We were seven, celebrating. He sat across the table from me at the restaurant of the year, staring. A hillock upon his plate: pale, plush, perfect. Everyone admired it, except him. For at 45, he saw not what we saw, but instead the grey and lumpen mash his mother forced upon him every night of his childhood; dished up cold the morning after if not finished the night before. He pushed desultorily at it with his fork and, in the active hush of that most esteemed of dining rooms, I was struck by how the decisions we make as parents as to what we feed our children will reverberate throughout their adult lives.
I get that when you are small and powerless, what you put in your mouth can feel like one of the few spheres over which you may assert control. And that as a grown-up the world can prove a complex and disquieting place; that by obsessively regulating what you eat, it can feel as if you're still maintaining the upper hand.
I cannot help but think, however, we're getting it wrong. That modern Western societies are breeding an army of excessively fussy eaters, surely the fussiest to ever exist. That today's picky child is tomorrow's gluten/dairy/sugar-free, clean-eating adult.
Of course that's not necessarily a bad thing. We have so many choices, so much information; it's only natural we've become more discerning. But watching my dining companion poke at that glorious puree the other night, there was a part of me that couldn't help admiring his mother's staunch approach. We are too soft when it comes to how and what our children eat.
According to the literature, if a child spurns, say, broccoli, then rather than make a big deal of it, you put it to one side and try again another time. While this may be advisable with babies, in my experience with older children this method will only bite you in the bum. Around the age of 2-and-a-half, most children, even if they have been good eaters until now, will suddenly become hard to please. It is imperative you neither give in, nor give up on them. In fact, do make a big deal of it, not by yelling and screaming, but by treating food with the reverence it deserves.
Eat with your children whenever possible. Do not shy from garlic and herbs, butter and cream, salt and pepper. They will learn to appreciate tastiness over blandness. Above all, though, let it be known that refusing to eat it is not an option.
Do not be afraid of bribery. While this, too, flies in the face of nutritionists' recommendations, just as I tell myself if I do this spin class, I can have a slice of ginger crunch with my cup of tea; I tell my children if they finish the asparagus and leek tart I have served for dinner, they can have a banana split.
Don't cook spaghetti bolognaise every week because you know they like it. At best they will tire of it, at worst it will ruin their sense of culinary adventure. Be strict with vegetables, but not overly so with treats. The children I know who have been denied all junk food grow obsessed, become secretive lolly-bingers. Lastly, you want them to come to the table hungry. If they complain they are starving half an hour before dinner, tell them to wait, it won't kill them. And if their whining becomes unbearable, stick an apple in their mouth.
Although he turned his nose up at the spuds that night, my friend happily gorged himself on oysters, fennel and duck. And I thought that if his mother had only been a little more generous with the butter, a little more rigorous with the masher, and changed things up from time to time by cooking chips or even pasta, she would have produced a man who eats absolutely everything.
Last week, in an effort to shame myself into finishing my novel, I revealed myself a procrastinator. Jenny said she has taken procrastination itself to an art form. "I dither and pace, and clean or garden, or stare out the window rather than tackle what's hanging over me; then I'll suddenly spring into action and off I go with a hiss and a roar." John, a farmer prone to procrastination, believes, "Work is very important; so much so that some should always be left for tomorrow."