Food writer Bee Wilson has a message of hope for parents struggling to get their children to eat their veggies: "As parents, we have a far greater power than we think we have to form children's tastes," Wilson tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
In her new book, First Bite, Wilson examines how genetics, culture, memory and early feeding patterns contribute to our food preferences. She says that a child's palate can be formed even before birth. And this insight can be helpful for parents who want their children to eat well and healthfully.
"One of the main things we know about taste is that liking is a consequence of familiarity, so the things that our mothers eat, even before we're born, affect the way we'll respond to those flavors when we later encounter them because they seem familiar," Wilson says.
A mother of three, Wilson notes that babies are most open to trying new flavors between the ages of 4 and 7 months. But, Wilson adds, even if parents miss introducing a food during the so-called "flavor window," all hope is not lost.
"It's not that the flavor window then flips shut ... and we can never learn to love bitter green vegetables. Humans can learn to love new flavors at any age," Wilson says. "One of the amazing things about our relationship with food is how malleable it is, how plastic it is. But we don't usually as adults give ourselves an opportunity to change."
On the "flavor window" that occurs between 4 and 7 months
Researchers I've spoken to [about] the question of how you get children to be less picky eaters [and] how you get them to try more different vegetables say that the World Health Organization advice, which currently says you should keep them on an exclusive milk diet up to 6 months, is wrong. It's not that a child necessarily needs any nutrition besides milk before 6 months, it's that you're missing an opportunity to introduce them to all of these flavors which they would likely accept at this age. Then, having accepted them, they would seem familiar when they encounter them again as toddlers.
On how our palates are formed while we're still in the womb
[Our palate is] formed [before breast-feeding] — it's formed when our mothers are expecting us. There have been remarkable studies done showing that if someone eats a lot of garlic when they're pregnant, their amniotic fluid will taste and smell garlicky. So imagine swimming around in that for 9 months. ... That baby will grow up to love garlic. ... It feels like home, it tastes like home. One of the main things we know about taste is that liking is a consequence of familiarity. So the things that our mothers eat, even before we're born, affect the way we'll respond to those flavors when we later encounter them because they seem familiar.
The flavor of milk is then hugely important as well. With mothers who breast-feed, there was a study done showing that if they drank a lot of carrot juice, when those babies first tasted solid food, they preferred cereal that was flavored with carrot juice. So the flavor of carrots goes into the [breast milk], the babies experience it, and then they have all of these wonderful, positive feelings about carrot. This is getting replicated many, many times. In most cases it's not something like carrot or broccoli. There have been studies done with rats who are fed on a junk food diet and their babies gravitate towards junk food rat chow.
On how store-bought formula can also affect taste long-term
Breast milk has varied flavors, whereas formula milk has a single flavor, depending on which brand you pick. But even with formula-fed babies there are some interesting things that have come out of scientific experiments. There's a type of formula called hydrolysate, which is designed for babies who can't tolerate regular cow's milk, and to adults it has a really offensive, horrible, hay-like, musty aroma. But to the babies who've been reared on it, it's like nectar. One study showed that these children, when they were older, when they're aged 4, gravitated towards sour flavors. So it was if they were imprinted with the flavor of this nasty formula milk. But, again, it's a really useful case of how powerful these early tastes can be. As parents, we have a far greater power than we think we have to form children's tastes.
On how we are hard-wired to love sweetness
All human beings are hard-wired to love sweetness. This is a cross-cultural phenomenon — it's been seen in babies in every continent of the world, that they smile if you offer them a little taste of something sweet. Equally, we all are born with a mild aversion to bitterness. And curiously, with salt, we have no feelings at all about salt when we're born. And then [by age] 4 months we get switched onto it and develop a salt preference, and nobody really knows why that's true. But with the sweetness thing — so, we're hard-wired to love sweetness. Many people have interpreted this to mean that we're doomed to grow up and love junk food. ... All of our specific tastes for particular flavors are learned. As omnivores, this has to be the case because human beings are forced to eat in such different food environments. So the fact that we love sweetness as a baby doesn't mean that we're going to love nothing but chocolate; we could get that sweetness in the form of corn on the cob, or caramelized fennel. All of our flavor preferences are ones that we learn over the course of a lifetime. The trouble is that most of us don't see it that way.
