Time to stop stressing about mealtimes?

I feel sad for myself and for Kitty when I think about how clumsily I approached her weaning. I was still so overwrought, confused, tired and strung out by the time Kitty reached weaning age that the thought of fussing about during Kitty’s precious naptimes with an assortment of vegetable purees, which she might or might not eat, made me feel quite ill.

So I fed her rusk mashed up with milk and mixed it with those fruity Ella’s pouches. I often attempted to give her the vegetable pouches too, but she wasn’t that crazy about them. But that is what she ate for weeks and weeks – rusk and milk, Ella’s fruity pouches. Nothing really wrong with that, but food you make yourself is lovely – it’s delicious. But I, personally, couldn’t face making it for her because I was just too crushed by it all.

Lazy! Lazy and selfish! I wish I could spend an hour with that old me, shake my shoulders, maybe give me a smart slap with one or two baby food cookbooks.

Lazy! Lazy and selfish! I wish I could spend an hour with that old me

I also didn’t know how much Kitty was supposed to eat. I compared her, endlessly, with other children – often with my ravenous nephews, who would suck down plates of pasta like they were soup, crunching through apples and sandwiches and pints of milk like waste disposal units.

I would sit for an hour, coaxing Kitty to eat just one more spoonful of this or that. Please, I would think, please, please just eat this.

Then I read a book called My Child Won’t Eat!, by a Spanish nutritionist called Carlos Gonzalez, and it changed my life.

First of all, it completely re-calibrated my idea of how much, and what, Kitty was eating. The horror stories of children who refused to eat anything for days, lost weight, went yellow or bruised at the slightest touch, made me realise that Kitty’s diet was entirely fine. She ate a bit of this, a bit of that. Some things she wouldn’t countenance, but other things she would surprise me by trying. She was not constipated, or underweight, or constantly exhausted, or a funny colour.

She was thriving and I hadn’t even noticed.

‘Stop making mealtimes a stress!’ said the book. Relax! No child will starve itself. Give your child the opportunity to be hungry at mealtimes by not stuffing them – out of anxiety – full of crackers between meals. You say when meals are and what meals are, but the child says how much. What matters is that fruit and vegetables are always or nearly always offered, not that they are always eaten or finished.

After I read the book I felt like I was flying. I felt released from the crushing burden of failing to feed my child the requisite amounts of spinach and kale. I hugged this information to myself. I was released, set free. I felt as relieved as I did when I stopped trying to breastfeed. I fell to my knees, palms turned in suicidal supplication to the sky, and I gave thanks for this mercy.

With my second child, Sam, born two years and three months after Kitty, I might as well have been a different person. My expectations from my life were so different. I did not – I do not – require several hours to myself to sit on the sofa and stare at the wall in blank horror at what my life has become.

Even if I have been kept awake the night before, there is too much to do. And I don’t mind doing it, now. When I had Kitty I couldn’t believe how often I was expected to cook. Now I am just so grateful that I’ve got all the correct stuff – plenty of chopping boards and knives, really sharp speed-peelers, a hand blender. When there is a quiet moment in the house I do not sit and stare, I put on my apron and start chopping, cooking and blending.

As soon as Sam required weaning I reached for two popular and sensible baby food recipe books and I methodically went through the purees to find ones that he liked. Baby-led weaning was not an option. This boy was starving and I just needed to funnel food into his tummy – milk was not enough. First time around, these books had freaked me out with their fussy little amounts – 40g of this and 120g of that. Now I looked upon them as my saviour. I didn’t have to think! Just do what it says here.

Then I chopped, cooked and blended … chopped, cooked and blended

Then I chopped, cooked and blended … chopped, cooked and blended … chopped, cooked and blended. I bought more storage pots and a special pen to write on the pots what was inside. Then I chopped and cooked and blended. Again, again, again. Repeat. Again.

And Sam responded, opening his gob for food. More, more, more! He was like a sideshow at a circus. Watch the enormous monster baby eat! Down went another spoonful, and another, and another! All sorts of different permutations of vegetable, a fish one, a chicken one, a beef one, macaroni cheese made with microscopic little flower-shaped pasta bits …

It’s nothing I did to make him such a dustbin; he’s just a big boy and hungry all the time. But I do sometimes wonder if I did Kitty a disservice by not approaching her weaning in the same way.

  • This extract is taken from Esther Walker’s new book Bad Mother. We’re going to be serialising it over the next few weeks but if you can’t wait for the next instalment, buy and download the whole book here

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