It was the Victorians who said children should eat different food. But we should copy the French at mealtimes. Adi Bloom reports
The misguided assumption that adults and children have different tastes in food has led to the poor quality of many school lunches, new research claims.
This supports those, such as chef Jamie Oliver, who called for parents and schools to be more ambitious in the food they offer children.
Allison James, professor of sociology at Sheffield University, examined British perceptions of children's food looking at how this has changed over the years.
The notion of children's food was first introduced in the Victorian era, when children were fed "nursery food" well into their teens. This diet, often replicated in boys' boarding schools, was plain and monotonous. Victorians also believed that forcing children to eat food to which they had an active aversion was a necessary way to undermine any rebellious tendencies.
Later in the 19th-century, children were fed only plain, weakly flavoured food. Offering them complex or "too solid" foods was believed to affect future health. This belief continued into the 20th-century. In 1929 an article in Good Housekeeping magazine advised: "Digestive troubles may ensue when over-rich food is given." This distinction between adults' and children's food has persisted, and is clearly illustrated in the menus found in many pubs and restaurants. Rather than offering smaller portions of items on the main menu, the children's menu invariably offers pizza, fish fingers, hamburgers or chips.
Professor James said: "When eating together children and adults may well eat different foods. Children's food is food that is set apart from that which adults eat."
The notion of separate foods has been emphasised by advertising. Snack and junk food, such as crisps, cheese-strings or burgers, tend to be considered children's food, in opposition to healthy adult food.
The gap between the junk food children want to eat and the healthy food adults want to feed them becomes a constant battleground. And food becomes representative of generational difference. In research conducted for the Leverhulme Trust, one pupil told Professor James: "When my mum and dad go shopping, and they come back and they say, 'Those are mine', then I wouldn't touch them."
Such a divide has never existed in France. Children there have always sat with adults at dinner and chosen from the same menus. So they have no concept of separate children's food. A typical school dinner in France includes fried hake, sauteed duck, and potato and beetroot salad.
Professor James argues that persuading British children to reject chicken nuggets for chorizo salad will take more than a mockney chef: society must re-examine its attitudes to children's food.
"Children's food represents the separateness that now exists between adults and children," she said. "Perhaps, then, contemporary concerns about childhood obesity need to focus beyond the immediacy of the content of children's diets, and to think more incisively about what those diets tell us about the relationships between adults and children in contemporary English society."
- 'Children's food: an index of generational relations', by Allison James, Sheffield University.
MENUS - PAST AND PRESENT
Victorian English lunch
Boiled mutton with turnips and currant pudding, bread and butter, milk and tea.
Roast mutton with suet dumplings and apple pudding, bread and cheese, milk and tea.
Modern English lunch
Spanish chicken or filled jacket potatoes with baked beans, plus brown rice and green beans, apple crumble with custard or yoghurts
Modern French lunch
Fried fillet of hake with potato and beetroot salad, creamed spinach, Gouda cheese, nectarine.
Provence-style shark steak with buttered wheat, lettuce salad, fresh pineapple.