tastes from a spoon – especially a cute little weaning spoon made from colourful plastic – is to feel cosseted and safe. Maybe this explains the new trend for ‘bowlfood,’ dishes of soft grains and avocado or rich coconut-based curries, eaten with a spoon from a bowl. To eat these nutritious but soothing bowlfuls of mush is to revert to a state of babyhood, when nothing too demanding was expected of us and there were big kind people to protect us from sharp objects.
We have strong feelings, it seems, both about cutlery and about feeding children. My previous book, Consider the Fork, was in part about the human relationship with eating utensils. My most recent one, First Bite, is about how we feed children, and ourselves, and how we can change our relationship with food. When I was writing First Bite, I felt the two subjects were totally different. It’s only now that I start to see the common ground between tableware and babyfood. Both are subjects that are deeply entwined with the way we organise our lives. And both are subjects about which we often feel there should be a right answer.
Compared to our parents’ generation, we no longer put quite so much pressure on ourselves to use the right utensils at dinnertime (though the pressure can resurface at big ritual dinners such as Christmas or Thanksgiving).
But when it comes to feeding children, our anxiety seems to keep ratcheting up.
'Birthday Cake' and 'Beets' illustrations by Annabel Lee
With child obesity so high, not to mention worries about eating disorders, it has never felt so important to feed our children well; nor has it ever felt quite so difficult to do so.
‘How should I feed my baby?’ is a question many people have asked me since I wrote First Bite, as if there were a single right way that would deliver the contented, unfussy eater we all hope to raise. Each time, I am tempted to reply ‘search me!’, because there were so many times when feeding my three children that I felt completely lost. What works with one child, I soon discovered, does not work with another and every parents lets the emotions of dinnertime get the better of them now and then. You can make plenty of mistakes – I did with mine– and still end up with a child who eats a pretty varied diet. You may also do everything ‘right’ and happen to have a child who seriously struggles with new foods for various reasons. It happens. There are children, some of them on the autistic spectrum, who are genuinely terrified of new flavours or textures and need clinical help with their eating. If you think this applies to your child, ignore the ‘helpful’ voices who say every child will eat if they are hungry enough – not true! – and seek medical advice.
But, assuming your baby is not in this category, there are definitely some things that help with feeding. For the record, here are some of the things I discovered while writing the book that I wish I had known sooner.
Between 4 and 7 months, new research shows, there is a ‘flavour window’ when humans are more receptive to new flavors than we ever will be again. This is a great time to introduce a smorgasbord of different vegetable purees. Don’t feel you need to stick to the sweet ones like pumpkin or sweet potato. Sure, the baby will like these more to start with, because babies are hardwired with a love of sweetness (which makes sense, because milk is sweet). But over time, he or she can learn to love bitter flavours such as broccoli or cauliflower. The main thing is to be given the opportunity to taste them, until they become as familiar as milk.
Most toddlers go through a picky stage – the technical term is neophobia, fear of the new. You can help them through it with a new technique called ‘Tiny Tastes’ pioneered by psychologist Dr Lucy Cooke at University College London. Trying new foods is a Catch-22 because a child who thinks they hate eggs/cheese/fish/oranges obviously doesn’t want to try them. But if the food being tasted is made as small as a pea or even a grain of rice, it becomes possible for the child to taste it. If you can persuade them to do a ‘tiny taste’ multiple times, the odds are that dislike will turn to like.
Encourage early knife skills – a six year-old will gain confidence from being taught how to cut an apple with a bridge hold or celery with a claw grip - but loosen up about table manners. Expecting a child to leave a clean plate only teaches them to ignore their own hunger cues, which is not a good thing to learn in a world of vast portions and bottomless beverages. Likewise, there are more important things in life than perfect neat mastery of a knife and fork. Better a meal eaten with gusto – even if it leaves a tsunami of crumbs – than a child who feels so tense about ‘performing’ at table that he or she cannot eat.
Nothing tastes good when it is eaten in an atmosphere of coercion. If you don’t want your child to eat certain foods, it’s better not to have them in the house in the first place, rather than make a constant issue out of them. The most important things for a child to learn are a love of variety and an enjoyment of meals. When all else fails, lay a rug on the floor, sit down together and have a picnic, like companions sharing a feast.
And if a meal should end in tears – theirs or yours – remember there is always another dinnertime.
Bee Wilson is the author of First Bite: How We Learn to Eat (Basic Books)
Photo Credit: Natasha Runciman