How to play with your food
Like any good dad, I used to invoke that ancient parental mantra "Don’t play with your food" whenever my daughter Daisy mushed her lunch into a swirling mess. I moaned at her for smearing yoghurt over her face, for squeezing each of her peas until they popped and I whinged when she fondled every juicy morsel of food with her fingers before eating it.
Then one day Daisy turned her sweet, mucky face to me and said “Why not?” and I realised I had no credible answer. In every other area of her life Daisy was encouraged to play – with words, with music, with paint and water. Play is where the good stuff is, where the fascination, inspiration and wonder is. I want to inspire her to enjoy eating, to taste as many different foods as possible and to find food as fascinating as I do.
So then and there I made a parental U-turn and decided that mealtimes should be where the fun is, and if I had to wipe daughter and table clean after supper, that’s a small price to pay for getting kids fascinated by food. I went a step further and called up the head of CBBC (well, her PA at first) to ask if I could make a wild kids’ food TV series, and we’ve made 26 episodes of the enormously successful Gastronuts teaching recipes such as the legendary bum sandwich.
The best thing you can do for your kids’ long-term health is encourage them to eat as wide a range of food as possible, because that’ll give them the best chance of a balanced diet. If you make meals fun, surprising and occasionally a little bit naughty, you’ll be surprised at how many different foods kids will try. Daisy and her sister Poppy will eat almost anything: stinky cheeses, roasted grasshoppers, sea urchins, sushi, curly kale and oysters. They don’t love every food they try, but they love to cook, love to eat and love experimenting with their food.
So what can you do at home? My kids like making their own butter because it’s a little bit magical and happens so quickly. It’s also dead easy and cheap (all you need is double cream and a jam jar) and they can eat it as soon as it’s made.
We also love making bread in flower pots. Use a recipe like this one, stop before the final proving (rising) period and put the dough into very clean, well-buttered flower pots so that it fills each pot up to about half to two-thirds full. Bake in a preheated oven at 220C/420F/Gas 6 for 15-30 minutes. When the bread is nicely browned on top and sounds hollow when tapped, it's done.
Another fun method of cooking that fascinates kids (and adults too) is cooking kebabs on a car engine, and, for adding a little science to your food, try making fluorescent jellies, a vinegar volcano or a cola fountain.
But what about manners and propriety? Well, I grew up learning lots of manners that seem to have no point to them at all. I’m not advocating daily food fights – that’s just silliness – but by making food fun, I’m making my kids healthier and helping them live happier, longer lives, and I’m not sure there’s much in the world more important than that.
What do you think? Should we instil our children with old-fashioned manners when it comes to dinner time, or should we be more concerned with making mealtime fun and food fascinating?
Stefan Gates is a BBC presenter and food writer.