As a teenager I suffered from depression – anorexia and bulimia were my symptoms. Fortunately, in my 20s, I was able to disentangle my eating habits from the mess in my head. I was lucky: sadness or self-hatred is hard enough to address, but locked behind an eating disorder, the why becomes ever more elusive. So when I got pregnant, aged 30, I was determined that no child of mine would have food issues.
This fantasy was exploded two weeks after my first son was born, when the community midwife said that Oscar had lost over 10% of his bodyweight. I wasn't producing enough milk. I supplemented with formula, but fought to maintain breastfeeding with manic zeal, expressing at 5am, pouring each dribble into a bottle and freezing it, until, over days, I collected 4oz. My need to be the source of nutritional perfection pursued Oscar into toddlerhood. In my panic to ensure there was no problem, I came close to creating one – mealtimes were fraught with expectation and anxiety. Oscar's existence was a plague of broccoli soup, oats and couscous. In defiance of sense or appetite, I'd urge my son to finish every bite.
Six years later, I see how my shifting attitudes towards nutrition have affected my three children. I want food to be a source of joy and contentment. But with a history of food abuse, it's hard to be a perfect role model. Parents like me face a curious dichotomy; our primal instinct is to nurture our children and yet that socially programmed fear of fat leads us to imagine them 20 years hence being craned out of their bedrooms.
I try to lead by example. I eat normally, do not diet or whinge about my body. And yet, traces of the anorexic mindset still linger. If I see a child digging through the cupboards for an evening snack I shout, "You can't be hungry! You just ate a massive dinner!" I know this reaction does my kids more harm than a biscuit – yet, on I rant, imbuing them with shame and guilt over nothing. Once I told the older boys that sweets clog your arteries with fat and stop your heart.
On occasion, my behaviour around food falls between deeply unsettling and psychologically traumatic. If they eat too much or too little, I envisage catastrophe – and I don't always contain it. The youngest, three, likes to eat his dinner on the floor, like a dog, in front of Scooby-Doo. If I insist we eat at the table, Sir is prone – however hungry – to leave his meal to congeal on the plate. I believe the correct parental response at this point is jovial indifference.
"Eat your dinner!" I roar. Caspar, the three year old jumps off his chair and stamps away. In silence, I scrape his food into the bin. He cries and says, "You're not my friend."
Struggling not to be utterly awful, I eventually manage a cool, "It's fine. I just don't want you to be hungry later."
But, of course, Caspar has decoded my reaction. Next time I switch off the TV, he slyly states his intention to feed his supper to the cat. I duly erupt, confirming that threatening not to eat is a powerful blackmail tool – and that he is in control. Minutes later, I assure Caspar that it's all the same to me. Yet, as I tuck him into bed I'm still asking, "Do you want a banana?"
An eating disorder is not requisite to passing on hang-ups about food to your offspring – though plainly, it helps. Last year, a 17-stone woman made headlines when she admitted that she had put her two-year-old daughter on a diet. Anorexia was preferable to obesity, she said. Despite the outrage, it was clear she only wanted to spare her daughter the agony of self-hatred that in so many women, and increasing numbers of men, is played out through body image.
I was less militant with the second child – tellingly, aged six, he is neither possessive nor paranoid about food. Last Sunday lunch he consumed a mountain of beef, roast potatoes, leeks mornay, French beans, sausages, Yorkshire puddings, gravy, cherry pie and ice cream. Yet if I give him a cereal bar after school, he will snap off a third and give it to the three year old. This week, he baked fairy cakes in class and saved the biggest for his big brother.
Having conditioned my first child to consume every last morsel, regardless of want or need, I am now relieved at the sight of leftovers. At home, he eats fast and often asks for seconds – which may have less to do with hunger than sibling rivalry. But after school, I find half of his packed lunch uneaten because he's rushed outside to play. It seems that a gaggle of football-crazy eight-year olds have overridden my mistakes.
I have also tried to give my children space from my neuroses. "That's fine," I say, when they announce, nervously, that they've had enough. And if they want to forage for evening snacks, I force myself to leave them to it.
At last I hope I am sending the messages I want to convey.
•The Baddie, a children's book by Anna Maxted and Alex T Smith, is published by Meadowside, £4.99
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2011