Can you imagine a seven-year-old asking you to buy beetroot or red cabbage? Or a 12-year-old offering you a soothing cup of fresh ginger tea while he makes dinner?
When you think of children’s cookbooks the images that come to mind are of cakes studded with Smarties or chocolate Rice Krispies. The writers seem to think children can only be enticed into the kitchen with a promise of sugar-laden treats.
A while ago I was spending time with a child who had no interest in eating. With a repertoire of about five preferred foods, Leo’s diet was limited to pasta with no sauce, toast with no butter, cottage cheese and roast potatoes. I invited him to cut up carrots and celery while I made soup; to buzz up raw potatoes in a food processor and squeeze out the watery liquid before I made latkes. We made rolled sandwich wraps: he flattened bread slices with a rolling pin while I cut strips of red pepper for the filling.
When he seemed to be losing interest, we turned to painting: melting chocolate in the microwave and brushing it on to plain digestive biscuits. The point of this was not just to imitate a packet of shop biscuits, but to show Leo how a microwave works. I explained to him that cooking simply means applying heat, and that it can come from above (a grill) below (a barbecue or hob) or all round (an oven). Mixing up spices, tomato puree and soy sauce we made a glaze to paint on to chicken wings — something he had always rejected in a restaurant, preferring instead the chicken nuggets from the children’s menu.
After a few weeks he graduated to making stewed apple in the microwave, rolling out pastry to make cheesy feet biscuits and even tried frying — flipping over blueberry pancakes, watching for the right moment when the bubbles on top suggested the bottom was going brown.
When we were short of time we chose five-minute games. He could mash raspberries, spurting the pink juice before adding a little sugar and stirring it into natural yogurt. He’d once been persuaded to try a supermarket fruit yogurt, but when he tasted his home-made version he just said “wow”. He will never go back to the jammy ones full of artificial flavours and colouring.
Sometimes I gave him a challenge. I knew he would not touch fish. Even a fish finger made him hold his nose. I bought some sprats with the heads on, drew a picture of his hand and placed four fish where the fingers should be. “Those are fish fingers” I said. “We’re going to make them”. What we actually did was to cut off the heads and watch how the entrails slowly slid out.
It did not matter whether or not he ate the finished char-grilled fish, he was learning what was inside food. We went on to cut open a pomegranate, a passion fruit, a butternut squash and a vanilla pod — sights and smells he had never experienced before.
After some weeks, Leo told me he would like to try making dinner. I showed him how to make a 10-minute pasta sauce from fresh tomatoes and garlic. While the sauce was simmering he helped me cut up pears for a salad with watercress and a lemony olive oil dressing. Did he eat it? Of course he did.
We invited some other children to join us and gave them each a piece of paper and a pencil. They were all asked to write down everything they were tasting and give it a rating of one to five.
Even a food that might have been considered “yucky” merited a tentative taste. There were no rewards for finishing their main course before they got to the pudding. Dessert was strawberry soup, buzzed up in a liquidizer in minutes, served with biscuits cut in the shape of spoons.
If you mention the “five-a-day” target to a vegetable-hating child, she’ll leave the table and reach for the latest Shrek 2 video game. Invite her to play and she will enter the magical world of discovering food.