On how children's food has changed since World War II
If you look to previous generations, before the second world war, and indeed afterwards a bit, there was a nursery food mentality. So the idea was it was safest to give children foods that they didn't actually like, which were very plain but very nourishing. Then, in the postwar years, partly fueled by a transformation of the food supply, much greater industrialization, we went to a completely opposite view of what children's food should be. It was that it should be sweet and palatable and designed to make children smile. We all know that the kid's breakfast cereals are the ones which are highest in sugar in the whole of the cereal aisle. And it's really curious that we should've swung in this way from one extreme to another — from food which was nourishing but unpleasant, to food which was too pleasant and deeply un-nourishing. The ideal way to feed children would be somewhere in the middle. And actually, the ideal way to feed children would be to give them food that's not that dissimilar from an adult diet.
On authoritative, authoritarian and indulgent styles of feeding
An authoritative feeder would place high demands on the child to eat well. In other words, you wouldn't be stocking your house with loads of junk food. You'd make sure there were nutritious, home-cooked meals on the table, but equally you would be highly responsive to the child and their needs, and you would be respectful when they say "no." ... On the one hand, there are authoritarian forms of feeding. ... Force-feeding would be an extreme example, but also just any form of saying, "I demand that you eat this." ... "I want a clean plate." ... That style of feeding ... creates an unpleasant atmosphere at the dinner table, but, interestingly, research shows it also seems to result in children who are actually less responsive to their own hunger cues, so they're more likely to end up overweight, paradoxically. The parent who thinks that they're doing the right thing by insisting that you finish this nourishing meal is not allowing the child to develop their own skills, their own judgment about when they stop and when they start eating.
The other style of parenting, or feeding, would be indulgent. And there are signs that this is becoming one of the most common ways of feeding a child, and as with so much of what we do as parents, it comes with the most loving intentions. To feed a child in an indulgent way would be to be highly responsive to them as a person, what they love, what they seem to need, the foods they crave, the foods they demand, but the indulgent style would place no demands on them to eat well, or fewer demands. There'd be no sense of, "Are you really hungry?" There'd be no sense of, "Well, I only want you to have these foods because they're the ones that'll do you good." Again, there are studies done showing indulgent parenting is strongly correlated with higher child obesity. ...
It's such a wonderful feeling to see the treat disappear and to see the happy face. Feeding, no less than eating, is a learned behavior, and we learn to feed through our parents, who probably themselves rewarded us with food. Food and love are so bound up, it's sometimes hard to see where the sugar ends and the love begins.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Why we love the foods we love and are repulsed by certain foods we hate is what Bee Wilson tries to explain in her new book "First Bite: How We Learn To Eat." She writes from her perspective as a food writer, as a mother who tried to get her three children to eat healthy foods, and as someone who came close to having an eating disorder. In her book, she examined studies about how genetics, culture, memory and early feeding patterns contribute to our food preferences. She's particularly interested in the eating habits of children. She writes (reading) when your beautiful baby is first handed to you by the doctor or a midwife and you see a whole future in those blurry eyes, it's unlikely you would imagine that he or she might become a person who ate only ketchup sandwiches, Oreos and instant noodles. Wilson is also the author of "Consider The Fork: A History Of How We Cook And Eat." She's been named BBC Radio's food writer of the year. Bee Wilson, welcome to FRESH AIR. So why are you interested in how our taste preferences are formed?
BEE WILSON: When I started writing the book, I thought I was writing a book about children's food. But the more research I did, the more convinced I became that the problems that children have with learning how to eat are still there for many for us as adults. It isn't as if we've cracked these eating skills. And then another thing that happened as I was doing the research is it kept resonating with my own personal experiences in a way that's never happened to me with a book before. I kept looking back on how I was as a teenager when I was really unhappy about food. I over-ate, I went on endless diets which didn't work, and I'd regain the weight and feel more unhappy. And I think is partly a response to living with my sister, who was anorexic, and it was partly to do with the family dynamic. And then I kept thinking how is it that I could've once been so mixed up about food and now, 20 years on, I've reached a point where I'm really fine with eating and it's not a torment or a struggle. And I wanted to unravel how it's possible to change the way someone eats in such fundamental ways.
GROSS: So part of what your book is about is how our tastes are formed, our taste preferences. Why we like sweet things or don't like bitter things. So before we get into some of the more behavioral things like eating disorders, let's talk a little bit just about how our palette is formed. Like, is it formed as early as when we're being milk-fed? You know, from the bottle or from the breast?
WILSON: It's formed earlier than that. It's formed when our mothers are expecting us. There have been remarkable studies done showing that if someone eats a lot of garlic when they're pregnant, their amniotic fluid will taste and smell garlicky. So imagine swimming around in that for nine months. There have also been studies done showing that...
GROSS: ...Wait, let me stop you there. Does that mean that that baby will grow up to like or to hate garlic?
WILSON: That baby will grow up to love garlic.
