My thoughts on the brilliant book “First Bite” by Bee Wilson

My thoughts on the brilliant book “First Bite” by Bee Wilson

If you struggle with food issues or have a child who is a fussy eater, Bee Wilson’s book First Bite is definitely for you… 

When I first read about Bee Wilson’s “First Bite – How We Learn to Eat”, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. As someone who cooks with children for a living, a mother to two young kids and a person who definitely struggles with “food guilt” I was completely fascinated by this book. It certainly didn’t disappoint. Backed up by a mind-boggling amount of research, Wilson carefully picks apart the deep complexities of our relationship to food and eating, and convincingly makes the argument that poor eating habits in children and adults can and should be changed for the better.

The book begins by outlining how what and the way we are fed in very early childhood can determine how we relate to food for the rest of our lives. I have always felt the weight of responsibility when feeding my own children (2 and 4), but I admit I hadn’t quite realised the extent to which I am influencing the dietary choices they will make for the rest of their lives. This led me to think back to my own relationship to food. I admit I am one of those annoying people Wilson refers to who would prefer to eat a salad than a burger, and who believes that a meal isn’t complete without something green on the plate. But I do love anything sweet and can’t get through a day without chocolate (interestingly a trait my mother and grandmother both share). The strange thing is that for someone who is so obsessed with food now, I don’t have that many food memories and my parents certainly aren’t foodies. But what I do remember is that my mum usually cooked from scratch, we always ate veg with every meal and I was never denied the occasional sweet treat. After reading First Bite, I have concluded that it was these three simple practices that have imbued me with the relatively healthy attitude towards food that I have now.

The Guardian’s review of First Bite stated that the sections on coping with fussy kids are the least compelling because the contents are obvious. But if that were true, why are so many parents struggling? Right at the end of the book Wilson writes that the message from eating disorder therapists is “that nourishing, health giving family meals, eaten in loving company, are so important for a child’s wellbeing that everything else in life must be made secondary to them” (p.301). This line made me sit up in bed and shout “EXACTLY!” out loud. Yet parents ask me all the time how to tackle their child’s fussy eating habits. Here are the main points I took away from Wilson’s extensive research on the subject:

1. Familiarity equals comfort. Fussy eaters are born of a narrow diet, which gradually becomes more restricted as the list of “safe” foods becomes smaller. Start and continue with as varied a diet as possible so a child is being confronted by new foods on a regular basis. (This is where being able to cook is so helpful.)

2. The old school approach of making children sit and finish everything on their plate (or even force feeding) doesn’t work and can lead to many more problems later on. Wilson says that what is known as the “authoritative” approach to feeding your children leads to the healthiest relationship to food in adulthood. Boiled down this means that the parent should be “warm but in control”. As long as what is offered is healthy and nutritious, at mealtimes the parent is only responsible for “what, when and where”. The child decides “how much and whether” (p.182).

3. If you comfort a child with sugary treats, they will take this habit with them into adulthood.

4. Try not to make an issue of eating and mealtimes. Wilson says the key is to create a “relaxed and healthy feeding environment” (p.182).

Of course these tips are all well and good if you are just starting to wean a baby or want to continue good practice with older children, but what if you’re struggling with a child who is already an extreme fussy eater? Wilson recommends the “Tiny Tastes” technique, which involves presenting the child with a tiny portion (no bigger than a grain of rice) of a certain food, and building up from there (see p.59 – 61 for more information). But the most important advice seems to be to try and change the “food atmosphere” from a stressed and angry one to a happy and relaxed one.

Wilson illustrates how essential it is to address fussy eating in childhood by describing some extraordinary cases of adults with “feeding disorders”; people whose fussy eating has never been effectively dealt with leaving them living on an incredibly restricted diet of just a couple of “safe foods”, sometimes only bread and crisps. In reality I doubt there are many people who can claim to have no food issues at all. We seem to be stuck in a vicious cycle of “unhappy eating” (p.265) as Wilson calls it. Too often there is a constant war waged in our thoughts; I’m too fat, I’m too thin, I’m hungry, I’ve eaten too much, I should have eaten this, I shouldn’t have eaten that etc. We need to get off this hamster wheel, and as Wilson so brilliantly sums it up, “make our peace with food” (p.270).

I said at the beginning that I don’t actually have very many food memories from childhood. But what I do remember clearly is that I was always encouraged to cook from a very young age, and loved cooking as a child. I honestly believe this is what has stood me in such good stead for the last thirty odd years. To offer your child a varied diet from the start, a parent needs to know about different ingredients and how to cook with them. They will then pass this on to their own children and so it continues. For centuries this was the way it worked, until in the midst of cheap convenience foods and supermarkets we lost this tradition and now find ourselves in the middle of an obesity epidemic. But as Wilson says individuals and indeed entire nations can change the way they eat. If you’re a parent, an adult battling with lifelong food and/or weight issues or just a keen cook (so basically that’s almost everyone) I urge you to read this book. It will change your attitude to the food you eat (and the way you eat it) for good.

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