This morning when I got out of bed and went into the kitchen, I discovered Charlotte ladling porridge into bowls. She popped two bowls onto a tray, together with two mugs of tea, and then handed everything to me. I hurried back to bed to enjoy breakfast, tucked up under the warm quilt. The porridge was creamy and had sugar sprinkled over the top. It was delicious, and I scraped the bowl clean.
I remember my father telling me about the porridge he used to eat as a child. It was made with water and salt, and I doubt he scraped his spoon around the bowl, trying to capture every last morsel. I doubt he licked his lips with satisfaction when he finally laid down his spoon. But he was expected to eat all that porridge up, regardless of whether he liked the taste or not. Was it my grandfather who insisted uneaten food be served up for the next meal… and the next… until it was eaten? I forget exactly who did that. Someone did.
We all like the taste of porridge (made with plenty of milk and sugar) but there are some foods we disagree about. Andy hates coconut, and I will not touch pears or fennel. Each of the children has one or two pet disliked foods too, but Gemma-Rose has a whole long list of things she will not let past her lips. I won’t say she dislikes the taste of all these things, for many of them she hasn’t even tried.
Charlotte tells me I have spoilt Gemma-Rose. “When we were younger, you made us eat everything, whether we liked it or not,” she points out. “I had to eat pumpkin soup.” She grimaces as she remembers. “I soon learnt pumpkin soup tastes even worse when it’s cold.”
Did I really make my children sit at the table so long their food went cold? I suppose I did.
I used to say, “Just eat one mouthful. How do you know you don’t like it, if you won’t even try it?” But I could never persuade my children to taste anything they'd decided they didn't like the look of. They’d sit at the table with their mouths firmly clamped closed.
“If you just eat a little, you can have dessert.” I wasn't above bribery. Surely the promise of a treat would persuade them? Just a taste. Surely that wasn’t asking too much? However, not even the thought of chocolate cake or ice cream could open my children's mouths.
But I wouldn’t give up. No, it was a real battle of the wills. Why wouldn’t they eat the food I‘d carefully prepared? Didn't they know how much time I’d spent cooking it for them? It tasted good. I liked it. Why didn’t they?
I must have won a few of the battles. Charlotte now eats pumpkin soup even though she doesn’t really like it. But what a price I must have paid in order to have my own way.
Then one day I’d had enough. Dinner times were too stressful. I decided, as long as it wasn’t inconveniencing the rest of the family, everyone could choose to eat what they wanted. It also occurred to me that I wouldn’t like it if anyone forced me to eat fennel. And so I gave in. Was I too soft? Or perhaps I became wiser with experience?
Every day we cook a meal that most of us like. Usually it’s only Gemma-Rose who screws up her nose when she sees what’s for dinner.
“Don’t look like that,” I say. “You can have just the rice.” So I ladle out rice into bowls, and add curry to seven. I sprinkle a handful of cheese and a few nuts into the eighth bowl and say, “That one’s Gemma-Rose’s.” She smiles. She doesn’t mind rice and cheese and nuts.
And some days I cook exactly what Gemma-Rose likes to eat for all of us, because everyone deserves to have their favourite meals added to the weekly family menu.
Sometimes I say, “One day Gemma-Rose will decide to try new foods for herself. She won't always be a fussy eater.” But I’ve been saying this for years. My youngest daughter is eight years old and she still isn’t showing any signs of developing more adventurous tastes. Should I take action? Does everyone think I am spoiling her?
I think of the possible battles ahead if I decide Gemma-Rose has to start eating exactly what the rest of us are having for dinner. I wonder whether forcing a food upon her will only increase her resistance to it. And I think... if no one is being inconvenienced and health is not an issue, doesn’t everyone have the right to make their own food choices... even children?
Andy has made a delicious ragout and a potato casserole for dinner. He is about to serve them up.
"Give Gemma-Rose just the potato casserole," I say. "More ragout for us."
Gemma-Rose is happy. We're happy. Is there really a problem?
That kitten knows exactly what he wants for dinner!
Do you have fussy eaters?