The Sunday Telegraph - Stella
Food from the boys
For years I despaired of my picky eaters, but now I have teenagers making fresh pasta from scratch and perfecting ragu
I WAS REALLY hoping for a French child, one of such tremendous appetite and broad tastes that he would cry when a salade de gésiers was finished. Or an Italian child. Pasta is the children’s food de nos jours, but I was longing for a toddler who would sit happily chewing leaves of bitter radicchio or steal the orange slice from my negroni so he could start appreciating adult flavours. But I didn’t get a French or an Italian child. For years, I despaired about what my children ate. When they were toddlers, I had to make them laugh so their mouths would open for long enough to sneak in a spoonful when they weren’t thinking. They were picky, reluctant to try new things. Their lips curled in suspicion when confronted by a dish they didn’t recognise. As they got older, they would say, ‘What’s the twist?’, expecting to find I’d stuck saffron in the rice.
Friends said, ‘Let them starve – they’ll eat when they’re hungry,’ but I couldn’t leave them without food. Many a pan of scrambled eggs was whipped up at the last minute. My now 16-year-old still gets emergency scrambled eggs when the rest of us are eating something that doesn’t appeal to him.
It was laziness on my part, rather than an actual plan, that made me let the eating thing go. I couldn’t bear food to become a battleground. I’ve watched other family members do the ‘just one more spoonful’ approach. If a child doesn’t like a particular food, they don’t like it. Meals become stressful and eating becomes a power struggle. My job made it worse. Food is ‘my area’, so they decided to have some fun with me. Mum wants us to eat lentil soup? Well, that ain’t gonna happen. I used to go over in my head what they’d eaten in a day to ensure they’d had all the food groups and were eating healthily, but that was about it.
I know there are children with very specific problems. Some will only eat white food or want to have every element on the plate separate. If I’d gone through that, I would have sought advice from an expert, but there was no ‘problem’ eating – they were just picky. I suggested they try a little of what was on offer. They usually did and then liked it or rejected it. The first breakthrough came when I had to go away for a few days. The eldest was 16 at the time, so they could cater for themselves. I bought basics, told them what was in the fridge and left them to it. It’s surprising what happens when you hand over power. Left to their own devices, they cooked – because they had to eat – and they relished the freedom.
Holidays were perhaps the most rewarding times. The arancini we ate on the floor of Catania airport – some filled with melting cheese, some with bolognese – are legendary (the boys don’t think mine are as good as the original). A salad of chicken and cabbage with hot/ sour/salty/sweet dressing was the key experience in Vietnam. My eldest is a very good cook – his ragu is better than mine – and he has a calm and perfectionist approach. He’ll keep making a dish until he gets it right, then he’ll move on to something else. It took him ages to master spaghetti carbonara, but he’s produced platefuls where the egg yolk is creamy and just warm and not remotely scrambled. He understands seasoning, too.
I’ve even come home to perfect homemade tagliatelle hanging on wooden spoons set between cans of tomatoes (I think boys like a ‘project’).
Fresh pasta? I just treated it as normal. Offer them different foods, don’t make eating a battleground, let them take control. Tonight, there are sausages and lentils on the menu and I’m not making them. I’m hungry already.
Left to their own devices, they cooked – because they had to eat – and they relished the freedom