GROSS: It feels like home (laughter).
WILSON: It feels like home, it tastes like home. One of the main things we know about taste is that liking is a consequence of familiarity. So there are things that our mothers eat even before we're born that affect the way we'll respond to those flavors when we later on encounter them because they seem familiar. So - and then to follow on from your question about milk, yes, the flavor of milk is then hugely important as well. With mothers who breast-feed, there was a study done showing that if they drank a lot of carrot juice, when those babies first tasted solid food, they preferred cereal that was flavored with carrot juice.
GROSS: If the mothers, while breast-feeding, drank carrot juice?
WILSON: Yes. So the flavor of carrots goes into the milk, the babies experience it, and then they have all of these wonderful, positive feelings about carrot. And this is getting replicated many, many times. But in most cases, it's not something like carrot or broccoli. You - there have been studies done with rats who were fed on a junk food diet and their babies gravitate towards junk food rat chow. And that's the reality for many of us, that the foods we most associate with love and home and familiarity are industrialized, sugary, fatty, salty ones. And those are all bound up with these wonderful feelings of love and home, and it's really hard to break those habits.
GROSS: So what do you know about the differences between breastmilk and formula in terms of, like, sweetness and how it might shape the taste preferences of a baby as they mature and graduate into solid food?
WILSON: Well, the single biggest thing we know is that breastmilk has varied flavors, whereas formula milk has a single flavor depending on which brand you pick. But even with formula-fed babies, there are some interesting things that have come out of scientific experiments. There's a type of formula called hydrolysate, which is designed for babies who can't tolerate regulate cow's milk. To adults, it has a really offensive horrible, hay-like, musty aroma. But to the babies who've been reared on it, it's like nectar. And one study showed that these children, when they were older, when they were aged 4, gravitated towards sour flavors. So it was as if they were imprinted with the flavor of this nasty formula milk. But again, it's a really useful case of how powerful these early tastes can be. As parents, we have a far greater power than we think have to form children's tastes.
GROSS: Are children - young children - hardwired to prefer certain flavors?
WILSON: Yes and no. All human beings are hardwired to love sweetness. This is a cross-culture phenomena. It's been seen in babies in every continent of the world that they smile if you offer them a little taste of something sweet. Equally, we all are born with a mild aversion to bitterness. And curiously with salt, we have no feelings at all about salt when we're born and then age 4 months, we get switched onto it and develop a sort of preference. And nobody really knows why that's true. So we're hardwired to love sweetness. Many people have interpreted this to mean that we're doomed to grow up and love junk food. It must mean that we're hardwired for cupcakes - not so. All of our specific tastes for particular flavors are learned. As omnivores, this has to be the case because human beings are forced to eat in such different food environments. So the fact that we love sweetness as a baby doesn't mean that we're going to love nothing but chocolate. We could get that sweetness in the form of corn on the cob or caramelized fennel. All of our flavor preferences are ones that we learn over the course of a lifetime.
GROSS: Well, you know, you write that Western notions of children's food have been transformed in the past 50 years. Give us an example of that.
WILSON: Well, if you look back to previous generations, before the Second World War, there was - and indeed afterwards a bit - there was a nursery food mentality. So the idea was it was safest to give children foods that they didn't actually like, which were very plain but very nourishing. And then in the postwar years, partly fueled by a transformation of the food supply, much greater industrialization, we went to a completely opposite view of what children's food should be. It was that it should be sweet and palatable and designed to make children smile. And we all know that the kids' breakfast cereals are the ones which are highest in sugar in the whole of the cereal aisle. And it's really curious that we should have swung in this way from one extreme to another, from food which was nourishing but unpleasant to food which was too pleasant and deeply unnourishing. And obviously, the ideal way to feed children would be somewhere in the middle. And actually, the ideal way to feed children would be to give them food that's not that dissimilar from an adult diet.
GROSS: I want to go back for a second to what you said about babies in the womb being able to taste the amniotic fluid and have a taste for for instance, garlic, which can end up in the amniotic fluid if the mother is eating a lot of garlic. And that garlic will be like home, will be, like, real comfort food (laughter) as that baby matures. To explain that, like, the fetus has taste buds. Like, the taste buds form at 7 or 8 weeks of gestation. And you said they're mature by 13 to 15 weeks. I guess I never would've thought about taste buds being mature at that stage of gestation because it's not like there's any eating going on.
WILSON: I never would've thought that either. And the more research I did into the neuroscience of flavor, the more I came across this understanding that actually tasting food flavor is one of the main ways that we interact with the world from before we're born and certainly after we're born. Our olfactory system is open to the world through the nose in the way that no other part of our central nervous system is. Encountering flavors is just a fundamental part of what it is to be human.
