Working Parents: Give me fish fingers - again and again ...

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The Independent Culture
I approach Sunday teatime in our household with a mixture of apprehension and mistrust. By the end of the weekend, patience with my children's eating habits is wearing thin. My eldest son, aged five, is gearing up for his pre-tea whinge about my cooking. Most of his meal will end up in the bin, and I'm secretly looking forward to someone else suffering this ritual during the week, when I am at work.

Every parent, working or otherwise, knows that a mountain of time and food gets wasted every day by their offspring, but one ingredient I have resolved not to waste any longer is my imagination. Like many a caring parent before me I fell into the trap of buying toddler recipe books, but these days the only use they fulfil is to prop up my shaky kitchen table. A quick browse through the cookery and childcare section of any bookstore will testify to a growing demand for children's recipes, offering parents perfectly balanced five-minute meals, and also the kind of seven-days-a-week gourmet menu no child could possibly resist.

Certainly a close examination of the ingredients used in one of the more popular cookbooks, Annabel Karmel's The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner (Ebury Press, pounds 9.99), does make you wonder about the pockets and the endurance of the families she used as guinea-pigs. It may have sold more than 250,000 copies since it was first published in 1991, but it takes a well-heeled and determined mother to prepare lemon sole with mushrooms and tomatoes, or vegetable salad with raspberry vinegar. Little surprise, then, that parents and nannies alike may take one glance at the recipes and fall back on old faithfuls like shepherd's pie and chicken nuggets.

Our nanny, Michelle Duffy, who looks after three children aged between two and five, feels that books such as the Baby and Toddler Meal Planner have limited use. "If you're trying to dream up puree recipes for babies they are valuable, but that's about it. When children reach toddler stage they become more fussy, and there simply isn't time to prepare complicated meals if you look after several children of different ages. If I want to borrow ideas from a book, the ingredients have to be things I can pick up in my local supermarket on a budget."

A straw poll of her nanny friends draws a similar response, though many nannies feel pressurised by their employers to demonstrate culinary skills the parents themselves seem to lack. Dr Margaret Lawson, a consultant dietician at Great Ormond Street Hospital, acted as an adviser to Annabel Karmel and defends books such as hers as a way of showing people new ways to produce balanced meals. But she agrees that parents shouldn't feel pressured into cooking exotic foods. "It's important that children eat with someone else during the day ... but there's no point forcing them to eat food that they don't like."

For working parents, though, eating together isn't always an option, and there's the guilty suspicion that their children might like a wider variety of foods if they ate together as a family each evening. Even at weekends, the spicy, cosmopolitan foods enjoyed by many grown-ups get the thumbs down from their offspring. Margaret Lawson says, however, that many children start out liking bland food and change later on. "Babies from ethnic groups where the food is spicy are often weaned late, and there is evidence that all children are highly sensitive to taste and can detect smaller quantities of flavours than we can. They will become more sophisticated as they grow older, as long as you offer them the choice."

Who's in charge of what your children eat? You, them, or their carer?

Kathy Harvey considers special recipes for tricky toddlers.

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