How can I prevent my baby from becoming a picky eater? We have lots of fussy eaters in the family and I want to help him learn to like a variety of foods.
What a great question! Picky eating is very common in our part of the world, but it’s not like that everywhere. Let’s take a trip and let the French give us some lessons.
When I first learned about how French kids eat, I was absolutely blown away. Physiologically, those children’s stomachs are the same as ours, but as you’ll see, their eating habits are miles apart. Apparently, nurture matters far more than nature when it comes to kids’ eating habits.
In France, food is serious business. Each meal is an event, even at school, where the children have their leisurely lunch in the restaurant scolaire (school canteen). There’s no gobbling here; the French Ministry of National Education has made 30 minutes the minimum requirement of time children must sit at the table. The actual time given for lunch break is usually one and a half to two hours! But more amazing than the time provided is the food that is served—and eaten! Kids’ menus are unheard of here. Even in maternelle (kindergarten), the children eat meals we might order in a real restaurant. They are also taught skills such as setting a table with real dishes, pouring drinks, and using table manners. Camaraderie is considered an essential mealtime ingredient, and children are encouraged to enjoy each other’s company as well as the meal.
Lunch menus are developed two months ahead of time and sent to parents not only so they know what the kids are having for lunch, but to ensure that families make dinner plans accordingly so that their children don’t—gasp!—eat a similar item for dinner. They are detailed and varied and include gourmet items even for France’s smallest citizens. Dietitians are involved in planning the menus to ensure that meals are nutritious and balanced, and considerations such as color and texture are taken into account so that meals are appealing to the eye as well as the palate. One mother, not native to France, described her three-year-old’s menu as “a work of art.”
Each school lunch is required to include four courses: a starter of vegetables, salad or soup: a warm main course high in protein with a side dish of vegetables or grains; a cheese course or dairy product; and a dessert, which usually consists of fresh or cooked fruit but can also be a sweet treat. Each meal comes with a side of bread, and the only beverage served is water. A preschooler’s lunch menu might be artisanal baguette, green salad, salmon spaghetti, goat cheese, and a pear. Some menu items I came across include soy steak with basil and tomatoes, pollock with lemon sauce, spinach gratin, and lamb with curry sauce. For kids. In school. Even preschool.
We may not be aiming for a childhood culinary experience of this level, but we do want our kids to eat meals happily, so here are some lessons we can learn from this French phenomenon:
1. Prioritize. The French make a big deal about food. In their schools, learning to eat well is actually on the curriculum, just like reading and arithmetic. They don’t leave eating to chance. Meals are well planned, and eating doesn’t happen haphazardly. French children eat at very specific set times and have only one snack mid-afternoon that doesn’t interfere with their late supper. This allows children to build up an appetite for meals and helps them try new foods more readily. Many of these foods are items that we in the US have been led to believe are unhealthy, and yet French children—as well as French adults—are actually healthier than their American counterparts. There are many factors contributing to what is known as “the French paradox,” but for our purposes I can tell you that when kids aren’t constantly snacking, they’re going to come to mealtime more willing to eat their veggies and are less likely to consume low-nutrient choices throughout the day. The French view food as an important and pleasurable part of their lives, rather than something to be feared. And they are healthier for it.
2. Make time. In France, there is a strong feeling that Americans don’t give food the respect it deserves. When something is valuable to you, you devote time to it. In that part of the world, meals aren’t eaten on the go. Plenty of time is allowed for enjoyment and digestion. When children sit at a relaxed table, they have more time to experiment with the foods provided and are more likely to try new items.
3. Ensure balance. Meals are planned with nutrition in mind. Dietitians play a critical role in the meal-planning process in schools, and they consider food to be a delicious way to promote health. However, health is not the focus at mealtimes. It’s taken care of behind the scenes. By the time the food is on the table, it’s just meant to be enjoyed. Recent research shows that when you make a fuss about how healthy a food is, young children are actually less likely to want to try it because it’s hard for them to understand that a food can be both healthful and tasty. In their minds, it’s either one or the other. When they get older you can start educating them about nutrition, but at mealtime the idea is that food should taste good. So, yes, consider nutrition when planning and cooking, but there’s no need for it to be part of your table discussion.
4. Provide variety. Repetition is a big no-no. There are strict rules in France dictating how frequently a dish can appear on the menu, and great care is taken to rotate ingredients and preparation methods so that meals remain exciting.
5. Employ moderation. Rich choices have their place on the menu but are eaten less frequently. This shows children that all foods can be included appropriately and ensures both health and satisfaction. It’s okay to enjoy a treat, but everything has its right time.
6. Maintain boundaries. At a French meal, everyone knows his place. The adults provide the meal and the children eat it. Just one meal option is provided. There are plenty of foods included at the meal, but children cannot ask for something that is not on the menu, and they do not bring lunch from home. There is no backup option and there is no short-order cooking. When there’s just one meal on the table, everyone learns to find something to eat.
7. Enjoy! The faculty at a school near Paris puts it this way:
Mealtime is a particularly important moment in a child’s day. Our responsibility is to provide children with healthy, balanced meals; to develop their sense of taste; to help children, complementing what they learn at home, to make good food choices without being influenced by trends, media, and marketing; and to teach them the relationship between eating habits and health. But above all else, we aim to enable children to spend joyful, convivial moments together.
Kids need to feel good about coming to the meal. Is the environment one of criticism and commands, or relaxation and warmth? If your table is a happy place to be, you will have much happier eaters who are more willing to taste the food that is offered.
There is so much about this approach that is vastly different from what we are used to, and the sheer amount of time and effort invested into these meals does seem intimidating. The good news is that learning from the French approach to food is not an all-or-nothing proposition. There’s lots we can learn, but I don’t think we should swallow their food philosophy whole. While much of what the French do is clearly helpful in establishing healthy habits, the reverence they have for mealtime does seem a bit…much. Food is something that we are meant to appreciate and enjoy, but it’s simply the means to an end, not an end unto itself.
By incorporating just some of the lessons above into your own lifestyle, you can enjoy the results without shifting your entire perspective. Trying to include a bit more variety in your meals, paying closer attention to meal and snack times, or adding an extra touch to make meals more aesthetically pleasing can all benefit your family and help encourage more adventurous eating.
So, letter writer, did you enjoy the trip? I hope you picked up a souvenir or two that will help you lay the foundation for raising your own adventurous eater!