GROSS: So are there times that are the best times to introduce new flavors to a baby?
WILSON: There are. There has been interesting research done showing that there is this thing called a flavor window between 4 and 7 months when humans are more receptive to new flavors than they ever will be again. Researchers I've spoken to into the question of how you get children to be less picky eaters, how you get them to try more different vegetables, say that the World Health Organization advice, which currently says you should keep them on an exclusive milk diet up to 6 months, is wrong. It's not that a child necessarily needs any nutrition beside milk before 6 months, it's that you're missing an opportunity to introduce them to all of these flavors which they would likely accept at this age and then having accepted them, they would seem familiar when they encounter them again as toddlers. But having said that there's a flavor window at this age, it's not that the flavor window then flips shut and we become closed off and we can never learn to love bitter green vegetables. Humans can learn to love new flavors at any age. One of the amazing things about our relationship with food is how malleable it is, how plastic it is. But we don't usually as adults give ourselves an opportunity to change.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is food writer Bee Wilson, and her new book is called "First Bite: How We Learn To Eat." Bee, let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is British food writer Bee Wilson. Her new book is called "First Bite: How We Learn To Eat." Why do you think it is that so many children have food aversions and also weird food preferences?
WILSON: There are a few different reasons. I mean, some of it does have a genetic component. More than 70 percent of children on the autistic spectrum suffer with some kind of feeding disorder. But the larger part of these feeding problems that so many children seem to have - these limited tastes, this refusal of all vegetables, this suspicion of mixed-up flavors - has to do with our food environment, both within families and within our logic culture, where children are given so many messages which suggests that they shouldn't like vegetables, that they're something that's healthy and therefore unpleasant. And they pick up on these cues from everything they see around them, whether it's adverts or whether they see the ways that the adults in their families themselves relate to food.
GROSS: You write about your husband who has a food aversion to rice pudding because he was forced to eat it (laughter) when he was a child. And he'll sometimes, like, leave the table if you're serving rice pudding, and that's a hard one for me to understand. You know, I understand some food aversions, but rice pudding seems kind of tame and it's, like, nice and sweet. And, you know, what's wrong with rice? Do you comprehend it?
WILSON: I find it very hard to understand, too, because to me, rice pudding is one of the most delicious substances you can imagine. But I think a lot of people have it, especially in Britain, because rice pudding was a school food and therefore it was eaten in an atmosphere of coercion. He also just says it's the texture but then I say to him - you love risotto. It's the same texture. And then he'll say it's completely different. And it isn't just he leaves the table. He leaves the room.
WILSON: He doesn't want to watch us eating (laughter). He doesn't want to hear us swallowing it. Anyone's food aversion could be like this. Someone else's preferences are always mysterious. You think - well, how can you not like that? It's perfectly delicious. But to the person who finds it disgusting, it's so offensive they don't want to put it in their mouth. I've spoken to directors of feeding clinics who say that some children have aversions so profound that if they know that someone is entering the room carrying a plate of food that they haven't tried, they will spontaneously gag or vomit before they've even seen the food. And it's the idea of the food. I mean, so many of these things which we think are physical or rational, they're not. It's profoundly emotional, the way we eat. We all bring emotions to the dinner table.
GROSS: Do you have any food aversions?
WILSON: I have a few. I'm fairly omnivorous. That was never my real problem with eating. My problems were more with stopping. But if you were to serve me a soft boiled egg and the white was stringy and gelatinous and just too soft, I would probably still eat it out of politeness, but something inside me would die.
GROSS: I have a weird food aversion to oranges. And...
GROSS: Yes. And the orange is just, like, worshipped. Like, there are orange juice commercials where it's raining orange juice from the sky, as if that was a wonderful thing? I went to, like, a train station - and I think this was actually - I think I was in Canada, actually - and there was a pavilion in there where you buy your tickets or something - I don't remember that clear - that was shaped like an orange. And your plate of food at a restaurant is garnished with oranges, and people just assume that, like, the orange is just, like, the most wonderful thing in the world. And I think the reason maybe why they terrify me (laughter) - when I was in school, there wasn't really a lunchroom so, like, if you had to eat lunch because there was, like, a blizzard or something and you had to eat in the school, you basically, like, sat on a bench in the basement next to the bathroom. And the kids would always have, like, oranges packed in their lunch bag. And I think, like, the smell of, like, peeling oranges and, like, the smell of that basement just kind of mingled in my mind.
