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After author Karen Le Billon moved her family to her husband’s hometown in France, she was confronted with a whole new approach to eating and feeding her children. She didn’t expect to be lectured for slipping her fussing toddler a snack, and she was amazed when French children happily ate everything–and behaved while doing it. In the book, Karen shares the wisdom in the “food rules” that help the French foster healthy eating habits and good manners in their children, such as avoiding emotional eating and making kids eat when adults eat. Karen Le Billon suggests ways we can adopt these tips into our North American parenting style, provides appetizing recipes, and gives us a humorous, provocative look at families, food, and children.
Growing up, my mom made us 3 meals a day, gave us very few snacks and we almost never had sweets. We as a family enjoyed long and leisurely meals together, especially at dinnertime, a tradition which still exists in my extended family and now my own. Even though this was the case, I still have had extraordinary challenges around teaching my son what and how to eat. I am first to admit I made some mistakes early on in his life which has shaped his eating preferences, but I continue each day and at every meal to change that for the better. What I found interesting about Karen’s book is that she provides tangible answers to some of the biggest eating challenges we as parents have, especially for older kids who are picky eaters. As I read her book, I tried out some of her rules such as “limit snacking” and it has helped my son eat more and try more new foods at mealtime. Taking a step back to think about who was really in charge at mealtime was also eye opening for me. We instituted her rule #1 that the parent is in charge and it has given me more confidence and a better perspective for when my son becomes difficult at mealtime. I have also stopped using foods (particularly sweets) as a distraction, reward or bribe to encourage him to better appreciate the foods I do offer him.
I have asked Karen to elaborate on some of my questions about what to do with the finicky eaters, which is what I believe most parents deal with in some form. I hope you find this helpful and I encourage you to read French Kids Eat Everything for a fresh approach to some of our most common eating challenges with kids.
If you have finicky or fussy eaters especially those over the age of 3, what is the best approach to get them to eat new foods?
What we learned in France is that it’s normal for kids to go through a fussy phase, which normally starts between the ages of 2 and 3. French parents are told to introduce a large variety of foods when their children are very young, so that their children have well developed palates, and enjoy eating a wide range of foods, before they go through their fussy phase.
When and if kids do start being fussy, the French usually apply this food rule (Food Rule #6 in the book): “You don’t have to like it, but you do have to taste it.” The parental role is one of educator; just like teaching a child to read (showing kids letters, phonemes, and new words), you teach a child to eat–learning tastes, taste combinations, and textures. This takes years! So it doesn’t mean your kids eat everything perfectly overnight.
They also distinguish between picky and fussy eaters. For more on this, see my blog post here: http://bit.ly/AoxSxp. With fussy eaters, they apply another version of Food Rule #6: “You don’t have to like it, but you do have to taste it.”
If your child continues to turn their nose up at new foods, after trying that method, what do you recommend?
Persistence, and calm. French scientists have shown that children need to taste a few food, on average, 7 times before they will accept to eat it. So French parents try multiple times. But they don’t serve the same vegetable night after night, and don’t try to force or cajole. Rather, French parents they make new foods fun, tasty, and inviting. There is a tips section in the book which explains the different tactics that they use.
In the past, when my son refused foods, I would either say to him, “take 2 or 3 more bites and you are done” or tell him “if he didn’t eat his dinner he couldn’t have dessert”. Your mother-in-law suggested that you take away the meal with little fuss and no discussion and that they will eat more at the next meal. I tried this but my son threw a fit. My husband finally gave back the meal to him and he did eat it. Should I have let him have the temper tantrum because I took the meal away or should I have let him have the dinner after I took it away? Getting to through both of these situations were stressful and didn’t live up to your rule #10 (Eating is joyful, not stressful). I don’t know how it could have been less stressful.
Such a great question. I know from my own experience how hard these situations can be. We had similar situations with both of our daughters. In both cases, we were advised to be consistent. We said: “no dessert if you don’t eat your dinner”. And we didn’t give them dessert. My older daughter had a tantrum, which we let her have, without giving in. My younger daughter went to her room, brooded for 10 minutes, then came back to the table and ate her dinner without a word of complaint. IF they know you’re really firm and consistent, the French believe, they won’t test the rule too many times.
Re: joyful eating. The Food Rules are goals, but not strict regulations! The goal is to get to a place where eating is joyful. I know from my own experience that this is a process, which takes time–you will eventually get there, but (just like learning to read) it takes a while, and practice, before it is fun and easy. Dinnertime isn’t perfect at our house…but it is much better than it used to be. So if you think of this as a process of learning together with your child, it takes the pressure off, and hopefully makes it easier to imagine getting to the place where eating together is joyful.
If your child takes only a few bites of dinner (in an effort to show you they “tried” something new) do you still give them dessert?
The French give small portions of new foods (or “foods that kids are learning to love”, as I define them!), which makes it easier for children. IF they want more, they can ask for more. Giving small portions means that you avoid getting into a pressure-filled ‘eat more’ situation. Plus, kids find it less overwhelming. We have little ramekins in which I just put a small amount of the new food.
Also, I found that the French encourage children to listen to their own feelings of fullness. They ask them: “Are you still hungry?” They don’t ask “Are you full.” There’s a difference!
And I always make sure our kids have something they like on their plates, so trying new foods doesn’t become overwhelming for them.
What do you recommend as lunch ideas for kids who eat at school?
People can check out the ‘French Kids School Lunch Project’ (http://karenlebillon.com/tag/
What are some of your favorite snacks ideas?
French snacks are traditionally simple and healthy. Slices of fruit, yogurt, apple sauce or fruit compote. But they are also a moment in the day for ‘treats’. My mother-in-law might give the kids one square of dark chocolate, for example. Or buttered baguette. The French believe it’s OK to have treats, as long as it’s in moderation! That way, kids don’t feel deprived.
Importantly, French kids only snack once a day. This is a key rule of French food education (and Food Rule # 7) in the book. For an explanation of why this is the case, see my blog post here: http://bit.ly/z6ULQm.
**Contest Rules and Regulations**
Ideas/Recipes should be send to: [email protected]. Dates to enter contest: March 27-April 6th. This contest is open to everyone, everywhere that reads A Family That Eats Together. Winners will be chosen on best Healthy Lunch Idea or Recipe which A Family That Eats Together publishes. Idea or Recipe choosen will be published on www.afamilythateatstogether.com by April 27, 2012. It is up to the prize winner to provide A Family That Eats Together their address for the book delivery by April 13, 2012. If the winner does not provide their address by said date, the prize will be forfeited to an alternate winner.
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