A few months ago I read Bringing Up Bébé, written by Pamela Druckerman about her discovery of the wisdom of French parenting. I was interested by her description of the French parenting approach to food and was spurred on to read French Kids Eat Everything.
French food culture is vastly different, and I will dare to say superior, to American food culture. The French are very serious about their food and very serious about enjoying it fully. Experiencing a wide variety of foods is considered one of the most important parts of a child's education. Introducing foods like beets and blue cheese happens before the age of one. Because of this different food culture, French children are happy eaters who eat a variety of foods that many American adults would not willingly consume.
Last year I became utterly fed up by Maggie's food demands. I was unhappy about feeding her chicken nuggets and macaroni, then cooking myself a "real food" dinner from farmers market produce. I realized that things needed to change. What I did was remove the option for Maggie to have any choice over her food. There would be one food option for dinner and she could choose to eat it or not to eat it - but if she didn't eat it there would be no alternative offered.
After some initial resistance, the change I wanted to see happened. Now Maggie will happily eat most things I put on the table. She understands that I work hard to create tasty and healthy meals for our family and that complaining about them or requesting different food is not an option. This isn't to say she is perfect and NEVER complains, because she is after all a five year old, but the meltdowns over food are few and far between.
French Kids Eat Everything inspired us to take things a step farther and encourage Maggie to eat even more adventurously, while also taking more chances with food ourselves. We have started incorporating some of these French-inspired ideas into our own "education," both for Maggie and for me and Josh.
1. Encourage a spirit of adventure and exploration. Ask questions about each food, such as "What does this feel like in your mouth?" and "What does this taste like to you?" The latter question has had several responses from Maggie that go like this: "It tastes like burned up _____ !" but said with enthusiasm and not disgust.
2. Encourage Maggie to try foods that I don't like (cucumbers, peaches, bell peppers) and try those foods again myself.
3. Eat adventurously. I made a list of fruits and veggies for us to try - there are so many that Maggie has never had! Belgian endive, broccoli rabe, Swiss chard, turnip, rutabaga, edamame... and even MORE fruits! Plums, apricots, peaches, grapefruit, starfruit, mango, pomegranate, and so many more.
4. Don't stop at one try. Offer the same food in different presentations. If we try plums, first offer them raw, then baked in a cake, then maybe stewed, then maybe in a sauce to put atop pork chops.
5. Don't make food emotional. Do not use food as a reward, comfort, or punishment. Don't use threats like, "You can't have your dessert until you eat your vegetables," but instead explain that there is a logical sequence to mealtime - vegetables to build a healthy body, then dessert as a special treat.
6. Teach Maggie to prepare healthy, delicious food. My own mom cooked a lot of great, healthy meals for me when I was little and I wish she had passed on some of her cooking skills to me. By the time Maggie is ready to head out on her own I'd like to have taught her the basics of cooking real food.
My end goal is for Maggie to enjoy food and have a healthy relationship with it, avoiding the emotional pitfalls that myself and so many other Americans can become trapped in.
Last week we ate Brussels sprouts (cooked with bacon and apple cider vinegar, mmm!) because Maggie had asked about the "little lettuce" at the grocery store. The sprouts were a success, and so was the pear butternut squash soup that she "helped" me cook after she had asked about making some soup with the pears from our side yard tree. It's been a happy little start to this new food adventure.