There I was, at the breakfast table a few days ago. A newspaper sat in one hand; freshly-marmaladed toast in the other. My wife was upstairs; our infant son, William, was playing somewhere on the floor. And the Today programme jabbered away in the background. It was, to those of a bourgeois persuasion, a picture-perfect scene of domestic bliss.
Then disaster struck. Realising, with a parental sixth sense, that something wasn't quite right, I looked up. My child was not in his usual place. Neither were his toys. Instead, strange, gurgling sounds were coming from a corner of the kitchen. And there, when I finally clocked him, sat William. He was scoffing the contents of the dog's bowl.
Top breeders recommend Pedigree Chum. But child nutritionists? Not so much. By the time I intervened, my boy had ingested several handfuls of canine biscuits. And a third of a tin of dog food, which had been sitting in the bowl a few minutes earlier, had vanished. His breath smelt like it might belong to an elderly Labrador.
Disaster is a strong word. But in the world of yuppie parentdom, where the toddler's diet is sacrosanct, several massive taboos had just been broken. The dog food wasn't organic, for starters. It wasn't particularly healthy, either. And goodness knows what germs were lurking in that metal bowl. But William didn't care. As I pondered the full horror of the situation, he looked up, and laughed.
So it goes in the daily saga of infant cuisine. While mums and dads obsess over their infant's dietary health, forking out small fortunes for thimble-sized jars of puréed vegetables, young children have a curious tendency to stick a metaphorical two fingers up at us: scoffing dirt, or sand, or yummy handfuls of dog food. We want them to learn table manners, and grow up to enjoy exotic food. They want to throw edible things around.
After extensive conversations with my peers, I have come to a considered conclusion: feeding a child of between six months and four years old is a bloody nightmare. At best, it will cause tantrums, ruin expensive clothes, and spatter decomposing food across your kitchen surfaces. At worst, it turns your kitchen table into a simmering emotional battleground.
William, at the tender age of 15 months, is a case in point. During his short lifetime, my wife and I have devoted countless hours to trying to make him eat 'proper'. From the start, it has been a trying and expensive affair. Shortly after he was born, to avert a nipple-related crisis in the breast-feeding department, we took him to a 'lactation consultant'. These people are all the rage in Los Angeles, where we currently live. Her fee was $130 an hour.
That was just the beginning. When William began eating 'solids', which he still consumes in tandem with daily breastfeeds, we bought into another expensive fad: making your own baby food. At an upmarket kitchen shop I bought a machine to automatically steam and purée child-sized portions of grub, for the princely sum of $200. Roughly a month after we'd got it, William came to a decision: he didn't like steamed and puréed baby food. The $200 machine now sits unused, in a cupboard.
William has meanwhile grown into what people call a fussy eater. At the table, he rejects more than he eats, often taking a mouthful before spitting it out and smearing the resulting sludge across his face and hair. And there is no method to his fussiness: one day he might scoff, say, fish pie; the next he'll throw the exact same pie away, jollifying our magnolia kitchen wall in the process. Some days he'll eat avocado; others not. Boiled eggs always get squashed into small lumps in his hands; only sometimes are they also eaten. For reasons I've never been able to establish, the only things he'll never reject are still-frozen peas, or lumps of cheese. Attempting to supplement those staples with beetroot, berries, or anything else that might stain requires protective overalls.
Eating out has become an expensive gamble. If we're really, really lucky, he'll sleep through the whole thing. If he doesn't, it will take roughly 30 minutes for him to demand, forcefully, to be allowed to get down from the table and raise hell. Whatever happens, maître'ds usually greet the arrival of a child's buggy with an expression of Gallic contempt. In fact, Juliette Joffe, the founder of the child-friendly restaurant chain Giraffe, puts its success (she now has around 40 outlets) down to the failure of rivals to make even basic provisions for families. "It's not hard to smile at kids, or give them a balloon and some crayons to play with at the table, but you'd be surprised how few places do it."
On a more serious note, William's eating habits recently came to the attention of his doctor, who advised us that his current weight puts him in one of the "bottom percentiles". No self-respecting parent wants a child in the "bottom percentiles". It is a Yuppie taboo. Upon hearing news of this sobering diagnosis from my wife, Katie, I decided upon a radical course of action: we called in Jo Frost.