WILSON: So maybe it mingled with other musty, unpleasant aromas so somehow it was associated with rottenness or something. I mean - people have tried to unravel what makes someone dislike something, and often nausea is at the root of it. In some form, maybe that room made you feel slightly sick. It's hard to say, isn't it? My niece has this as well. She hates orange juice and...
WILSON: ...She won't even let my sister, who's her mum...
GROSS: We should get together.
WILSON: Yeah. Form a club (laughter). Yeah, orange juice haters unite. It's a very strong flavor, isn't it? I mean, I love it. I can't imagine not loving it, but I know what you mean about the peel. When you peel an orange, it fills the whole room.
GROSS: Yeah, exactly. So when you were raising your children - and you have three of them. I don't know how old they are now and whether...
WILSON: They're 16, 12 and 6.
GROSS: Oh, so you're still in control of the kitchen?
WILSON: Just about. Yes, I am.
GROSS: OK. So let's start here with your son who was born with a cleft palate. How did that affect his ability to be fed milk?
WILSON: Well, in the early days, it meant it was far harder to feed him than it had been with my other two. And it was I know a bit of a shock because I had thought I know how to feed a baby. This isn't so hard, and I discovered actually it was so hard. So when babies are born with cleft palate, it gives them difficulties with swallowing, and it also means that a lot of the milk comes back up through their nose. So before he'd had the operation at 6 months, I would feed him through a combination of I'd express breastmilk and give it to him with the special bottles. And I would also breastfeed him. And each feed went on so long, and he struggled to gain weight and then he had the operation at 6 months and he was fine. But it was me that wasn't fine. I still related to him in a way that was different when I was feeding him to the other two. With the other two, I'd had no doubt - would they gain weight, would they flourish, would they eat the food that would do them good. You know, there were moments where they were fussy, stuff was spat out, stuff went on the floor. They didn't always eat what I would wish them to eat, but with my third, it was emotional for me. And when he was 18 months, he suddenly went through this stage, which - lots of children do it. It's a classic stage. There's nothing wrong with it - called neophobia, where kids get wary of new foods. And it's thought that there are good evolutionary reasons for this. This is the point in hunter-gatherer societies where children would suddenly be encountering food outside the home, and a natural wariness of new food might protect you from toxins. In my son's case, he wasn't wary of toxins. He was wary of green vegetables, protein, meat, eggs, pretty much anything other than gingerbread men and very sweet yogurt and bananas. And it made me slightly demented. And I thought - he can't be eating like this. He isn't getting the food he needs. And I would start forcing a little spoonful of food in his mouth. And at first, it would just be one spoonful to remind him how much he loved carrots. But then he didn't remember how much he loved carrots and so it would be another spoonful. And I shudder now to look back on this phase and think - how could I have gotten to a point as an educated person, a food writer who'd read lots on this subject, where I was force-feeding my own child? But I think it's an example of how feeding is a deeply emotional thing. It can become a kind of passion between the parent and child, where you just lose sight of what their own needs are. You're so desperate for them to consume a healthy and balanced diet. In our case, luckily - sorry.
GROSS: I was going to say - in retrospect, do you think you maybe had taught him to be - to have an aversion to more foods because you were trying to force him to eat it when he didn't what to?
WILSON: I definitely taught him to have an aversion to more foods. It was absolutely a counterproductive and stupid way to feed him. It narrowed his horizons so much that, at one point, he was even refusing slices of cake. He wouldn't eat anything. And slowly, slowly we built up his repertoire again. I backed off. I just stopped attempting to put anything in his mouth, and I would just put plates of food in front of him. And if he ate, fine. And if he didn't, fine. And eventually, he did. And he now eats pretty well, but he still - who knows how much of it was the cleft? I suspect more of it was more the way I behaved. He still is the one who, if you put something too unfamiliar in front of him, still age 6, he'll burst into tears and sometimes run away, sometimes try and hide under the table or sometimes just strategically drop it when no one's looking.
GROSS: My guest is Bee Wilson, author of the new book "First Bite." After we take a short break, we'll talk about feeding children in ways that will get them to eat diverse and healthy foods. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with food writer Bee Wilson. Her new book "First Bite" is about how food preferences and food aversions are formed. She's particularly interested in the eating habits of children and how early feeding patterns contribute to their food preferences. You write that people who study this stuff say that the best style of feeding is called authoritative feeding. What is that?
