Photo: Lis Parsons
What makes Italian food so family-friendly?
Children need and love carbs. And there’s something very traditional and flexible about Italian food. On the one hand, a lot of Italian food is very quick to make, and on the other hand, there’s a lot of old, rustic recipes, which are indeed slow, but require less effort. And I think that suits a family. I’ve relied quite heavily on Italian food ever since the children were very little. I used to go to Italian delicatessens and get all of the little baby pasta shapes, which are charming, and they would always eat those. When they were teeny, when I was giving them their first solid foods, I often used to find that if I added a bit of pesto, they’d eat anything. Also, my children like minestrone, and if I put all of those vegetables separately on the table for supper, they wouldn’t really eat them. Italian cooking makes the sort of food children will not eat palatable and cozy. Pizza is a good case in point. You can put anything on pizza, and children really enjoy making pizza and having their own. And, generally speaking, the way to help children eat as many different foods as possible is to involve them in the preparation beforehand.
Are your kids picky eaters?
The more children you have, the harder it is to find common ground with the things they will and will not eat. My daughter is less of a picky eater now than she was, but still a bit. They’re not enormously picky eaters, but they have likes and dislikes. But also, I was brought up in such an old-fashioned way that you had to sit and eat everything, whether you liked it or not, and I would never do that. I think it’s fine not to like things, though I do want everyone to try, and some days, they like things more than others. You may want to put enough effort into feeding your children so you feel happy with what you’ve done, but if they don’t like what you’ve made and you’ve put too much effort in, the stress is too much and it causes tension.
How do you get kids to eat well?
I’m always amazed about how many adults complain about their children’s eating without realizing that the way they eat themselves has an impact on that. I used to do an awful lot of, “No, you can’t have any of my broccoli, it’s Mummy’s.” And then, of course, they want it. But they eat what they need, and therefore turning mealtimes into an issue is a recipe for disaster. My father always said, “Children learn by example, not by precepts.” And if you eat lovely food that you’ve taken care of and you show that it matters to you, they grow up with those values. It doesn’t mean to say they have to take them all on-board at every stage of their development, but it becomes ingrained. For example, my daughter doesn’t like fish. And yet, sometimes when I’m making fish, because my husband doesn’t eat meat, she’ll say, “Oh, Mum; I really hate that, but you’ve made it look so nice, and if I ate fish, I’d want to eat that.” And she will do it someday, probably. But it’s very difficult to be too prescriptive, because each child is different. My children are not mad on herbs, which they still call green bits. But they do love my Pasta Risotto with Peas & Pancetta. So occasionally, I can start experimenting with maybe putting a bit of thyme in it or a bit of basil. Because it’s a familiar recipe, it allows for a certain amount of experimentation, and it’s a way of introducing small changes in a safe environment for children. Now that they’re older, I let them take turns for meal requests and I think that’s nice because they’ll say things like, “Mum, you’ve really surpassed yourself this time.” I don’t know if they’re being patronizing or not, but still, my idea of having a lovely time is a child sitting, talking to me while I cook. That’s probably how they learn to cook.
Is that how you learned to cook?
Well, I learned to cook because my mother forced me into it at a very early age. So I do cook with my children sometimes, but I don’t say, “Right, your job is to do this, and your job is to do that.”
Do you have anything you are a stickler about with family food?
I’m afraid to say I’m very anti-ketchup. I can’t help it. It’s an English thing. I will let them have it with what we call chips. And I’ve also never brought up my children to drink juice. I run a very austere ship and it’s water only. I’m not pro fake food, however, my children do like junk food. So although I don’t buy it for them, I wouldn’t ever make a big deal about them getting it themselves, because why make it a point of rebellion? Because the reality is everyone likes a little junkie something from time to time, but if it’s not the main plank of their diet, it’s not harmful. And also, what you want to worry about is making food such an issue that children then get eating disorders. Also, table manners are important, like, “No texting at the table.”
Is that for all family members?
Yes, although sometimes, because I tweet what we're eating, they say to me, "But you are." They have a point.