Source: Times Online

Alex Renton

On the way to lunch at Giorgio Locatelli’s restaurant in London, we crossed Oxford Street. My son Adam, 11, trudging along grumpily at the prospect of a boring two hours in a posh restaurant, raised his nose. He sniffed the air, like a gourmet catching a whiff of bouillabaisse in a Marseilles back street. He sighed rapturously and said: “KFC! I just want to know what it tastes like. Imagine, I’m a child who has never even tried Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

Half an hour later, in the temple that is Locanda Locatelli, Adam had pushed aside his starter, a ball of lush, raw-milk mozzarella. “It’s wet. Not like proper mozzarella. Under-done.” He was eyeing a herb-crusted, char-grilled mackerel fillet with suspicion. “You like mackerel!” said his mother.

“I like it in Scotland. But I’ll try this,” he said, with a martyred air . Two nibbles later (at £12.75 a bite) the mackerel was pushed aside. “I’m just not hungry,” he said. “What’s for pudding?” I tried to smile.

Many foodie parents will find this exchange familiar, I know. And most would ask, first: “Why take a picky child for a £50-a-head lunch anyway?” (Answer — I want, more than almost anything, to have great lunch adventures with my family. Is that so terrible?) And second: “He had two bites! That’s great — you think you’ve got problems?”

I know that as far as picky eaters go, I really don’t have problems. I know a child who eats only bacon. Ever. My kids don’t get fat and they eat a fairly balanced diet — but it’s boring. They like to have the food they know and expect. They don’t like novelty or surprises, and they don’t trust me.

I am to blame for this, of course. “It’s sometimes kind of annoying always having to try new food,” says Adam kindly. “But sometimes it’s exciting.”

“Yeah,” mutters my wife, “like the time with the fish sauce.” This refers to a treasured family horror story when I offered the then trusting, adventurous four-year-old Adam a pound if he would drink a teaspoon of Thai fish sauce. No, I don’t know what possessed me. Yes, Adam vomited all over the table. And I lost his confidence — in food matters, at least — for ever. “My relationship with food will never be the same and I hope you regret it,” he said the other day, having told the whole story again.

I do regret it, a lot. Until recently, family meals have been a tedious round of cheesy pasta, potatoes boiled or mashed, tinned tuna, Bolognese, steamed broccoli, and fried chicken bits in a little soya sauce. Any variations must be introduced with care and subtlety for fear that the food police (my five-year-old daughter, Lulu, has copied her brother in most of his habits) may catch you out. “Hold on — let me see that packet!” is a familiar and quite scary order in the kitchen. “That’s not mild Cheddar, Dad, that’s mature! You know we don’t eat that.” We should never have taught them to read.

Some complex foods are OK, but only if shop-bought. Chicken Kievs or frozen fish fingers are favourites. Bread must be white or Best of Both. And certain foodie words set off hazard alerts: proof of food crimes committed. The other day we visited friends (their daughters eat crab, for goodness sake) and my son asked what was for supper. Sausages, I said. “Will they be nice sausages, or disgusting organic ones?”

A long time ago I listed the moral arguments for eating good food (hence the “disgusting organic”). I told my son that, though burgers could, of course, be delicious, I didn’t like eating them from fast food joints because the ingredients weren’t always very good and sometimes people working in the restaurants weren’t paid enough. How do you know, he asked suspiciously (this was after the fish sauce debacle). I read it in a book, I said. A few days later we passed a pizza takeaway. “Dad! Let’s go there,” he said. “They pay the people really well and the ingredients are fantastic.” How do you know, I asked? “I read it in a book.” He couldn’t read, but we bought one anyway.

The problem, of course, is that use of calm reason with children — a desperately over-valued technique — fails most often because they’ll use it straight back at you. And there are good reasons not to stray away from beaten tracks with food. Especially if, as with most children, food is fuel rather than entertainment. The problem for me is that I’ve deluded myself — I think I deserve junior gourmets, like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has, damn him. But in Britain, where 20 per cent (and rising) of children are obese, and even more never sit to eat with their parents, I should be pleased with what I have got.

I’m not, of course. And I’m sad and grumpy about it because I don’t understand. Where, as parents say, did we go wrong? From the very beginning our policy with the children over food has been the rational, liberal one: we avoid ultimatums because they don’t work; we try to keep our tempers; we cajole and suggest (“No you can’t try smoked salmon, it’s far too good for children!”). I managed to get them eating cherries by allowing them to spit the stones out of the car window at passers-by. We reward and congratulate. But we end up with a couple of food conservatives — a girl who shakes with fear at the sight of Locatelli gnocchi and a boy who orders his pizza without tomato sauce. What will they do next to annoy me? Become evangelical Christians?

Of course the only important question is whether by trying to turn my child into a foodie I found another way of turning him into a food neurotic. When Adam was 5, and eating hardly more than pasta, cheese, broccoli and Cheerios, we did talk to a child psychologist. She laughed: “Not eating is a problem. Boring tastebuds are not.” Perhaps my expectations were utterly unrealistic, and my complaints a cause of tension and, thus, the problem?

And so, like many middle-class parents before me, I had to conclude that it’s not my children who are at fault, but me. So I’ve tried to lighten up. Now I offer them ketchup before they’ve even tried the sauce.

Have I damaged him? I’ve certainly guaranteed a few years when, unleashed, Adam will be nourished chiefly on chicken nuggets and fatburgers. I’m sure he’ll survive it. Most students do. And I have hope. Since I laid off, things have changed a little. Adam and I have started going to sushi bars where we do a happy Jack Sprat-and-his-wife act: he picks the rice out of the maki rolls and eats it grain by grain with chopsticks, I take the filling and the seaweed. The other day he tasted a moule marinière (just one). Over the past year he’s started to ask for steaks cooked rare — a development so exciting that I have not even commented on it for fear of upsetting whatever ball has begun to roll in his palate.

If I relax, stop pushing, keep paying the bills, perhaps one day he and I will sit down over a good Orvieto to discuss the finer points of a risotto alla Milanese. If not a nice dipping bowl of Thai fish sauce.

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