WILSON: Yes. So the simple way to describe it would be an authoritative feeder would place high demands on the child to eat well. In other words, you wouldn't be stocking your house with loads of junk food. You'd make sure there were nutritious, good, home-cooked meals on the table. But equally, you would be highly responsive to the child and their needs, and you would be respectful when they say no. You wouldn't do what I did. And the styles of parenting which seem to have worse results in the way that you feed a child are at the opposite ends of the extreme. On the one hand, there are authoritarian forms of feeding. Force-feeding would be an extreme example, but also just any form of saying I demand that you eat this.
GROSS: You're not leaving the table until you finish your vegetables.
WILSON: Exactly. I want a clean plate. That old mentality that you hate waste so much that you're going to see a child finish what's on their plate regardless of whether they like it or not. That style of feeding - well, A, we know that makes children unhappy, which isn't nice. It creates an unpleasant atmosphere at the dinner table. But interestingly, research shows it also seems to result in children who are actually less responsive to their own hunger cues. So they're more likely to end up overweight. Paradoxically, the parent who thinks that they're doing the right thing by insisting that you finish this nourishing meal is not allowing the child to develop their own skills, their own judgment, about when they stop and when they start eating. But the other style of parenting or feeding would be indulgent. And there are signs that this is becoming one of the most common ways of feeding a child. And as with so much of what we do as parents, it comes with the most loving intentions. I mean, to feed a child in an indulgent way would be to be highly responsive to them as a person - what they love, what they seem to need, the foods that they crave, the foods they demand. But the indulgent style would place no demands on them to eat well, or fewer demands. There would be no sense of are you really hungry? There be no sense of well, I only want you to have these foods because they're the ones that will do you good. And again, there are studies done showing that indulgent parenting is strongly correlated with higher child obesity.
GROSS: And do you think a lot of parents feed their children certain things because they think that their children will love them more for it if they give them, like, sweet things or whatever it is that the child loves most?
WILSON: Absolutely. I'm sure we all do that as parents to some extent because it's such a wonderful feeling to see the treat disappear and to see the happy face. Feeding no less than eating is a learned behavior, and we learn to feed through our parents, who probably themselves rewarded us with food. And it's - food and love are so bound up, it's sometimes hard to see where the sugar ends and the love begins.
GROSS: That's why you write there's a difference between feeding disorders and eating disorders.
WILSON: Yes. So feeding disorders would generally be categorized as those which you see in very young kids - things like eating only ketchup sandwiches or hotdogs. Or there will be other ones such as pica, where children gravitate towards eating really strange, inedible things such as grass or paper or dirt. And then the eating disorders are things like anorexia or bulimia, which are classically seen in older children. But actually, the more you look into it, the more you see these distinctions break down because there is a real hidden problem of adult picky eaters who still will only eat a very limited range of foods - maybe no vegetables, or maybe nothing much except for grilled cheese sandwiches and hot dogs and potato chips. And it's a terrible way to live, but often, the adult picky eaters will keep their problem very well hidden because there's so much shame attached to eating like that. They may refuse invitations to go and eat at friends' houses.
GROSS: One of the things you write about in your book is how you almost had an eating disorder when you were a teenager. And your sister had one. Your sister was anorexic. Do you think watching your sister not eat affected your own eating?
WILSON: I think it hugely affected my own eating. I'm sure it wasn't the only factor in my own eating, and if you look the research even going back to newborn babies, you can see that some babies are greedier than others. Some enjoy milk more than others, and I think I was on the greedy end of the spectrum. And my sister was maybe on the opposite end of the spectrum. But certainly, sitting around the dinner table, seeing my mother's unhappy face as my sister left her food uneaten yet again and realizing there was an extra portion of food available and I was only too happy to eat it up - I mean, it was a factor. It was also a factor in the way my parents fed me because as we've said, feeding is a very rewarding activity. And it's very upsetting for parents to have an anorexic child. And they really wanted the experience of being able to feed someone. And I was only too happy to be fed.
GROSS: Were there food wars at the dinner table?
WILSON: Kind of unspoken food wars - I mean, if I look back to when my sister and I were younger, we absolutely competed over food in that classic way that children do. If there was something that we loved, like a cake that my mother had baked, it would be who can get the most slices. And then the sad thing during the eating disorder years was that feeling, oh, no one is competing to eat this cake. It's just there. And that felt really sad.
GROSS: You were a little chubby when you were in your teens. How did you feel about that?
