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Move over Michelin! New ‘Tichelin’ dining concept for toddlers

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One has smeared dinner down his shirt and is proceeding to lick cheesecake off his cuffs. The other is methodically picking everything green off his plate and dropping it on the floor.

As dining companions go, I’m not sure I’d invite these two back.

Then again, they are my children – Charlie, aged three, and Flynn, ten months – so I don’t suppose I’ve got much choice.

We’re in the middle of what might be described as a parent’s worst nightmare: a room full of babies and toddlers let loose in a Michelin-style restaurant.

Some are screaming, some are crawling under tables, others are throwing food and bashing their cutlery. There are chunks of sea bass on the floor and raspberry coulis running down one of the walls. A woman behind me is picking broccoli out of her son’s ears.

At our beautifully-decorated table, I’m on the verge of a meltdown. From the pristine white tablecloth to the waiters brandishing china plates and silver cloches, everywhere I look are disasters waiting to happen.

Sarah Rainey with Flynn left and Charlie Right at the First Ever Fine Dining ‘Titch’elin Restaurant for Children under 3A one-off ‘Michelin-starred’ food experience for babies and toddlers

‘Are you having fun?’ asks a smiling woman, introducing herself as Mulu Sun, the woman behind this fresh hell and founder of V&Me, a new, high-end children’s food brand.

She’s invited parents here today to showcase the delicious dishes her chefs can whip up for under-threes. Mercifully, the restaurant set-up – dubbed a ‘Titchelin’ dinner – is a one off: V&Me is a cross between Deliveroo and HelloFresh, offering daily meal deliveries in a handy kit that covers lunch, dinner and snacks.

The meals, which are all salt and sugar-free, are cooked each day by a team of top chefs who previously worked in the country’s swankiest kitchens.

Quite why they’d want to swap fine dining for whingeing infants is anyone’s guess, but more of that later.

Today’s menu – which reads like something you’d find at a Heston Blumenthal restaurant – fills me with both intrigue and dread.

As a food writer and cook myself, I’m embarrassed by my children’s fussy eating habits. I know I should be doing more to broaden their horizons but, like many working parents, the daily juggle wipes me out, meaning mealtimes mean a rummage in the fridge for something quick and easy.

My eldest – who refused to eat anything but coconut yoghurt and Weetabix until he was almost one – prefers his plate entirely beige, while my youngest survives mostly on supermarket pouches, cucumber slices and rice cakes.

This menu couldn’t be more different. First up is an ‘edible garden’, comprising chickpea puree, black olive crumb, asparagus, carrots and radishes, topped with edible flowers.

It looks like a work of art. Charlie says it reminds him of a plant pot. But, to my surprise, both boys tuck in enthusiastically, licking the puree off the vegetables and even trying the flowers.

Sarah's son Flynn tucks into the deconstructed cheesecake at the V&Me event while she watches on

Sarah’s son Flynn tucks into the deconstructed cheesecake at the V&Me event while she watches on

The main course is called ‘Taste of the Ocean’, an ambitious offering given my two often turn their noses up at fish fingers.

On the plate is a fillet of seabass, jersey royal potatoes, broccoli and a few smears and splodges that I learn are lemon foam, tapioca ‘sand’ and a savoury sponge.

This one is less of a success. Flynn’s mostly ends up on the floor, while Charlie wolfs down the potatoes and rejects the rest, declaring the fish ‘too fishy’, the veg ‘cold’ and the artfully-arranged garnishes ‘yucky’.

I’m more than happy to mop up the leftovers – it’s delicious. In fact, Mulu tells me parents often double-up on orders so the whole family can eat V&Me meals, not just the kids.

‘Many of our families order from us every day of the week,’ she says. ‘My husband and I eat the meals at home, too; for us, eating the same thing as our son is a reminder to eat together at the table.’

For dessert, there’s ‘deconstructed’ raspberry and blueberry cheesecake; in other words, blobs of whipped cream cheese, berries and sauce.

This goes down a storm with the tiny diners, and it’s a clever move by the chef not to bother constructing it in the first place.

‘Even if they don’t eat it, it’s a good sensory experience,’ says Mulu, watching with thinly-veiled horror as my baby smashes his fists into a lurid yellow mango puree.

Parents choose which days they¿d like meals 24 hours in advance, select one of three delivery slots online ¿ and wait for the food to turn up. Pictured: Sarah, Flynn, Charlie and their waiter and waitress

Parents choose which days they’d like meals 24 hours in advance, select one of three delivery slots online – and wait for the food to turn up. Pictured: Sarah, Flynn, Charlie and their waiter and waitress 

Mulu, 35, an Oxford graduate who’s expecting her second child in September, came up with the idea for her company while on maternity leave in 2020.

‘I’m a big foodie. Before having my son, my husband and I loved trying different cuisines and restaurants. We were so excited about the weaning journey and the world of flavours we wanted to show our son.

‘But when he turned six months old, it was much harder than I imagined. For a while he would only eat plain pasta with tomato sauce, and vegetables and fruits.

‘The only way I could get meat into him was by giving him a blueberry with each mouthful. It was fine until he went to nursery, where he kept getting sick.

‘It turned out his iron level was low, which meant lower immunity. Not only did I feel like a failure, but mealtimes got even more stressful, trying to get the right nutritional balance.’

Inspired by her own struggles, and having sought advice from friends and experts in children’s health, Mulu founded V&Me, catering for busy families who want to avoid falling back on supermarket pouches and frozen ready meals.

Parents choose which days they’d like meals 24 hours in advance, select one of three delivery slots online – and wait for the food to turn up.

