Friday, February 21, 2014

Toddler Eating Habits: Taking Notes from the French

Years ago, when Luke was not yet two, we had my Grandma over for dinner at my mom's house one night. I remember having lasagna, garlic bread, and salad - which makes sense, because that's usually what my mom makes when she has people over for dinner. I made Luke a little plate of all of it, cut it all into manageable pieces, and let him go to town. He cleared his plate, as usual, and my Grandma couldn't get over the fact that he ate an actual meal. The idea hadn't really occurred to me before. When he started eating solids, I made homemade purees, and then gradually introduced food in more adult-like ways. And he just....ate it.

When he was about 3, things changed. Suddenly he had opinions and preferences and learned how to refuse the things we put in front of him. Suddenly, red sauce was gross, broccoli was no longer his choice of side with his kids meals, and even bananas were losing their appeal. It wasn't really that big of a deal, because there were plenty of other things he liked, and he never turned his nose up at fruit or lean meats - he was still eating fairly well. Until he had a brother.

Actually, it wasn't the birth of Henry that caused the change - it happened about 9 months later, when Henry finally decided that food was actually acceptable in addition to an overabundance of breastmilk (he never tolerated purees at all). When he saw Henry refusing foods and us being a little more relaxed about letting him do it (I mean, what are you gonna do, pry a baby's mouth open and stuff in his mashed carrots?) - he decided he didn't have to eat things he didn't like, either.

We didn't really notice this happening at first. It was just kind of a "toddlers are picky!" thing, and a "babies learn to like food eventually, right?" thing. And as time went on, the foods Luke would eat dwindled in numbers. Henry's menu was never very vast. For a long time, he'd only eat bananas, avocados, gerber puffs, toast, and cheerios. For a very long time. So long, in fact, that his previously above average weight became below average, and his doctors had me switch him to whole milk and encouraged me to sneak olive oil and butter into anything he ate. Time went on, and once in a while Henry would accept a new food, but just as often, Luke would suddenly decide he was over something else. And though we made the vow to never make our kids a separate meal (EXCEPT when we made the choice to serve something spicy for dinner, because we'd selfishly make it for ourselves, knowing the kids wouldn't like it - and it's not fair to force that on them), they were constantly asking for (and only eating) the typical toddler favorites. Mac and cheese, corn, chicken, french fries. Despite us going the organic route anytime we served them, I cringed a little every time. The only veggies they'd eat were cucumbers, and lettuce drenched in salad dressing. Something had to change.

Matt read an article about the methods that French parents use to avoid food battles with their kids. He wanted to try some of their ideas, and I was intrigued. I decided to read a book on my TBR list to help research these methods a little more - Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman. I disliked a lot of the ideas in this book - it went against my attachment parenting instincts, but the way they treat food and meal times really spoke to me. So we decided to give it a shot.

The first idea is that food is meant to be enjoyed. It's hard to convince kids of this - unless it's dripping in cheese or chocolate, it's not enjoyable to them. We also don't have the time or money to make gourmet meals four times a day, but the point is to make meals an enjoyable experience and not be ashamed or feel guilty about indulging reasonably. This was pretty easy to adapt to - I always added a tiny treat to my boys' lunches, or cut their sandwiches or fruit into fun shapes, so I tried to come up with more creative ideas. One of the things I do a lot is make them a little trail mix in one of the sections on their divided plates. It usually consists of pretzels or animal crackers, mixed with mini marshmallows and either chocolate chips or m&ms. This clearly is not the healthy part of our changes, but one they really enjoy. Luke always eats his healthy food first and saves his trail mix for dessert. This is the point, and works flawlessly with him. Henry, on the other hand, eats it first, and then sometimes doesn't finish the rest. No surprise.