WILSON: I felt bad about it. I felt ashamed. I felt out of place. I felt too big. I felt a kind of secret shame about food, which I think so many people feel. I became - as someone that was somewhat overweight - self-conscious about eating in public. So then I would eat all the more in private. And when you're eating in private, there's no reason not to keep going because nobody is watching how many portions you're taking, so you eat all the more. And then the vicious circle continues. I just was lucky to have broken out of it. And I look back on that phase of life and think, what an awful way to be. And I'm so aware there are still millions of people who live like that. We talk about yo-yo dieting almost as if it's a comical thing - people bouncing up and down. And it's not comical. It's really a form of self-torture because you're constantly criticizing yourself or punishing yourself for the way that you're eating. Or even when you're in a comfort-food stage, the food isn't fully comforting you because you're ingesting it with an added dose of guilt.
GROSS: So how did you break that cycle?
WILSON: It took time. It's very difficult, changing the way you eat. I think the biggest way thing was that when the change eventually came, it was completely different from the conscious diets I'd often imposed on myself. It was gradual. I met the person that would eventually become my husband, I fell in love, and he had a totally different way of eating from me. It wasn't really an issue for him. It wasn't that he was some kind of health-food nut - the opposite - but he ate three structured meals a day. There were certain things that he ate, such as salad, just because he liked the taste of them. And that, for me, was a revelation. It wasn't that I suddenly ate salad one day and straightway liked it. It was that bit by bit my habits changed, and as my habits changed, my preferences also changed. And I reached a point where, you know, give or take the odd french fry, most of the foods that I wanted to eat were also the ones that did me good.
GROSS: Since there was a period of your teen years when it was hard for you to stop eating, what is it like for you now to be a food writer and to always be thinking about food professionally?
WILSON: Well, I feel incredibly lucky that I have now reached a point where I have quite a balanced relationship with food because if I didn't, being a food writer could be the worst thing I could be - to be surrounded by, as you say, thoughts of food. My house is piled up with cookbooks. Sometimes - and I'm not generally a recipe writer, but sometimes I am. And then I've just written an article about several oranges, and my house was full of marmalade. I mean, just imagine - back in my compulsive eating days, that would've been 20 slices of toast and marmalade, whereas now I can eat one and stop, which feels like a miracle. It's possible to spend your days thinking about food without eating a huge amount. I think the biggest thing that I learned above and beyond changing my preferences so that I liked vegetables more and liked things like pastries somewhat less was hunger management. I think we don't talk enough about this as a skill because it is something that you can learn to get better at. I used to panic if I felt the mildest rumblings of hunger, whereas now, if I know I've got a good meal coming in a couple of hours, I think, oh, I'm hungry. That's good. I'm going to enjoy the next meal more - more pleasure.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is British food writer Bee Wilson. Her new book is called "First Bite: How We Learn To Eat." Let's take a break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is food writer Bee Wilson. Her new book, "First Bite: How We Learn To Eat," is about how we develop tastes as infants and children, and feeding disorders and eating disorders. It's filled with interesting information and personal stories as well. So we talked about your son, who was born with a cleft palette, and the dilemmas that you faced as his mother in trying to make sure that he ate healthy foods even when he got really cranky about eating. What about your other two children? Did they like vegetables? Did they like the foods that you considered healthy? Did they just, like, gravitate to, like, sweet, sugar, fat?
WILSON: What I found from feeding my two older children was that mostly, this thing which parents don't really believe works but it does work - if you model eating a pretty good diet yourself - which by that point, I was, I'm so grateful that I wasn't eating in a disordered way by then - they will end up eating a pretty OK diet, too. My daughter was pickier than my son. My son is my oldest one. And then my daughter went through a phase where she was suspicious of green vegetables. And I did this game which, at the time, it felt completely pathetic and I thought this is never going to work, but it did. She had this doll that was her favorite doll in the world. He was a baby-faced doll and he was a bit grubby, but she loved him. And I pretended that his favorite food was green beans. And I didn't attempt to make her eat green beans herself. I just brought him to the table and would feed him green beans. And after a few days of doing this, she was desperate to eat the green beans and begged to have them. And I was...
GROSS: ...Very clever (laughter).
WILSON: That was the one great breakthrough moment I had with her, where I invented that. I mean, it's not invention, it's - what it is a social modeling, which is very powerful. If you see someone that you love and respect - and in her case, it was the doll - eating something that you're currently suspicious of, it takes on an aura of something desirable. And there have been lots and lots of studies done.
GROSS: So how were the green beans prepared?
WILSON: They were steamed or boiled. And now, she is the one - she loves cooking. Of the three, she's the one that copies me. And she'll eat anything. She loves spice, she loves garlic, she loves Swiss chard. She's omnivorous, I would say. But it took time. There was a long phase when she was suspicious of chili. And I think we need to be patient and realize of course children are going to have narrower tastes than adults to start with because if liking is a consequent of familiarity, well, they just haven't tasted as many different foods as we have. So it doesn't mean that they're never going to like broccoli or eggs or whatever the food might be. It just means - it takes more exposure.
