Hattie Garlick: Why I didn't spend any money on my son in 2013

  • By
    Hattie Garlick - Journalist and writer

Hattie Garlick didn’t spend an additional penny on her son for an entire year. Discover her honest account of why she did it and how she got on…

Toddler in shopping trolley

Here’s a true story for you. Not so long ago, I watched a group of primary school children visiting a city farm. They cowered in horror as a goose waddled towards them. All except for one, bold little girl who strode stockily towards it, extended a chubby finger and shouted: “Oh my God! It’s a giraffe!”

At the beginning of last year, my two year old may not have been quite that out of touch with the places his food came from, but he wasn’t so far off.  Food, his food anyway, came from brightly coloured plastic. Lunch emerged from boxes with a celebrity chef’s face on it (fish fingers with added omegas for growing brains) or cartoon characters emblazoned over them (organic ready meals, fully balanced and with ‘hidden’ vegetables). Snacks were individually encased in shiny foil packets or tiny boxes. Drinks came from throw-away pouches or cartons. It was costing him any true understanding of food sources, and costing me a small fortune too.

I wasn’t alone in feeding him this way. Apparently, infant ready meals were so rare in 2006 that they didn’t even qualify as an industry category in the UK. Five years later, they were worth £25.8 million and estimated to be growing by nearly 25% every year.

Why? It’s a question I was to probe repeatedly as I made a new year’s resolution to see if I could cut out all spending on kiddy products for an entire year. Which would prove necessary, or even just helpful to the modern family and which would prove superfluous? By using websites like Freecycle and swapping clothes and toys instead of buying anything new, barring expensive activities and – yes – kiddy foods too … they all went out of the window.

At each meal, I decided, I would cook just one dish  - one that adults and child alike could eat and enjoy. Or that was the theory. In reality, food was one of my biggest worries. My husband and I both work hard in order to pay the bills that pile up alarmingly fast on the doormat. Time is in short supply. So when we started to wean our son Johnny as a baby, it seemed so much easier to pick up some pouches of organic moosh from the supermarket. Why spend precious time toiling over a sweet potato puree when he was likely to smear it into the carpet anyway?

Fast forward a year and a half and we were relying on supermarket products for almost every situation: sweet treats to whip out of handbags and avert tantrums on the train; ready meals to sneak vegetables into him at supper time; snacks to forestall hunger as the ready meal heated up…

And don’t get me wrong- some of these products were great. Many were organic, some actually did achieve the unachievable and sneak the occasional vegetable into him. And yeah - I missed them sorely in the early days of my experiment. When Johnny refused to try a single spoonful of samosa or flung his fiorentina on the floor, for example, I thought there was a genuine chance he might starve or at the very least develop some Victorian disease… rickets perhaps?

Why was I such a weed, so lacking in confidence? An industry report I stumbled across online boasted that: “the 54% of parents who regularly cook could be persuaded to purchase manufactured products by marketing the fresh and natural nature of ingredients in baby food products.” But in April, the story hit the newsstands that babies may in fact need to eat twice as much shop-bought food to get the same energy and protein as meals cooked at home. The study, from the department of human nutrition at the University of Glasgow, said many weaning foods "would not serve the intended purpose" of giving a baby extra nutrients or a range of tastes and textures. Somehow, we modern parents have been conned into thinking that faceless food companies can provide better for our children than us.

Gradually, I also began to question whether these ‘convenience’ products were really saving me that much time either. Sure, they were faster than making two entirely separate meals from scratch – one for the adults and one for the boy. But as our experiment began to work better, and I discovered more recipes we could all enjoy together, I realised how much less time I was spending in the kitchen.

I might make a vat of tomato sauce on Sunday night. We’ll eat in on pasta on Monday, add mince and eat Bolognese on Tuesday, add a mashed potato top to some and have a shepherd’s pie on Wednesday, then add kidney beans for a (not too spicy) chilli con-carne on Thursday.

I cannot tell a lie. I would love to say that Johnny’s eating habits have been transformed. That he is now an informed gourmand with a sophisticated palate. But, well, three year olds don’t work that way. He still refuses to eat some of the more adventurous dishes my husband and I would enjoy. And so there have been compromises. We adults now eat more simply too. There are occasional days (days when deadlines loom, noses are snotty, or nights have been nightmarish) when we all have fish fingers and beans for supper.