Jo is the formidable figure better known as TV's Supernanny, who popularised such child-rearing devices as the naughty step. Her disciplinary catchphrases include gems such as "You've been a very, very naughty boy!" or "This behaviour is unacceptable!". And she likes to wag her finger a lot. Each week, dressed in Mary Poppins regalia, she arrives on a fresh doorstep to cure some hapless family's child-rearing woes. She has never knowingly been defeated. In her Biblically-comprehensive new book, Jo Frost's Confident Toddler Care, she asserts that there's no such thing as a fussy eater.
Jo listened to our woes for 45 minutes. Then she issued a series of pronouncements. Picky eating, she said, was a mere surface problem; the root cause of William's current dietary difficulties was that he was still being breastfed. In fact, she argued, my wife's breasts had become a sort of substitute pacifier for him. And his obsession with their milk prevented him from being interested in 'proper' food.
As soon as possible, we should therefore wean him, she advised. After that, we should work to build the foundation of successful feeding habits: a strict daily eating timetable revolving around three meals, at regular times, with no more than two snacks in between them. Toddlers are creatures of routine. If you let them miss a meal, they will make up for it by chowing down a snack shortly afterwards. That will ruin their appetite for the next meal. And so a vicious circle is created.
At each meal, infants should be given organic puréed dishes, along with side-servings of fresh finger food, such as chopped-up carrots, or apples. The former teaches them about complex flavours. The latter helps develop fine motor skills, and affords a teething child the relief of chewing. Needless to say, the less processed the food they eat, the better.
Once regular mealtimes are established, Jo says, the next big trick is persuading your child to eat things that he or she at first rejects. This requires endless patience – more than you think. Too many modern parents, Jo says, respond to a meal being refused by offering the toddler an alternative snack. Instead, they should persevere; if necessary, we could even let William go hungry rather than filling him up with peas, or lumps of cheese.
"I don't see this as tough love," she explained. "Tough love is when your 16-year-old child tells you they're on heroin and you lock them in a room. This is simply about being a parent who is trying to do an important job right. You are trying to create healthy eating habits that will stay with him for life. When he comes to you with those big puppy-dog eyes, you need to be firm, and tell him he can't always eat what he wants."
If necessary, she added, parents shouldn't shy away from being stern at mealtimes. There is nothing wrong, she believes, with taking food a child has just spat out, and putting it right back in their mouth ("Let him realise you are doing what's best"). Neither should we be afraid of ticking William off when he throws food around ("He might not be speaking yet, but he will understand you from the tone of your voice").
This all sounded a bit tough, so I decided in the interests of balance to seek a second opinion. Nick Coffer is the author of a cookbook called 'My Daddy Cooks', and the presenter of a BBC radio show called Weekend Kitchen in which, among other things, he endorses a technique known as 'baby-led weaning'. This basically involves sharing all your meals with a toddler, from a very early age, and allowing them to eat whatever they fancy.
At six o'clock each evening, Coffer, his wife, Jo, three-year-old son Archie, and eight-month-old daughter Matilda therefore sit down for dinner. The children are presented with exactly the same culinary options as their parents. If a child refuses some of the items on their plate, he doesn't react; human instinct will naturally lead them to a balanced diet, provided the right foods are presented to them, he believes. If a child doesn't want to eat at all, he is equally relaxed, pointing out that few children allow themselves to become severely malnourished.
"I hate the term fussy eating, because toddlers are fussy full stop. That's what they do. They are asserting their will and independence about everything. They are going to be fussy whatever. But I don't call it fussy; I call it normal, and I don't let myself get bothered by it," he said. "I don't want him to feel he has the power to wind us up over food. So I don't react to whether they will or will not eat. Mealtimes only becomes a battleground if parents fight a battle."
There's some sense to this. And Coffer believes that parental concerns over toddler eating habits may be at the root of adult psychological problems. "I don't want to create neuroses around food. There is evidence that eating disorders have their roots in the first year of life, and if you are stressed out about food that will rub off on your child."
His approach is a useful counterbalance to the sterner Supernanny approach (though the most effective technique probably lies somewhere between the two). If nothing else, it has made him the envy of his foodie friends. "Archie turns his nose up at mature cheddar, but he will eat absolutely heaps of 13-month-old Parmigiano reggiano," he proudly informed me, adding: "I have a home video of Archie at 15 months using chopsticks". Little Matilda, meanwhile, enjoys pizza and Sunday roasts. At eight months! Say what you like, but in the maddening world of toddler nutrition, that probably beats dog food.