Dear Kitchen Agony,
I am having my young nephew and niece to stay for a couple of days and as I have no children of my own, I’m worried about what to feed them. My sister says they eat anything, but I have just witnessed a child in my local café scream with fury on being served a perfectly unthreatening omelette. Any ideas?
I’ve heard it said that if you feed a pregnant woman with a complete range of strong-tasting food during confinement, the child will be born tolerant of every taste. As I have never had the co-operation of a pregnant woman over such a long period of time under laboratory conditions, I have no idea whether this is true. I’d like to think that somewhere there are babies that sup on caviar and coffee, but I don’t believe it.
You are quite right to be nervous. Most children operate draconian prohibitions on all types of food and food categories. I once cooked for a vegetarian child who didn’t eat onions, mushrooms or cheese, and his friend who ate only meat. This is the reality of life on the after-school culinary coal-face, and not the kind of problem you ever see Michel Roux Jr. trying to tackle.
Not only do children have their own inventive prejudices, they also adopt the dislikes and imagined allergies of their parents. Trying to convert them is futile unless you have ten years to work on it, and it’s no good telling them that statistically speaking their so-called gluten intolerance is unlikely to be real, because children believe profoundly in what is not real.
However amenable your sister’s children appear to your sister, they will look picky to you, because you will almost certainly present them with food they have never come across. This they will approach with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Even simple ingredients like cauliflower are likely to get the “What’s that?” treatment, so don’t attempt to be ambitious. You will be savagely hurt if your meticulously prepared coastal fish moilee, so adored by all your arty friends, is pushed untasted to the side of the plate with a sneer. Small children are unencumbered by politeness.
So feed them what they have already eaten a thousand times before, if you can find out what that is. And if you can’t, stick to what every child likes. Although we are led to believe that children don’t like extreme tastes, this is not always true. They love sweet and sour extremes. Look at Brighton rock and salt and vinegar crisps, both of which, if they were introduced anew today, would be condemned as too difficult to eat by the EU, if not poisonous.
The other thing they universally love is easy to provide. It’s a category I shall call sludge – baked beans, mashed potato, even lentil muck if it’s covered in ketchup. Tasteless and beigey/orange things delight them; a plain slice of white bread is the perfect thing. My Spanish au pair gave my children Ryvitas in warm milk every tea-time. She told them it was food and they believed her.
Of course you can use your inventiveness to make a portion of brussels sprouts look exactly like a boule of ice cream in a cornet made of freeze-dried kippers, though unless you want to be working non-stop like a short-order Heston Blumenthal on a zero-hours contract, I wouldn’t go down this route. Better to turn your dishes into pictures on the plate, as in the photograph below. Children eat all kinds of things while distracted by the funny face, even the green stuff sometimes.
Warning: don’t feed your child the foodstuffs in this picture if you don’t want them to grow to 6’4”, as this one did (see below).
Recipe: Off-the-wall ham
This was a hit with my children and others unfortunate enough to eat at my house. You need the very cheap kind of supermarket ham cut into wafer-thin slices in order to make it work, and you have to follow the correct ritual procedure in order to engender a sense of occasion.
One packet of wafer-thin ham slices
Serve each child in turn. Begin by asking whether the child wants ordinary ham or off-the-wall ham. The child will always opt for off-the-wall ham.
Take out a single slice of ham and throw it at the fridge door. It will stick satisfactorily to the door.
The child will now run to the fridge to retrieve its slice of ham. Then it’s the turn of the next child.
Only the faint-hearted will put a flat platter on the floor in case of misfires.
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