Each dish arrives hot (they promise no more than an hour between dishing up and delivery), with storage and reheating instructions, in recyclable containers that double up as bowls if you¿re out and about. Pictured: Flynn tucks into his seabass

Each dish arrives hot (they promise no more than an hour between dishing up and delivery), with storage and reheating instructions, in recyclable containers that double up as bowls if you’re out and about. Pictured: Flynn tucks into his seabass 

Each dish arrives hot (they promise no more than an hour between dishing up and delivery), with storage and reheating instructions, in recyclable containers that double up as bowls if you’re out and about.

The everyday food isn’t quite as fancy as today’s fare – think spaghetti and meatballs, spring vegetable lasagne and roasted tomato soup – but it’s a cut above what I normally feed my children.

‘We aim to strike a balance between new flavours and old favourites,’ Mulu explains. ‘All our recipes are planned by two paediatric dieticians, who monitor portion size, carbs, proteins and nutrients, and they’re all taste-tested by children to get their seal of approval.’

Mulu has no background in food or children’s health, but what she lacks in experience she makes up for in enthusiasm.

She was so convinced by her idea that she quit her job at a tech company, persuaded her husband to leave his too, and gambled their life savings on it.

V&Me launched from the kitchen table of their London home in March 2021; today, it boasts funding from some of Europe’s top investment firms and weekly orders from 300 families. For now, they only deliver across London, but she plans to launch in other UK cities by the end of the year.

It’s certainly a lucrative industry to break into. The baby and toddler food market is worth £1.4 billion in the UK alone, with 78 per cent of parents relying on supermarket food pouches, meals and drinks, according to research by Mintel.

V&Me costs £7.99 a day for under-ones and £10.99 a day for toddlers. Sarah, Flynn and Charlie with their food (pictured)

V&Me costs £7.99 a day for under-ones and £10.99 a day for toddlers. Sarah, Flynn and Charlie with their food (pictured)

While she admits to giving her son, now three-and-a-half, the odd ready meal, Mulu insists he – and all our children – deserve better.

‘To me it is shocking that we don’t have mandatory nutritional standards for pre-schoolers, like we do for school-age kids.

‘As a society, we spend billions of pounds on adults’ healthy eating, but when it comes to baby food, there is nothing comparable to what we’re doing. That needs to change.’

It’s hard not to admire her passion, but how realistic is fine dining for your little darlings?

For a start, it’s expensive: V&Me costs £7.99 a day for under-ones and £10.99 a day for toddlers.

Feeding my two this way for a week would cost a whopping £84.92 – more than our weekly shop. It may taste good, but I don’t know anyone who could afford it.

‘We use the best ingredients, we have a top-of-the-range kitchen, and we’re delivering to your door,’ Mulu says, by way of justification. ‘As we expand, we want to make things more affordable, and we are exploring a pick-up option.’

Hiring top chefs – V&Me’s big selling point – doesn’t come cheap, either. And while cooking for kids might not be everyone’s cup of tea, apparently there was stiff competition for the job.

Kwesi and his team ¿ depending on demand, he has up to three others assisting in the kitchen ¿ get up at 4.30am every day to shop, prep and start cooking for the company¿s first deliveries at 9am. Pictured: Sarah and Charlie with the seabass

Kwesi and his team – depending on demand, he has up to three others assisting in the kitchen – get up at 4.30am every day to shop, prep and start cooking for the company’s first deliveries at 9am. Pictured: Sarah and Charlie with the seabass 

‘We started searching during lockdown, when lots of chefs were out of work,’ says Mulu. ‘I looked through 350 CVs to find a person who really understands what we are about.’

Kwesi Boller, the man behind some of London’s top fine dining restaurants – including Sea Containers and Searcy’s at The Gherkin – was hired as head chef. So what convinced him to ditch his quest for a Michelin star and cook for toddlers instead?

‘Cooking for children is more of a challenge,’ he insists. ‘They either like it or they don’t and they can’t explain why. When cooking in restaurants, diners come for the experience of eating out and know what they want. Children do not.’

Kwesi and his team – depending on demand, he has up to three others assisting in the kitchen – get up at 4.30am every day to shop, prep and start cooking for the company’s first deliveries at 9am.

The best part of his job, he says, is ‘seeing kids’ faces when they’re pleased and hearing them ask for more’. As a dad-of-two himself, he doesn’t get offended when they refuse point-blank to eat a mouthful – or throw the lot on the floor.

Speaking of which, our table now resembles a bomb site. Flynn has more cheesecake on his face and hair than in his mouth and Charlie, who’s given up entirely on his posh dinner, has resorted to chewing the napkin.

One mum is covertly feeding her 19-month-old apple juice and crackers under the table, while another is trying to stop her eight-month-old doing laps of his chair with fistfuls of tapioca.

Mulu is undeterred. Her grand plans for the future include a V&Me academy, recipe book and bases nationwide, working on a scalable model similar to that of Deliveroo.

‘This is the sort of food every child should be able to have,’ she says. ‘Five years down the line, I want us to be delivering up and down the country, to homes, nurseries, playgroups, baby classes; everywhere babies and toddlers are.

‘Having a child can be stressful and exhausting. This is the least we can do to help ease the burden at mealtimes.’

My two may not have eaten much, but it’s been interesting to see their reactions to ‘grown-up’ foods.

I’ve also enjoyed sitting down with them to eat; something I rarely do. Maybe this could be the beginning of a new culinary adventure for my boys.

We’re out the door less than 30 seconds when Charlie reminds me I bribed him with the promise of a chocolate bar on the train home. Flynn cries until I give him a packet of rice cakes.

Little foodies, it seems, they are most definitely not.

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