Being raised as a bona fide Italian, with plenty of home-cooked food and a certain generosity in the portions, I cannot help but lift my eyebrow at the sight of so many children eating pre-packaged stuff and growing up on fries and jello....
This sort of alimentary-snobbism, is rooted within any self respecting italian. We don’t just love what we eat, we are extremely picky when it comes to quality and flavour. Food and cookery are an integral part of our culture and our life.
That’s why we are the food-extremists of the civilized world.
I think my mother would crucify me to the kitchen table if she saw me feeding Gabriel a diet of MacDonald’s and ice cream, like many parents here in the UK do....
I think she would see it as a failure, as every italian mother prides herself with having taught her offspring at least how to put together some decent food... Well, mine does....
Also, the UK notion of 'cooked meal versus uncooked meal' (i.e. a meal made of something cooked from scratch versus a meal of sandwiches and potato crisps) it's something alien to my culture.
Where I come from it's totally unacceptable to sit in front of a bowl of crisps and a ham 'n cheese sandwich and call it lunch. This is something you eat when you are on-the-go, when you are at a birthday party, when you are stoned, but never at home for lunch. I guess our version of an uncooked lunch would be slicing a selection of cold meats, some crusty bread, some cheeses, grapes and pears, and a nice bottle of wine. Not exactly the same thing, is it?
I've been told that most families adopt this rule of thumb: one cooked meal a day (usually dinner...), the rest is a filler. I have also been told that this is because two cooked meals are somewhat heavy to deal with for your digestive system (!!!). But then they go on holiday to the south of Spain and eat themselves to a stupor and drink themselves out of it (they do that even back home though... Drinking I mean...). So I have found another explanation: pure and unapologetic laziness. Eating out of a packet is more convenient that an hour spent slaving over a hot stove. Full stop.
Most people in UK are only now starting to develop an 'eating culture' that is on the same level with their european counterparts.
This thing affects every aspect of their lives: from the campaign to ban crap foods from schools, to the promotion of healthy eating habits (that includes the removal of the morning 'fry-up' in favour of a more balanced continental breakfast...).
Ever since Gabriel abandoned the bottle for solid food, I have been cooking my arse off, as I never relied on potted baby-food.
I admit, I did try it, knowing only too well that when traveling, one must be able to fall back on more practical options than a bag filled with a selection of tupperware stuffed with home-made mini meals.... I carry already an insane amount of luggage when traveling backwards and forwards to Italy, as I cannot downsize for the life of me, so the extra suitcase to carry His Royal Highness’ food-on-the-go really grates on me.
The problem is that, as I insist in tasting EVERYTHING Gabriel is expected to eat, I found most of the pre-made baby foods horrible.
Some of them are too strong in flavour (like, once I had a spoonful of this ‘chicken, tomato and peppers’ risotto and ended up burping up peppers for a day....Not good...), some others are much too bland (I know that salt is a no-no, but the flavour of the ingredients ideally should still be there). Generally speaking, when it’s potted to last on a shelf without refrigeration, you know that it isn’t going to taste like anything you would cook when sober and that there’s going to be something inside you wont normally use in the kitchen.
Result: Gabriel never liked pre-made food. Hence my refrigerator being always stuffed to the brim with pre-portioned home-cooked meals (lentils, beans in sauce, vegetable broths, beef ragout, chicken stock, baby-sized meatballs....). How do I do it? Here are some examples.
One of my favourite ways to stock up on good pasta sauce, is to make a good quantity of it, wait for it to cool down, then pour it into several ice-cube trays, freeze the lot and then break it up inside a freezer-bag, ready to be used as each two cubes provide the right amount of sauce for any pasta/rice dish, and they don’t take much room in the freezer.
I do the same for chicken or beef stock, vegetable purees or even minced cooked meat to add to any dish I might want to make, just to ensure Gabriel gets his meat-proteins.
Sometimes I might make a really scrumptious roast with potatoes and mixed roasted vegetables and, as Gabriel is still refusing to chew meat (although he happily chews on everything else...), I just set aside a little bit of everything and blend it into a soft puree that goes extremely well as a dip for toasted bread or as a sauce for a pasta dish. And it tastes awesome!
He also likes polenta (see the pictures? In Italy we spread the polenta over an old wooden board and we sit around the table eating directly from it... Like a proper tribe-feast!) and meatballs, but they have to be soft, so I always blend the raw mince to make it finer and mix in a little white bread soaked in milk or a boiled potato before making the meatballs (I also mix in an egg yolk, some mortadella and some parmesan cheese.... He loves them!!).
More often than not, he sits down to a good healthy lunch whilst I do away with a bowl of cereal (only because I hate to cook for myself.....) and to see him munch down his food, it gives me such satisfaction!!
Obviously, when Gabriel is in a ‘not-eating’ phase (teething, general moody behaviour, dislike of his food), it destroys me psychologically, as I start seeing him shrinking and wasting away.... This is the italian mamma creeping out of my subconscious, the same mamma that would happily tie you to a chair and force-feed you until she is satisfied that you have eaten enough.
Hey, It's in my DNA. I'm working on it ok?
I learnt that if he does not want to eat his lunch, rather than have a nervous breakdown, I will have to wait until he is hungry, and he’ll come around gagging for a spoonful of risotto...
I also learnt that paranoia is very much part of any nurturing parent.
Ok, maybe only to a degree, but you know what I mean. Right?
And I learnt that just because I am a crusader for home-cooked meals, it does not mean that my child will grow up eating absolutely everything.... He is in fact turning out to be a fussy eater (when both me and my husband are definitely NOT!). But for me it's important to make him understand the culture behind food and the importance of sitting at the table with the family without underestimating the fun to be had cooking it with papà!
In our fast-paced society, food is becoming a sort of 'pit-stop and refuel' type of thing. It's loosing its cultural importance and ritualistic value. Preparing food for someone it's first and foremost an act of love. It's the oldest and simplest gesture that says "I care about you...". I have many happy memories of me standing on a kitchen chair, looking at my mum mixing up ingredients or chopping stuff. I remember the sheer excitement for a special meal that I might have helped to prepare... Sometimes when I cook, the smells take me back right there, in that small kitchen in Italy, filled with strawberries in may and mushrooms in october. This is a piece of home I carry with me no matter what and it's an inheritance I want to transmit to my son.
We do what we can to give our kids the absolute best of everything, but ultimately it will be up to their little personalities to determine what they are going to hang on to.
And there is always psychological blackmail to bend them into shape, so he better polish the plate tonight!!