And, of course, there have been tantrums along the way. Major tantrums. He still has days when he refuses to co-operate. The difference is that it matters less. I haven’t spent any extra, precious pounds on what’s in front of him, and since it was meant for my husband and I too, I can take a deep breath, shrug, and… take it back into the kitchen. Either he changes his mind (as happens 90% of the time) or I wolf it down myself for lunch.

I think the more relaxed atmosphere is good for him and his table manners. I’m pretty sure it’s good for my health too - because the meal I’m cooking for the grown-ups is now for Johnny too, I am more conscientious about filling them full of good things.  It’s definitely better for our bank balance – according to my scribbled sums, we saved at least £600 last year on food alone. All of which is certainly good for my sanity too. Oh, and last but not least: my nails, which are now far, far less bitten.

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Keen to feed the family as one? BBC Good Food nutritionist, Kerry Torrens, shares her top tips for healthy family meals...

Sitting down together as a family and sharing the same meal is a great way to develop healthy eating habits from an early age. Choosing the right recipes will certainly help promote positive attitudes to eating well so there is no reason why recipes shouldn’t be shared with your children. That said there are some important things to remember when cooking for adults and little ones alike:

  • You will of course need to adapt the portion size depending on the age, sex, size and activity levels of your little ones
  • It's best to avoid strong flavours and recipes which require added salt when feeding young children
  • Small tummies can't manage the same amount of fibre as adults so reduce the portion of whole grains such as whole-wheat pasta, buckwheat noodles, brown rice etc. so your child still has room for good sources of protein like meat, fish and dairy as well as veggies and fruit
  • Don't forget that children under 2 years need full fat milk and dairy foods rather than low fat / skimmed versions.

For more guidance check out nhs.co.uk.

Are you a fan of Hattie's methods or do infant-focused foods have their place? We would love to hear your thoughts...

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ijacobs311's picture

I am a Food Scientist,and we are a family of 5,which includes three small boys aged 1,5 and 7.In South Africa,ready-meals,especially good ones for children are very,very expensive.so I make all our and their meals from scratch,every day!At one point I had to cook 3 different meals every evening (!!!),but I am now down to 1 or 2 (they don't like anything very spicy).And if its too late for the elder two to eat with us,I put their portions in the fridge for dinner the next evening!I also use my slow cooker a lot,make lots of one-pan dishes in the oven that is just an assembly job while I get on with other things ( like bathtime and making sandwiches for school the next day!), and do batch-cooking over the weekends.Luckily I love cooking,so that helps a lot-and it definately saves time and money.

loona-marie's picture

My now adult 3 children were from day one of weaning given the same foods as I cooked and ate from fresh. The mistake made by many new parents make is that they think turning away or spitting out food means they do not like what is in front of them. Not true, they just need time to get used to new flavours and textures. Give them time to get used to it and don't feel guilty. My three still find new foods an adventure.

sophiemavin's picture

I whole heartedly agree with the comments posted and the article. Our first son was born in 2002 in Gran Canaria and the only ready meals for babies was apple sauce and baby cereal. Fortunately I didn't return to work until he started school at 3 years old so I did have the time to cook & puree his food and freeze enough to last him a week or two. He grew up eating the same as us and will now pretty much try anything (he's 11 now). When our youngest son was born in 2008 there were more baby ready meals in the shops but I very rarely bought them. I worked full-time (and still do) but still managed to batch cook sauces, veggies, fruits, etc at weekends and freeze them. I didn't and still don't have a problem with feeding them ready meals every now and then but there is no substitute for home-cooked food in my opinion. All companies who make and market food aimed at babies and children are obviously going to hype up their benefits to make parents dig deeper into their pockets. It's a lot quicker to grab a pot off a supermarket shelf than to stand in the kitchen preparing "real" food. However, it really is worth it.

mother_ship's picture

My kids were born pre-2006 and so the kiddy ready meals weren't available, I also love cooking and worked part-time, their Dad gets home from work at a sensible time so we all eat together sitting up at the table. When they were tiny I pureed everything under the sun and when they were older I made one meal for all of us. My son didn't have a chicken nugget until he was 7 and having tea at a friend's house. So I did it all, I followed all the rules, didn't I?

Where did I go wrong? What else could I have done? I still ended up with a couple of fussy eaters. They don't even like potatoes, for goodness sake, and for one of them that includes chips! Now that's just weird, in my book.

