When I was a young, wet behind the ears, first time mum, I dashed to the book shop, upon realising that my beloved first born was going to need a bit more sustenance than breast milk, and bought an infant-to-pre-school cook book. Filled with gorgeous photographs of little children happily tucking in to carrot sticks and hummus, wholemeal muffins and interesting looking purees, I there and then decided that my children would follow suit. Organic, wholemeal and home-made. Water, not juice. Sweeties? Never. I was determined.
I have a dear friend (who I haven’t seen for a while) with whom I used to cackle over these sort of decisions, years down the line, when we had realised that the best laid plans are great…until the children show you that they have developed a mind of their own and refuse to cooperate. These days, we are more knowledgeable in our food based decision making; it is fairly predictable, what they will or won’t eat (and it won’t be wholemeal and it won’t be hummus and it will have little to do with my will). Milk is preferred to water (and water only under extreme duress). One of us will not eat breakfast cereal. Another, nothing with visible onion or anything green. Yet another turns their nose up at pizza. Meal planning can be a complicated affair, if you don’t want to be cooking individual meals, that is.
I have discovered the ‘outside food’ factors that limit the menu. You can pretty well guarantee that they won’t eat whatever it is you have lovingly prepared for them if you’ve left it too long and they are too tired (this is especially pronounced in young children, I found). They go past the point of hunger and all they are capable of being is bad tempered and screechy, no matter how hungry they are, good for nothing except a bath and a bedtime story. Unexpected (and exciting) visitor turns up at tea time? Appetite gone. Birthday party? Same.
I have found that the amount that they will refuse to eat is directly inversely proportional to the amount of time and effort you have gone to in the cooking process too. I gave up cooking fish pie for them years ago. Curry, similar.
I also gave up feeling aggrieved at this ungrateful behaviour at around the same time I made this discovery. I want them to eat, after all, and they being young, had no idea how much effort I had gone to in putting their tea at the table. The hubs, however, not having gone through the fire of early motherhood, and escaping the vast majority of screaming tea-times through the virtue of being at work, feels differently. He feels that he should be thanked, not by a letter or a card, a round of applause (although he would probably like one, and one for doing the bins, too) and definitely not with a hug (especially if the end of the hugging arm is adorned with a fork), but by clean plates and a willing attitude towards the washing up. I remind him, when the heat of the moment has past that they are children, after all, they are still, despite their size, young, and they have no idea that the all-powerful adults might have had to make an effort rather than wave a magic wand (especially if they are not involved in the process). The provision of a meal at a regular time, for them, is something to be expected, their right, if you like.
Of course, I remind them, as we sit down at the table, that someone did work hard to put the food there, as I perform a kind of grace, involving thanks for the cook, which, as they grow, they join, with smiles and verbal good wishes (although not always with that thing that we really want – the eating with gusto and the smacking of lips, but, you know, it’s a journey). I take no offence at the lack because I know that they will pay it forward when their turn comes.
Christmas is coming and I, along with many (not all), parents will be ensuring that my children send a letter of thanks to relatives who live far away and who have gone to the trouble of sending them a gift, of thinking about it, buying it, wrapping it and standing in a post office queue to get it to us in time for the Big Day – none of which they were required or contractually obliged to do. But, when I think about it, it is not the letters that matter, although I know that recipients enjoy receiving them. An attitude of gratitude is about more than good manners because they, however nice on the surface, can hide an insincere heart. It is, instead, that understanding of something beyond the self, the growing realisation of someone else that I am looking for.
The giving of a gift and the sending and receiving of formal thanks at this time of year may seem a social obligation, but it’s not. With any luck both are freely given, no conditions attached. They are acts, if you like, of love.