Children At the Table

I’ve found a new book that threatens to be one of those books that changes the course of things. I wasn’t looking for a book about how to get my children to eat more and better foods, but it came at just the right time – in regards to food and also parenting. The book is French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon.

For the past seven months I’ve been enrolled in a kind of parenting boot camp.  I began this boot camp of my own will, but only out of desperation.  Our daughter (2) has proved to have a temperament and personality absolutely different than her older brother.  When she was only 15 months I realized that my discipline modus operandi was not going to work with her.  Thankfully I came across the book Parenting With Grace by Greg and Lisa Popcak.  This book was immeasurably helpful and very transformative for me and my husband.  It helped us realize the ways we were trying to control our children and how we had a punitive discipline mentality across the board, even when that approach was completely unnecessary and avoidable.  It helped us value each child’s will as something good that needs to be cultivated, rather than something corrupt that needs to be broken.  So much good came (and is still coming) from this book, and I will continue to consult it in the future.  All that being said, because I was so shaken in my approach to parenting and had to make drastic changes, I developed a sort of mothering insecurity.  Afraid of damaging my children by being authoritarian, I wavered in my ability to be properly authoritative.

And that’s where the book about French children’s eating habits came in.  After moving to France with her husband (who is French) and two daughters, Karen Le Billon discovered 10 food rules that helped her children become better eaters.  A big part of this food revolution was the author’s realization that she was in charge of her children’s eating habits, and that those habits had to be formed.  Enter a more authoritative mother.  Snacking is out, eating what is served is in, everything is simpler, and wonderful family dinners that taste really good are the highlight of the day.  Oh, and there are no power struggles to try to get children to eat.  Yes, yes, yes please.  I ate up most of the book (haha) in a week and immediately starting implementing some of the ideas.

While making food accommodations is still absolutely necessary for our son (the subject of another post, perhaps), we’ve begun small changes that are promising.  One idea that was very helpful to me is that children need to try a new food many times before necessarily acquiring a taste for it.  (This idea, my husband reminds me, was one he brought up long ago but that apparently didn’t stick with me!)  For our toddler this means that I keep feeding her foods that she has previously refused.  She may refuse or only accept one bite of a particular food 10 or 20 times, but eventually she may realize that she likes it.  Most foods should become tolerable or liked with enough tries and only a few flatly refused as outside the realm of edible things (much the same as most adults).  This is the process of forming her tastes to include all kinds of foods.  The French don’t shy away from strong tastes, either (think blue cheese).

Another idea that was only implicitly stated in the book is that of feeding toddlers their meals instead of letting them feed themselves.  One of the author’s daughters was in daycare in France and she happened to go in to pick her up one day while lunch was being served.  There were 16 children in the class but only four were fed at a time, with an adult in front of each child, carefully feeding them their entire lunch before four more children were placed in the highchairs.  Quite an inefficient method, but it demonstrates the great importance placed on good eating habits by French culture.  Something clicked with me when I read this, and I started feeding our daughter her meals again.  It seemed that this would make meals quite laborious for me, having to feed her every bite.  Instead I’m finding that feeding her curtails some bad and messy behaviors resulting in more peaceful meals and less cleanup.

Eliminating snacking is the last idea I want to touch on.  I think snacking is an obligatory American mothering practice.  We all carry around crackers or pretzels or SOMETHING so that our little ones will not experience the dreaded hunger pangs (and to avoid the crankiness that can follow).  This book says it’s just not necessary.  I haven’t been as good at sticking to this strategy, but to the extent that I have it has been freeing.  Imagine no more cheerio-infested car seats and cracker crumbs ground into the backseat flooring of your car.  I am imagining this because our car has looked like a mobile garbage can for way too long.  With a n0-snacking mentality comes the fact that meals must be more substantial.  Again, to the extent that I’ve done this it has simplified life and made meals more balanced and filling.  I have a long way to go.

One aspect of French child-rearing that I do not agree with, and which doesn’t get much attention in the book anyway, is that of scheduling the feeding of infants.  The author tells a story of speaking with a mother of a newborn.  The baby was crying in the background and the mother stated that yes, he was crying but would have to wait another two hours until his scheduled feeding.  I am a big proponent of breastfeeding, and breastfeeding serves a purpose far bigger than simply supplying nutritious food to a baby or toddler.  Emotional and psychological needs are being met, and these needs do not operate on a schedule.  I could go on and on, but I’ll end with that.

I would most definitely recommend this book!  It’s an easy and entertaining read, and was just exactly what I needed at this point in our family life.