So to all you parents of younger children I just want to say, do your best, but don't beat yourself up about the odd ready meal and even your best may not be enough to inoculate your offspring from being fussy eaters. I swear my son will get scurvy when he leaves home and I'm not making him eat his 5 a day! ;-)

debbieafw's picture

I have never cooked a meal for my kids only, I have four, I am very busy working mother. The only exception is when they have friends over. I have had children who like only a specific brand of pizza, when i have cooked my own. A child who would only eat white bread and strawberry jam ( with no bits). Another only potatoes and gravy ( a little better , I admit). Parents are amazed when my children eat everything. My parents generation (born in the 40's) never cooked separately for children, why do parents now? I cannot understand how it started. Too many working mums I think, don't get me wrong, I work, I often get up at 6.30 and put a stew in the slow cooker if its an activity evening, but it is exhausting. On my exhausted evenings it's pasta or a stir fry.
Young parents have lost the ability to cook, good food really have a converted audience or they wouldn't be selling so many magazines. I am trying to convert my children's school and giving cookery classes on a friday . I miss lunch and drive straight to class! It's very rewarding and many kids have taken up the home economics option in secondary school that may not have. It's still optional in Ireland!

rhymsie82's picture

The first food my daughter ever tasted on her dummy as a 5 month old was Thai Green Curry - the paste was home made. She loved it. She has always been a "good eater".
From 6 months onwards we started to ween her on a mixture of home made food (what me and my husband ate) and some of those pouches. When I got used to making the food at the consistency she like, I stopped buying the meal pouches all together. I still used to buy the fruit ones because, like you said, they're handy for journeys in the car and occasional bribes (about 80p in Aldi!)
She's now nearly 3 and I don't hold back on letting her try anything we have. She loves black olives, will eat any meat, broccoli ("green trees" she calls them) are her favourite veg.
I'm lucky whereas I work part time. I'm home for 2pm each day and have time to prepare a family meal each and every night. I love cooking. And I don't worry when I am whether my daughter will eat it or not. Because if I did, I wouldn't cook half the things I cook, and she'd never have the chance to taste them. Even spicy dishes - tagine, for example, she gobbles up. Massaman Curry is another one she likes, except I have to give her some sour creme to go with that haha And I try to explain where her food comes from.
We went away to Svalbard for New Year. On the menu, reindeer. I explained it as bluntly as I could - "y'know the reindeer like Santa has? Well, we're having that for tea later". She nodded. Turns out, she likes reindeer stew. A whole bowl devoured.
And foie gras too. We let her try it in France last year. I had to hide it in the end and tell her it was all gone!
I think the problem is most parents are scared. Scared and over-protective. I don't think of her as a separate entity that needs to be catered for a meal times. She has what we have, in the consistency she can handle.

janeta316's picture

I always cooked for my son, now just over 2 years old, never bought ready made meals (except for some apple sauce). He is eating very well, even loves vegetables. I guess he just got used to home cooked meals right away and I don't have to sneak anything in. I steam potatoes and vegetables, they have much more taste and I don't put any salt on it, except potatoes where I add a little bit of butter and salt. You can even steam potatoes and vegetable all in one pot if it's big enough , add vegetables a little later as they are cooked faster.
I think the manufacturers are making fools of people telling them manufactured food is healthier than home made. And we all know why that is, don't we? Of course it depends what you cook and how... I never cook two meals, we all eat the same, sometimes I leave some things out for our son if I think they wouldn't be so good.
And it doesn't have to take that much time. When my son started to eat solids, I would make a larger batch of all sorts of vegetables, squashed them separately with a fork (or mixed in a food processor if needed). Then I would freeze the mashed vegetables in ice cube trays, keeping each kind separate. When I wanted to feed him I would mix 2 or three different types and heated it up. That way he didn't eat the same every time. Often I would add a freshly steamed potato to the vegetable mixture. Very easy and actually tasty.

fifimg's picture

I so agree with Hattie. Home cooked is always best. We have flirted briefly with kiddy ready meals, but only briefly. Basically, my three didn't like them! They are used to pretty much eating what my husband and I eat and found the ready meals to be bland and generally "yucky" (their words, not mine).
We have a simple rule in our house, you have to try something before saying you don't like it. If you try it and really don't like it, then fair enough, it goes off the menu, for a while, anyway. I will often try again a few weeks down the line. It took several attempts to get the youngest to eat fish, but we got there in the end.
Like Hattie says, don't stress if they don't eat. Don't let them see it getting to you. They won't starve. Trust me.

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