‘My Dad Took Me There’.
Over the years, I’ve periodically gone into my kids’ school to talk about healthy eating. Sometimes, I’ve talked to them about flavour; sometimes about eating more vegetables and fruits; and lately, about how to change their palates for the better. I always enjoy doing it, but also come away with a sense that I am not really reaching all of the children. The keener ones put their hands up and tell me about ‘five a day’. Some tell me their loves and hates: how tomato pips are too slimy but they have a passion for green beans. I try to tell them that just because they don’t like something now, it doesn’t mean they will always hate it. I talk about how it’s easier to try a new food if it’s as small as a pea. They nod and smile and some say they will try.
I enjoy these school talks, but it all feels a bit hypothetical.
Today, I went on a school trip to a museum with some six and seven year-olds as a parent helper and felt I got closer to the heart of what drives their food passions. The children walked in a long crocodile, holding hands in twos. To get to the museum, we had to walk past a row of fast food places. A doughnut shop, a pizza place. ‘Ahhhhhh, doughnuts!’ shouted a cluster of boys. The crocodile started jumping up and down. ‘My dad took me there’, said one of the boys. He repeated it over and over. ‘My dad took me there, he did. We had doughnuts’.
How can any schoolroom lesson on the benefits of broccoli ever compete with ‘My dad took me there, we had doughnuts’?
It felt like a vivid confirmation of something I write about in my book First Bite. Our food desires are mainly the product of memory. What makes junk food so dangerous is not that it is unhealthy – though it is. It’s that it is intertwined with so many other memories, especially those of family, that are good and true and pure. A parent treating his son to doughnuts is a sweet, loving thing.
When we hear someone suggesting that we eat less bacon or give up white sliced bread or stop eating our favourite brand of ice crean, we feel a kneejerk hostility because it is as if our loved ones are being attacked. Whether we are children or adults, it’s hard to let go of these foods and find a better way of eating without a sense of loss.
Speaking from my own experience, the new way of eating does not come because you know about 5 a day. It comes when – bit by bit - you forge new food memories and find yourself gravitating towards different flavours. The hardest part is seeing that you do not have to reward yourself with food in the same ways that your parents did. Your dad took you there. But where you go next is up to you.