Refuse to swallow this unpalatable nonsense

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Some charming little carrier bags catch my eye at the supermarket. They portray a cheery scene of a boy and a girl in a hot-air balloon who are going exploring for food. The boy is using a telescope. Obviously, spotting food is so tricky you can't do it with the naked eye. Brightly coloured information leaflets describe the range of convenience food prepared especially for very young children; the leaflets assure us the foods are relatively free of additives and chemicals.

Further investigation reveals a spectacularly artistic advertising campaign enticing parents to buy specially prepared food for their very young children. The standard advice of five portions of fruit and vegetables a day is paraded. The adventurous children are even allowed treats. The phrase "naughty but nice" hovers in my mind.

There is, inevitably, a range of costly lunchbox alternatives involved, much more expensive than a good old-fashioned filled roll, or a slice of pizza you might have cooked yourself. There are brightly coloured boxes of pasta in a variety of sauces, and even tiny bottles of water. Another supermarket promotes small apples especially for school lunch boxes. That way, apparently, children just might be persuaded to eat apples. They couldn't possibly commit to a big apple, of course.

What is wrong with these campaigns? Well, British parents have already been deluged with information as to how to feed their children. And, if I were a child and had to have special food items, my diet would have to be worrying my parents. There's no question that we might enjoy the same food. Heaven forbid that eating could be a shared pleasure.

Which leads to the third and most worrying aspect. The incidence of children's obesity and eating disorders is increasing. We do not know why these problems develop, but we do see them occurring with manipulative behaviour. Might that start with everyone being too self-conscious and worried about food? Parents trying to entice their very young children with less specifically packaged foods convey fear and anxiety, emotions that transfer to children. We do not need separate food for children in supermarkets. Parents wishing to buy food free from additives and pesticides can choose from an extensive range of organic foods for the whole family.

Supermarkets hope this range will attract insecure parents. Guilty parents can make choices about big versus small apples, they can take pride in buying tiny bottles of water. The marketing is designed to make parents and children self-conscious about the food they eat. In the face of this pressure, no one can remain relaxed about food.

What should we do instead? One answer would be to make cookery a proper part of the curriculum, instead of some token activity that a willing parent carries out with a group of children, once in a while. Such tokenism debases cooking, relegating it to the bottom of the league of things that may be important in our lives.

Another is to do more home cooking with children. Although home-cooked meals may take longer to prepare, they can be tasty and nutritious, and are usually cheaper than a minute amount of pasta doused in a very ordinary tomato sauce, in a cute little box. With childhood obesity and eating disorders increasing, parents and children must not be manipulated into further culinary nonsense. Instead, let's involve children in our meals, our love of cooking and our pleasure in food.

Sally Newman

Sally Newman is a parent and teacher who lives and works in Reading. She is currently researching self-esteem issues in children

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