Have you noticed that Americans are mildly obsessed with French culture? You could fill a small library with French-themed self-help titles from the past 5 years. Did you know French women don’t get fat, but they also don’t get facelifts? There are books all about it! Want to learn to dress like a French mom? It’s been blogged about extensively.
One popular topic in Francophile literature is the matter of child-rearing. Case in point: Journalist Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting spent months on the NYT bestseller list. What do the French know that we don’t know?
A couple of nights ago, I was scrolling through Pinterest when I saw an infographic, which listed key points from Karen Le Billon's French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters.
The most prominent food rule on the graphic, placed smack dab in the center of the image in large, red print, is "kids eat what adults eat!”
I have not read Le Billon’s book, though it is on my list. The premise is an interesting one, and one that would appeal to many parents. Really, what parent of a picky eater WOULDN’T wish for less dramatic mealtimes?
I love this notion of feeding the entire family one meal every night at dinner. Really, I do. But as the mom of a recovering finicky eater, I can tell you that this is often much easier in theory than in practice. Sometimes we give in because we worry our children won’t receive proper nutrition. Sometimes we want to eat dinner later than our kids. And sometimes we just can’t stand the whining.
Still, it is worth the effort to transition your picky child toward eating the same meals that you do. It will save you time and energy. More importantly, it will help you to model proper nutrition for your child, which will play a significant role in how she eats throughout her life span (1).
So let’s say your toddler has not been eating coq au vin right beside you at the dinner table since infancy. How do you transition your child from "kid meals” (i.e., chicken fingers and mac and cheese) to family meals?
Here are 5 strategies to get your picky eater on the same menu as the rest of the family:
1. Get to the bottom of pickiness.
Pickiness in younger kids often stems from a desire for autonomy (1). In other words, when your kiddo requests a different meal from the rest of the family (little stinker), he may be trying to exercise choice and control. Use this to your advantage.
As you plan your family meals, say to your picky child, “We can have green beans or carrots with dinner tonight. Which do you prefer?” Providing a limited set of choices allows him the freedom to choose, but it also establishes that you expect him to eat a vegetable with dinner.
2. Have patience.
Did you know that it may take more than 20 exposures for a child to accept a new food into the diet (2)? Don’t give up. If your child rejects the the adult menu you offer, try an item from it again in a couple of weeks. You may experiment with different seasonings or textures (for example, you may try lightly breading your chicken in Panko rather than grilling it). Eventually, the food will seem less scary to your child.
3. Celebrate little victories (but not too much!).
Isn’t it awesome when your picky kiddo tries your dinner and likes it? Really, is there anything better? Feel free to acknowledge the milestone (“It makes me so happy to see you enjoying the fish that mama made!”), but move on quickly from your praise-lavishing.
You want eating a family dinner to become a normal, expected behavior. Kids are crafty, and if you go too crazy when they eat the same foods as you, they may regress toward rejecting foods, just so you will praise them when they eat well.
Similarly, resist the urge to reward your child with food for eating a good dinner. This teaches her that some foods (i.e., cupcakes) are more desirable than others (i.e., veggies). It also encourages her to eat beyond the point of hunger, rather than to be mindful of hunger and fullness cues.
4. Ease into it.
If the adults at the table are eating a course that the children will likely reject, that does not mean the kids need an entirely separate meal. Getting them to eat some of the same components is a step in the right direction!
Today, my girls are helping me make jerk chicken, but they are wary of spicy foods. I will offer them jerk chicken, cauliflower rice, and plantains, which is what my husband and I will eat. I also held aside a couple of chicken legs that are seasoned with just salt and pepper. This way, if the chicken is too spicy, I can still offer a similar plate that is more pleasing to their palates.
5. Show a little tough love.
No parent wants her kiddo to go to bed hungry, but sometimes you just know that your kid is using food to control you (aka, being a booger). My 4-year-old will often eat two bites, declare that she is full, then request dessert 10 minutes later. If I ask why she did not eat her dinner, she might say, “I wasn’t hungry for meatloaf.”
Lately, when my daughter says she is no longer hungry early in the meal, we have been allowing her to stop eating, but we have informed her that there will be no snacks. If she tells us she is hungry between dinner and bedtime, she will have to eat more of her dinner.
In respecting her choice to stop eating, we are trusting her to decide when her belly is just full enough, which is an important skill to cultivate. But we are also letting her know that she will not manipulate us into making her a different dinner, or into giving her dessert out of fear that she will go to bed hungry.
How about you, parents and caregivers? Have you read these French parenting books? Do your kids eat the same meals as the adults at the table? How did you get there?
P.S. If this is a topic that interests you, I highly recommend Ellyn Satter’s work. Satter is an RDN who is an authority on pediatric feeding behaviors. She has a website, and you can find her books on Amazon.
1. Ong C, Phuah KY, Salazar E, How How C. Managing the ‘picky eater’ dilemma.Singapore Med J. 2014;55(4):184-190. doi: 10.11622/smedj.2014049.
2. Satter E. The Picky Eater. Ellyn Satter Institute. http://ellynsatterinstitute.org/htf/thepickyeater.php. Published 2016. Accessed July 18, 2016.