Picky Eating Part 1: The Cure

Our first son never really had a picky eating stage.  But our second more than made up for it.  He ate absolutely everything until he was about three and a half.  Then every day he would stop liking another favorite food.  Eventually we were down to little more than boxed macaroni and cheese and broccoli.

One night, he decided there was cheese on his casserole.  No amount of swearing on Bibles, explaining, or demonstrating would convince him otherwise.  Finally Pat just started yelling at him.  One thing we know is that if we engage this kid in a battle of wills, we will not win.  But it was too late.  Isaac threw himself on the floor kicking and screaming and pretty soon everyone at the table was either yelling or crying.  Something had to be done.

I looked up “picky eating” the next morning and came across Karen LeBillon’s bestselling book, French Kids Eat Everything.  By the third chapter, I knew I’d struck gold. Le Billon moved to her husband’s home town in France with their two daughters.  Culture shock set in quickly.  Especially when it came to feeding her daughters.  Her husband’s family, their friends, their girls’ schools all rebuked her for her permissive, indulgent attitude toward snacks and meals.  Instead of retreating or growing resentful, Le Billon began observing and asking questions.  She soaked up everything she could learn about how the French eat.  She was amazed at how French children enjoyed food and she wanted her daughters to be able to join them.  Her determination and success were encouraging.

Le Billon’s book is a quick read, peppered with funny anecdotes and relevant research.  For something so light, it’s surprisingly powerful.  Her principles of healthy eating are ones my family innately understands, but has trouble putting into practice on a day to day basis.  Le Billon, however, puts them in simple terms and lays out a plan that any busy parent could live with.

And why should we do what the French do?  For one, France’s rate of childhood obesity is one of the lowest in the developed world.  Obesity is increasing in most of the Western world, but in France, obesity rates are stable and may even be decreasing.  The French are to be envied—they’re thin, healthy and well-fed (this is true of most French people–not just the rich). Another reason is French kids really do eat everything.  They are often adventurous, curious, enthusiastic eaters.  Why should we not want that for our own children?

In principle, I’m opposed to rules.  Especially rules about food.  Rules make eating a source of anxiety and can turn food and cooking into a chore instead of a pleasure.  This book didn’t scare me off, though.  There are rules, but throughout the book she reminds us the most important thing is that we relax and enjoy meals together. Sometimes advice to relax makes me anxious, but this makes sense.  She shares how hard it was for her to fit in and understand how the French do things.  She recounts many of the times her mother-in-law scolded her for how she fed her kids.  She is like most American moms- worried about her kids’ eating habits and health, but too busy to cook and too tired to deal with the whining and tantrums that new foods inspire.  She put all her energy into learning to fit into French society–and that, of course, meant learning to eat.  If she could do it under such stressful circumstances, I can at least try.  So these rules (slightly edited) are the exception to my rule about no rules.

1.  Parents:  You are in charge of Food Education

2.  Avoid emotional eating.  Food is not a pacifier, a toy, a bribe, a reward, or a substitute for discipline.

3.  Parents schedule meals and menus.  Kids eat what adults eat:  no short-order cooking.

4.  Food is social.  Eat family meals together, with no distractions.

5.  Eat vegetables of all colors of the rainbow.  Don’t eat the same main dish more than once per week.

6.  For picky eaters:  You don’t have to like it, but you do have to taste it.

7.  Limit snacks, ideally one per day (two maximum), and not within one hour of meals.

8.  Take your time, for both cooking and eating.  Slow food is happy food.

9.  Eat mostly real, homemade food, and save treats for special occasions.

10.  Eating is joyful, not stressful.  Treat the food rules as habits rather than strict regulations. 

Le Billon also offers some examples of how to respond to complaints of hunger and demands for snacks:

You don’t like it?  That’s because you haven’t tasted it enough times yet.  Maybe next time!

You’re hungry:  That’s fine.  You’ll really appreciate your [insert next meal].  We’er having something really yummy: [insert name of dish].

If you eat well at mealtimes, you won’t be hungry in between.

You’re still hungry?  I guess you should have eaten more at your last meal.

When I finished the book (24 hours after I got it), I sat down with my husband and we discussed the rules.  We agreed to implement them for at least four weeks—putting all our effort into following them as closely as possible.  We had low expectations—we’d tried “methods” before and always gave up after a week or so.  Two nights later, however, we looked at each other across the dinner table and just shook our heads in disbelief.  It was working.

The next week, I heard Isaac talking to a friend (a notoriously picky eater) about trying some fruit salad.  “Just take one bite to see if you like it,” he said.  I almost fell over.  Soon after this, upon trying some grilled fish (he hadn’t tried fish in three years, by the way), he asked, “Is this one of those things I’ll like when I’m older?”  My other son piped in, “Yes, Isaac.  You’ll like it when you’re my age.”  Score.  We are by no means perfect parents of perfect eaters.  We never will be.  It’s a process and forming good habits takes years.  The proof will be how our kids eat as adults.

When we do “follow the rules,”  we all eat far better.   And cooking and eating together is making us closer as a family.  If you’re going to listen to anybody about food, it should be the French.  Nobody in the world takes the enjoyment of food more seriously.  But it helps that Le Billon isn’t French.  She is like most moms in the U.S. (although she’s Canadian), so you know she’s been through the same meal time trials.  Besides, I wouldn’t want to listen to some skinny French woman telling me how to feed my kid.

Watch the Katie Couric interview with Karen Le Billon!

2 Comments on “Picky Eating Part 1: The Cure”

  1. […] Picky Eating Part 1: The Cure (phoenixfoodfighters.com) Share this:FacebookEmailPrintPinterestMoreTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]

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