GROSS: Since you're familiar with eating disorders - your sister had been anorexic as a teenager, you had trouble stopping eating as a teenager - were you concerned as a mother that your daughter and your daughter growing up in these times might end up with an eating disorder, because they're so common now?
WILSON: I was really concerned. With feeding my daughter, I think that was my single greatest worry. And I would keep saying to her over and over again, there's no such thing as perfect, even if she was doing some nonfood-related activity like art. She loves coloring, she always did. And she'd be drawing a picture and scrunch it up and say it isn't good enough, and I'd say no, there's no such thing as perfect. And now, having read more on the literature of anorexia, the thought now is that anorexia has a strong genetic component. And whatever charms I believed I was doing to ward off an eating disorder were probably futile, but that definitely was my greatest fear. And touch wood, she's 12, she's never gone on a diet and she doesn't show signs of cutting down on her consumption. But there is that worry, there's that moment, which in her case happened two years ago when she came back from school and said well, some of my friends don't eat lunch anymore. And your heart just sinks and you think - how can these girls be doing this to themselves again already? And so the cycle continues.
GROSS: So when you were saying to your daughter there's no such thing as perfect, was that a way of saying to her, you're not going to have a perfect body, so don't even try? Like, that's not what you're aspiring to, is to be perfect and have a perfect body that looks like the perfect bodies that you see in movies or magazines?
WILSON: Exactly. I mean, I see anorexia - well, it's many things. It's a form of mental illness, it's a form of depression, but I also see it as a disease of perfectionism. And so I thought well, there's no such thing as - I think perfectionism infects our eating in so many ways. But to think - yes, first of all, there's no such thing as a perfect body. So I would show her pictures of photoshopped images and say look, this is what a real face looks like and this is what it looks like after it's been photoshopped. But also with food, there's no such thing as perfect food. I find this new trend for clean eating really worrying, the idea that you can create a diet for yourself that's so nutritionally perfect that it will contain nothing which might be considered immoral or sinful or dirty. I mean this - these are just the wrong categories to be bringing to food. So yeah, my thought with my daughter was if I could just convince her that all food is fine, everything in moderation, and cake is just cake. It's just another food. And so far, I don't know. It's so hard as a parent. You're too close to see whether what you've done has worked. But I think she eats in a pretty good way.
GROSS: As a mother, how have you found the balance between making sure that your children have, you know, like, healthy food, balanced meals, all of that and allowing them to have treats?
WILSON: It's difficult. And with my sons, I find it especially difficult because they are huge. My teenager is 6-foot-11. Every time people see him, they say...
WILSON: Yeah. And when he comes to the States especially, because my sister lives in Philadelphia, people say oh, you should play basketball. And unfortunately, he's not sporty. The younger one is sporty, so maybe he can play basketball. But when you're that size, you need a lot of food. So balancing the insatiable appetite for endless carbohydrate with the sense that I do actually want him to eat a certain number of vegetables, it isn't so easy. But in a way, it's the same as feeding anyone, that if they can reach a point where they look at a plate of food and if it doesn't have something green there, they feel there's something wrong. I think that's one of the most powerful skills you can equip yourself with. So I was delighted when my daughters recently moved from - we call it secondary school, but I think that would be junior high. And she came back from the school canteen and said the food they're serving is wrong, there aren't enough vegetables. And I was so happy. I mean, she's now switched to packed lunches. But I feel if you can can go out in the world with those kind of responses then no matter what you eat, you'll be - we don't all have to like the same foods but if we, roughly speaking, have an idea of what a balanced plate of food might look like and that that's what we want to eat, we're probably going to be in pretty good shape.
GROSS: But your son is 6-11. How tall are you?
WILSON: I'm 5-foot-8. My husband is 6-5, 6-6, so we thought he was maybe going to be 6-foot-8.
WILSON: And 6-11 was a shock.
GROSS: Is it odd for you to have a son who's, like, so tall?
WILSON: It's really strange because to me, he's still this little person...
GROSS: ...Right, right (laughter)...
WILSON: ...That I held in my arms, and I look up and I can hardly even hug him even if he would allow me to (laughter).
GROSS: Bee Wilson, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
WILSON: Thank you.
GROSS: Bee Wilson is the author of the new book "First Bite: How We Learn To Eat." After we take a short break, David Edelstein will review the new Coen Brothers comedy, "Hail Caesar," about the making of a Hollywood Roman epic in the 1950s. It stars Josh Brolin, George Clooney and Channing Tatum. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.