There’s nothing to match the good intentions of the new parent, particularly when it comes to meal times. The more elite the supper table, the greater the determination not to succumb to bunging frozen nuggets and chips into the oven once their little darlings are old enough to handle solid food.
Some parents pull this off, such as Calgary Avansino, mother-of-three and author of the cookbook Keep It Real, who favours a plant-based diet. She makes her tempeh chilli and tofu enchiladas “all the time for friends or the whole family,” she has said.
“[My children] learn by osmosis but I also give them little tasks, which helps them feel involved. My daughters always say food is more delicious when they have helped make it,” Avansino told one interviewer. “I try to always talk about the ingredients as we’re cooking – where they’ve come from, how they were grown, what it takes to grow them, how they can be eaten… too many children nowadays think pasta grows on trees and meat lives in a packet… we need to be their educators, and show them why real food matters.”
With veganism all the rage among Hollywood celebrities, many are making their children join them in what is deemed 'clean eating'. Alicia Silverstone, who made her name as the teenage star of the film Clueless, wrote The Kind Diet, a cookbook for parents who want to raise their children as vegans. Her son Bear Blu is vegan.
Paediatric nutritionists are seeing a spike in enquiries from families who are eating more vegan and vegetarian food and want advice on how to ensure their children won’t baulk at the new regime. “A lot of families want their children to follow suit when they adopt a more plant-based diet,” says Bahee Van de Bor, a Harley Street-based dietitian who specialises in children.
And yet, such high-mindedness can come at a price, as none other than the Duchess of Cambridge discovered over her family breakfast table. While the Duchess is partial to a healthy green smoothie, she revealed to some nursery school children that her trio prefer a bowl of cereal. She didn’t disclose which brand they favour, but nutritionists warn many breakfast cereals risk overloading children with excess sugar and salt. The royal Princes and Princess also eat pizza and pasta, carbohydrate-heavy staples for households across the UK.
Although the Duchess, who employs an exclusive Norland nanny to do most of her family’s day-to-day cooking, may wish her brood would tuck into tempeh and tofu instead, it turns out she might be the one striking the better balance.
Nutritionists warn parents can run into difficulties if they try to foist too healthy a diet on their offspring. Van de Bor adds: "If you follow health and wellbeing experts online just be aware that there are plenty of myths and nutrition trends that may be interesting but not necessarily appropriate for children to follow. If you focus on them heavily you might miss what children’s true requirements are.”
Sarah Bushell, a specialist child dietitian who has worked as a consultant to food brands and restaurants, is often asked to unpick problems that arise when families are too obsessed with clean eating.
“When parents come to me for advice it's often because they’ve come from a too healthy point of view. They might have school age children who’ve never eaten chocolate,” she says. “But what’s happened is they’ve taken what I call ‘fun’ food and made it extra desirable by making it forbidden. I have to spend a lot of time trying to desensitise their children around fun foods because children later feel guilt and shame [when they inevitably do eat some].”
Bushell adds: “I spend time with parents on how they can talk in a more neutral way about food with their children. And incorporate things like chocolate all the time, even if it’s just once a week on a Friday, for example.”
Julie Lanigan, a researcher based at the UCL Institute of Child Health, who is investigating nutrition in early life, says studies have long shown how parents impose their own ideas about healthy eating onto their children. One paper in the 1990s by researchers at the University of Surrey dubbed the phenomenon “muesli-belt mothers”.
Lanigan adds: “You can’t directly translate messages about healthy eating to children. Young children have small stomachs and can’t manage large fibrous meals. They need small, energy-dense meals. As adults we are encouraged to cut our fat intake but trying to impose the same message on children isn’t always the best idea.”
Although every parent worries about their offspring, the ones seeking help about what to feed them tend to have more disposable income. “The parents I see are those who can afford to pay for services,” says Bushell, adding that’s partly because you can only get referred to a paediatric dietician on the NHS for medical issues.