When I was growing up, as one of four children, being fussy wasn’t an option.
I don’t think it ever really occurred to any of us that we might not eat a meal – we were normally too busy fighting over the seconds. Sure, there was certain food I wasn’t as keen on as other things, but that just meant I didn’t ask for a double portion.
Friends of my parents used to comment on just how much we consumed and I think my Mum was driven slightly insane by the huge supermarket shops and endless requests, Oliver style, for “a bit more, please…”
So I always assumed that my own children would repeat this behaviour. In those pre-spawning days when you’re an absolute expert on childcare, I scoffed at the idea of fussy eating children. Clearly, clearly, it was simply the parents’ fault in one way or other. Giving them alternatives to foods, or allowing them not to eat certain things or perhaps, conversely, getting into a fight about eating certain things. In my house, mealtimes were going to run smoothly. I’d cook something. I’d put it in front of the kids. They’d devour it and ask for more.
I also used to find it amusing that though my sisters and I all love cooking – a skill we all picked up in our Uni years and onwards – my Mum never shared that passion. I didn’t really question why someone might not love cooking after, what, a solid 25 years of preparing meals for all or some of her four children, I just thought it was something in the genes. A little quirky oddity, that meant the love of cooking skipped a generation to land – fresh from Masterchef heaven – in our hearts.
In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that, pre-spawning, I actually thought cooking the evening meal for my children would be one of the highlights of my day. You know, I’d be standing, Nigella-esque, at the oven, whipping up some healthy, organic, delicious piece de resistance while the children – well, I don’t even know what I thought the children would be doing while I happily cooked in the kitchen. Cheerfully helping me, without making a mess? Getting on with some brilliant independent play all on their own? Perhaps writing a great novel, or composing an opera, or working on a cure for cancer. Probably something like that.
And, actually, in the first year of the sproglet’s life, all did go according to plan. I was one of those bloody annoying mothers who did the baby led weaning with the organic vegetables from the weekly Abel and Cole box. Snacks were apples or roasted butternut squash chunks or rice cakes. And everything – everything – for that blissful period between six months and a year, was consumed without question by the pliable sprog. He’d got the memo! I was delighted. And, perhaps, even a little smug.
On his first birthday, I cooked the sproglet his first ever cake. Cupcakes. I thought that – since he hadn’t really had any sugar until that point – he might take it or leave it. I was wrong. He hoovered up three cupcakes within a minute. The next day, we had another party to go to. He refused to eat anything but cupcakes.
And, from that point on, it’s been a steady decline.
Nowadays, at mealtimes, the sproglet will eat three things only: pasta, potatoes and “red sauce.” (Do not ever make the mistake of referring to it as “tomato sauce” or it will not be consumed for some weeks…)
On a really good day, a morsel of broccoli might pass by his lips.
But a hearty, lovingly-prepared chicken stew? Home-cooked steak and kidney pie? Even (and I can never quite wrap my head round this one, since it was a favourite from my childhood) bubble and squeak? No, no, no thank you. Not eating that, thanks, Mum, I don’t like it, can I have something else instead?
And the littlest, who used to be a really excellent eater, has taken to copying his big brother, and developed extreme fussiness of his own.
So, after two years of having everything I ever cook pushed around a plate, shunned and, frequently, thrown to the floor, I somehow find that “genetic” love of cooking has vanished into the ether.
Now I’m that Mum who thinks a cheese sandwich and a bag of crisps is a perfectly acceptable lunch, who is delighted when the littlest eats handfuls of baked beans (beans! They’re vegetables you know!) and who grudgingly re-heats the leftovers from lunch and plonks it back down in front of the kids for supper later on…
So, I’m pretty certain that when they hit 20, my boys will suddenly discover a great zest for cooking and look back at their poor old Mum’s sorry efforts in their childhood with wonder and despair. In the finals of Masterchef 2033, they’ll recreate a “memory of childhood” with a pasta and red sauce vapourised air and joke with a white-haired John and heavily-wrinkled Greg that it was the only dish their Mum could ever cook. As they hold the trophy aloft – the first sibling duo to ever win joint first – they’ll smile with pride and say how they learnt everything they ever knew from the internet.
And then they’ll have kids of their own and a tin of baked beans will, once again, seem like a gourmet delight.