I started to notice a few months ago, gradually at first and then in an impossible to miss way, that my 4 year old son will eat anything if he has picked or found it himself. After having suffered the psychological trauma that only a health-conscious mother can impose when I myself was a child, I am proud to say I have imposed the same hardships on my own son since he was weaned at 6 months.
However, whilst he was prepared to eat anything when a baby, he has become a lot more discerning about what goes into his mouth. Blackberries bought from the market, washed and placed in front of him hold no appeal at all but, picked fresh from the bush on holiday he must have ingested enough for his entire weeks quota of vitamin C.
I have a theory that we all – and possibly boys in particular – are born natural hunter gatherers; that it is coded into our most primal DNA. We were designed to run long distances for food, go for long(ish) periods without and above all, work for what we eat. Leaving aside how differently our bodies cope with the damaging effects of metabolism if we have actually expended energy finding it before it is consumed, I believe that the act of finding our own food and thus providing for ourselves (rather than allowing the supermarkets to do it for us) gives us more incentive to eat it. Certainly from a small child’s point of view, searching out and picking something before eating gives it far more appeal purely from a fun perspective. It becomes like a game rather than the necessary chore that mealtimes usually take on at that age.
Allowing your children to take on the responsibility of feeding themselves by searching out and finding fruits and vegetables may at best help a fussy eater but failing that will almost certainly help them to develop an interest in food in years to come. Even if it’s miserable and raining out or you don’t live anywhere near any fields, let them “forage” in your own kitchen. Introduce them to the raw ingredients you have as much and as often as possible and get them as involved as you can. Let them taste anything in its raw state – my son used to take bites out of raw potatoes and aubergines* – and you may find that when the cooked version ends up on their plate they do not resist quite so much. Children learn about their world and what they can and can’t trust by experimenting with the same thing repeatedly and this is quite possibly why we first started telling them to “stop playing with their food”. Actually, we may be giving them an advantage by allowing them to play! By touching, exploring, tasting and experimenting with food in its natural state, they should begin to learn an appreciation for and, perhaps most importantly of all, a trust of that food. Small children are naturally distrustful of new foods for a very good evolutionary reason – so that they don’t poison themselves when alone in the wild. If we allow them to re-connect with this natural instinct, I believe there is a good chance that they will be far more willing to experiment once they have seen for themselves that the food is safe – us simply telling them is, alas, not good enough.
Obviously if you have your own vegetable patch it makes things a whole lot easier, and I appreciate that we are coming into the winter months when foraging may not reap much reward, but there are still a couple of months of autumn left yet. So what better moment than to make a day of it and hunt for blackberries or mushrooms (take care that you know your varieties), plums or apples? Do remember though that it takes quite a few tries of something totally new for a child to accept and like it, so do keep persisting. Go on, get the wellies on and get foraging!
* Do take care though that they only try these things as too much will almost certainly cause stomach upset!