When my son was two he was fussy.
Here is a complete list of the foods he would eat: milk, pasta, rice, bread, chicken nuggets and fish fingers, chips, watermelon, tiny teddies and wheat-bix.
We used to tell friends he was a milk-drinking vegan. But that was generous because he didn't eat plants, except the refined white variety.
We had done everything right. I handmade all his baby food, we ate meals together at the table, I always put a variety of things on his plate, and I didn't make special meals for him.
Although over time I started adding fish fingers on the side of our plates so that at least he would eat something.
Then in 2016 everything changed. We made a decision. We decided to stop shopping at the supermarket.
We were going to try eating only outdoor food. Food sold outside, grown outside, that had spent most of its life outside.
I would supplement the market hauls by shopping at a little bulk shop for grains, dried lentils, nuts and tea. But I stopped buying processed food altogether. And I honestly didn't know what my son would eat.
But something amazing happened. And it started with an apple.
‘Try this young chap,’ said Rob, leaning over his stand, handing Ezra a piece of apple. And to my surprise he did.
Then he tried carrot and cucumber from Pete’s organic stand. And he loved them. We started calling them ‘market snacks’. he would remind me in the car on the way, ‘Don’t forget to get me a carrot, Mum’ he would say.
The first time he tasted ham was after a farmer showed him pictures of his grandchildren riding on the back of his fat pigs.
And the first time he tried sausages was when I ordered a side of beef online. The farmers dropped it off at our place on a Friday night. Ezra was waiting up in his pyjamas for him, and the arrival of the white truck was more exciting than Santa Clause.
We stopped buying things in packets. I started cooking snacks from scratch. And because pikelets, crepes and flatbreads tasted so good hot from the pan, he decided fried potatoes and eggs would be nice too.
There was a world of difference between the market food we were eating and what had previously been available to us at the supermarket.
Many local farmers have a deep connection to nature and grow food in a way that regenerates rather than depletes the environment.
Some showed us patches of remnant bushland on their property they looked after, removing invasive species, and protecting new trees and plants from pests. We found dairy farmers who use returnable glass milk bottles, taking responsibility for the whole life cycle of their product.
We learnt about how small-scale farmers use compost and manure to cycle nutrients and fertilise their plants and paddocks. What we hadn't realised was that industrial agriculture has discarded this ancient zero-waste practice in favour of artificial fertilisers.
Artificial fertilisers that are made of petroleum, and are a non-renewable. Chemicals that the destroy the soil’s structure and contributes to erosion and land degradation. We learnt that runoff from these fertilisers, and the pesticides that often join them, pollute rivers and streams, eventually flowing out into the ocean.
The farmers we met used antibiotics sparingly, and many not at all. They didn't need too. They explained that animals who live outdoors and have plenty of space, clean water and natural food rarely get sick. Unlike intensively farmed chicken and pigs who spend their lives indoors and are fed antibiotics daily, to protect them from the diseases which otherwise would be rife in an environment where up to 60,000 hens are housed in a single shed.
Shopping at the farmers' markets changed the way we eat. We now eat less imported food and more of what’s in season, less chicken and more chickpeas. And we love it.
And I now have a five-year-old who eats feta, leek and spinach. Who loves real food and gets excited about a new stand at the markets or a favourite vegetable that has come back into season.
But his fussiness isn't gone completely. The other day in a shop a cashier offered him a jelly lolly. It was lime green.
‘I don’t think I want to try that.’ he said to me quietly.
‘That’s fine’ I said. ‘You don’t have to.’
It’s funny, I thought. How often do we blame our children for their fear of food. ‘It’s developmental’ we say, or ‘they are stubborn.’
But what if the problem is ours? As a society we have turned food into something unreal. We eat food that comes in boxes, is grown using poisonous chemicals, travels great distances and we source it from cold corridors, devoid of life.
In a supermarket, we have thousands of options and even adults don't understand the ingredients in much of what we eat. No wonder our children find it scary.
What I've learnt is if you want to change the way your toddler eats, there is really only one thing you need to do.
Shop for real food.
Food you can't find in the deep freezer of a giant chain store. Or in a packet at the back of a shelf.
Real food is out in the sunshine. Hanging over your neighbour’s fence, growing in a garden, in the back of a farmer's ute or on a trellis table at a market.
There are no self-service checkouts where you buy real food. You’ll have to talk to someone to get it. But it will come with a conversation. With a smile and a story, and sometimes even an invitation to play at the farm where it all began.
And that might be the best part of all.
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