Bee Wilson on our children's odd ideas about food

Children were dismayed to find no baked beans at a farmers' market

What do British schoolchildren really know about food? This was the reply of Alex, a ten-year-old boy from Acton, west London, when asked what organic food was: "Organic is just plain food, just normal flavour. In crisps, ready salted is organic, but salt and vinegar isn't, because it's got extra flavour."

Both question and answer were part of a short video called Children and Food, made by a body attached to the DTI called the Foresight Directorate to publicise schoolchildren's ignorance about basic ways of feeding themselves. For the purposes of the video, two groups of three nine- to ten-year-olds from Acton were asked to shop for and cook a two-course "healthy" meal, under the supervision of a cookery teacher but without her help. One group was sent to a supermarket; the other went to Ealing farmer's market. Those who made the video found the results "worrying" and "alarming".

The first group (two girls plus Alex) decided to make chicken and pasta with bottled sauce, potatoes, salad and chocolate cake. They knew the chocolate cake wasn't healthy but insisted that desserts couldn't ever be healthy anyway, much to the horror of the voice-over woman. When they got to the chicken aisle of the supermarket, the video-makers became very alarmed by their "amazing prejudice against butcher's shops". All three children commented that supermarket meat was better because it was fresher and you could buy it in small pieces in boxes, whereas at the butcher, you had to buy it in a bag and it had a "bad taste".

As for the children sent to the farmer's market, they were dismayed not to be able to buy baked beans and looked grumpy when a woolly-hatted lady told them that "haricot beans don't grow in this country". In the end, they chose to make baked potatoes (forgetting to wash the earth off them) with grated cheese, salad and ready-made chocolate muffins. They thought the potatoes would only take 20 minutes, and had to keep putting them back in the oven.

Both meals ended up looking pretty nondescript, but somehow not quite as scandalously inedible as one sensed the well-meaning film-makers had hoped. At various points in the video, slightly unrealistic expectations are foisted on the children, as when the voice-over comments in tones of hushed urgency that "it didn't occur to the children to ask the stallholders for help or suggestions for their meal". There are all kinds of reasons why young children might not want to linger in conversations about onions with strange men, not all of them indicating an impossible reluctance towards good food.

What was shocking on the video was the mixed-up attitude that the children displayed towards fat. Alex, for example, observed that the " good thing" about orange juice was that it was fat-free. All of the children, when asked what was "unhealthy", mentioned fat and fatty food, yet none of them could actually name a specific fat. They picked off every last strand of skin and fat from their chicken before cooking it, yet fried slices of potato swimming in vegetable oil.

The sad thing about this behaviour is that it stems as much from misinformation as from ignorance. It is the result not just of McDonaldisation, but of the relentless low fat message that has been pumped out over the past 15 years, by the government as well as the diet industry. We have all been taught to think that foods without any fat in are ipso facto good, while the lack of food education means we aren't sure which had fat in to begin with.

About some issues, however, the children seemed to know what they were talking about. Asked to comment on growing obesity, Alex said: "I think people are getting fat because of food." He's not wrong there.

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