Make the dinner table a happy place where good behaviour is rewarded, says Charlotte Philby
What could be more heartening than seeing your child gleefully stockpile scoops of ice cream in their cheeks for the first time? Or indeed more amusing than watching their little eyes near-burst as they unwittingly suck on a lemon? Food is one of the understated pleasures of parenting. And one of the greatest causes of despair.
Pop into the parenting section of a bookshop and you will find yourself faced with endless titles promising "fun ways" to get your children chomping on the right stuff. Online parenting forums are stuffed with panicked messages from parents along the lines of: "I've tried everything! I've pureed! I've tried baby-led weaning – he won't eat ANYTHING!" It's enough to drive us to drink. The cause of mealtime misery varies. There are the food refuseniks, those who clamp their mouths shut regardless of what painstakingly-prepared meal is placed in front of them; and the lobbers, those who half-chew food stuffs before hurling them around the room; not to mention the fusspots.
Then there are those, like my two-year-old daughter, who just won't stop. This less-common breed, the insatiable gobbler, will devour everything that is put in front of them – and then everyone else's – before shouting: "Yoggy, yoggy, yoggy! More, more, more!" at anyone who comes within earshot.
Of all the categories, the latter is probably the least stressful – and certainly the one that incurs the least pity from other parents, especially if your child isn't overweight as a consequence (a child's position on the weight percentile chart is a hot topic among new parents).
But what is universally baffling to parents is the type of food that really gets kids going. Across the board, they will opt for a Babybel over a slice of fried Halloumi or soggy toast rather than a home-cooked meal. So why do babies have such terrible taste? Taste psychologist Chris Lukehurst could have the answer. Lukehurst, whose job it is to help companies understand how people respond to certain foods and why, has just compiled a new piece of research for baby-food company Ella's Kitchen. It promises to shed new light on what whets a child's appetite. He explains: "Babies are born with approximately 30,000 taste buds, mainly on their tongue but also on the sides and roof of their mouths and down their throats." With puberty, these diminish: "As the body changes, we lose about two-thirds of them. As adults, we have about 10,000 and the vast majority are on our tongue."
Additionally, he says, babies are much more focused on sensory experiences: "That is why a baby's response to taste is so big and to us is apparently so extreme."
In order to help frustrated parents understand the intense tastes our little ones experience, Ella's Kitchen created a "unique taste experience which will allow you to return to infancy for one night and experience the same big flavours that babies taste when they first try new foods".
For the first course, a cube of amplified-flavour banana, a potent mix of banana essence and pure banana, bound ogether with seaweed in a super-sweet, fudge-like cube.
On first taste it is like having a ton of those foamy banana sweets you get in cinema pic'n'mix injected into every pore of your body. It is not hard to see why my daughter gobbles them up three at a time.
Next on the menu, an orange cube, which turns out to be carrot but tastes far sweeter than any vegetable I can recall. "We are born with innate likes and dislikes," Lukehurst says. "It is an evolutionary thing. We need sweet, high-fat foods to grow and thrive. Also, it reminds us of breastmilk, which is comforting." Historically, babies who liked bitter tastes died from choking on poisonous berries, so evolution helped us adapt. Nowadays we have to work hard to enjoy these flavours; this, surprisingly perhaps, also applies to chocolate. It is the "treat" association that makes it so popular with youngsters.
As the final course – a snot-green and super-bitter substance – confirms, to a baby with three times as many taste buds as an adult, Brussels sprouts taste disgusting. However, that doesn't necessarily mean you should just give up.
"If you really want to understand a child's eating behaviour, you have to stop seeing it from an adult's point of view," Lukehurst says. "Children see eating from a completely different angle. For them, this is when they get the most of their parent's attention, so it becomes a huge positive but also a huge opportunity to manipulate that attention."
It is your job as a parent to out-mind-bend your sprog. Primarily by keeping a happy, positive face on the mealtime experience, even when inside you want to throttle the picky little sod. "As long as you continue to give positive feedback, the child will come to associate these foods with positive experiences."
Bear in mind, too, that for children there is no such thing as negative attention (something I realised when my daughter hurled her cup across the room, then looked up and said: "Naughty step?").
Whatever gets them most attention is what they will continue to do. So praise any attempts at eating, ignore fusspot food-lobbing. "Easier said than done," Lukehurst, a father of four, accepts. Mothers can help, too, by eating a variety of foods while pregnant and breastfeeding, so their babies taste different flavours while in the womb and through breastmilk.
A friend of mine – and a far more attentive mother – recalled the other day how she had cooked her toddler three meals in a row at teatime, only to have him spit each of them straight back at her. "My gran would have had a heart attack," she says.
There are no definitive answers – what pop-science dictates is best for children changes with the season – or as Lukehurst put it, "It is cyclical: what you do for your kids will be wrong by the time they have kids". Yet there is some wisdom in the post-war adage "eat what's on your plate or go hungry".
"If a child likes toast and it knows that if he/she doesn't eat dinner now then they will get toast before bed, then what is the incentive?
"This way they are getting the attention and the toast: win, win. Children tend to reject unfamiliar flavours and textures on principle," Lukehurst says, so just keep on re-presenting it until they learn to like it.
"If they don't like it at first, that's fine, don't force them to eat it but leave it on their plates," he suggests. "The first trick is not to get them to throw it on the floor. The next is to put it in their mouth, even if they then spit it out. The final trick is to get them to eat a bit."