Next is that snacking is not an all-day-long thing. There's one timed snack per day in France, and it happens in the afternoon. Their dinner is eaten quite late. That timeline didn't work for us, so instead we started a 10:30am snack time. The kids usually started asking for a snack around this time anyway, and since they go down for their naps shortly after lunch, there really isn't a need for an afternoon snack. They wake up somewhat hungry, and dinner follows soon after. It was a better formula for us to insure that they'd eat dinner - which is, for us, the most difficult meal of the day. Breakfast happens without a hitch, and that's true whether it's eggs and bacon, cereal and milk, pancakes and sausage, oatmeal and fruit - doesn't matter, they'll eat it. Lunch is usually fairly successful, also, especially since it's the meal I have the most time to play with and make it creative and indulgent looking. Dinner is the real enemy, and it's a battle we always fight because we want it to be family time.

The rules we added about dinner are this: they get a little bit of everything, even the things they historically don't like. New foods, old foods, loved and disliked foods - no exceptions (again, except in the case of spicy foods). They then have to take one bite of everything, and completely finish at least one thing. This way, both sides have some control. We get a say in their need to try everything, and they get a say in deciding what their one thing to finish is. Of course, this is the minimum - they can eat as much as they want of everything. And many times, Luke clears his plate. The idea behind 1 bite of everything is that if they keep tasting something they think they don't like, they'll eventually like it due to exposure. I don't know how long this is supposed to take, but the dramatic display Luke puts on every time he has to choke down a piece of broccoli or a green bean says a long time. Though I wouldn't be surprised if he was lying about liking something - he's as stubborn as I always was!

If the boys don't follow the dinner rules, they don't get dessert. We are just dessert people - something we were previously ashamed of, but we've since embraced it. Since I'm on Weight Watchers, we try to keep desserts in the 3-5 point range for all of us, so we aren't going crazy or anything, but dessert is still there. 

They also get a (very small) bedtime snack, regardless of their success at dinner and whether or not they had dessert. This might be 1/2 of a graham cracker or a handful of pretzels. We do this for two reasons. It takes away one of many excuses they make for not going to bed ("I'm hungry!"), and because Henry has ketotic hypoglycemia, and throws up in the morning if he hasn't eaten just before bed. But that is our personal situation, and not something done in the French style of eating (though their dinner is eaten so late, it may erase the need).

When we started using these tips, we noticed an immediate change in the kids. We had the most success with Luke, but he's older and also started off with better eating habits. Henry ate his meals with better success, but didn't broaden his menu very far. He still only eats cucumbers for veggies, and anything with a different texture is out of the question. He'd live on french fries, if we'd let him.

So here's the basics, in a nutshell.

1. Present meals as an enjoyable experience.
Give them something to be excited about, get creative with colors and presentation, talk about how delicious and interesting you find everything.

2. Stop the stream of snacks.
Plan 1-2 small snack times into the day that happen at specific times. In France, they don't carry around baggies of Cheerios!

3. Set clear rules for meal difficulties, and don't fight about it.
Make the rules obvious and reasonable, and easy to follow. If they don't follow them, they don't get dessert, or any after-dinner snacks, nor a special meal catered to their tastes. Making them take 1 bite of everything should eventually broaden their tastes.

Those are the biggest tips we took from the French style of eating. There's more to it, of course, but these made the most sense to us and fit the best into our daily lives.

We also try to get the kids involved in cooking, which occasionally helps - but Luke just loves cooking so much that he will get involved in anything in the kitchen and it does nothing to encourage him to eat it afterwards. Maybe that will change eventually, though.

If none of this works, and you're really desperate, you could also take the Deceptively Delicious route, and sneak pureed healthy food into typical toddler favorites. It doesn't do much for changing their ways, but it does get more health into their bodies. I have the cookbook and keep meaning to make some things here and there (one day, when Jake lets me have a little time to myself!). One thing we've done that's a total success? Black Bean Brownies. They have NO idea that they're made out of beans!

When Matt went back to work after his paternity leave, our snack time schedule became more difficult for us to follow, and some days out of necessity, we fail all together. But we're always working at it, and these tips have made a difference for us!


  1. It's great for parents to start teaching about healthy diet to a child before he can learn unhealthy habits outside their home.

  2. these tips are great!! How awesome that you looked outside the box to find things that work for your family.