Scene: Toddler looks at plate with vegetable on it, decides she doesn’t like it.
Mom: “Delicious! It looks so delicious!”
Mom: “I want you to take a bite.”
Mom: “Did you know that you can dip it in sauce?”
Toddler: “Really? But still no.”
Sound familiar? Raise your hand if you ever struggle to get your kids to eat healthy meals [raises own hand]. Raise your hand that, even if your child is required to take one bite of everything on his/her plate, he/she will then proceed to only eat the one required bite of the healthier items [raises own hand]. Raise your hand if you’re looking for new suggestions to get your kids to actually enjoy nutritious food [raises both hands enthusiastically].
Eating healthy is vitally important, yet extraordinarily difficult. There are entire communities where healthy food is scarce (our own neighborhood was a “food desert” until they recently installed an extraordinarily overpriced store… unsure how that solves the problem, but that’s for another post) and where nutritional education is lacking. Yet even if you have knowledge about nutrition and access to quality food, it’s often hard to implement that with success in your own home. And our culture’s relationship with food and eating is not often a help to us in this area.
I recently read the book French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon, and I absolutely loved it. The book details the year that the author, herself from North America, spent living in a small town in France with her husband and two girls. Before their year in France, her children were the quintessential picky eaters with peculiar preferences. Le Billon writes in the first chapter, “Before our family moved to France and embarked on our (unintended) experiment with French food education, dinnertime was parenting purgatory. Fries were my daughters’ favorite “vegetable.” Anything green was met with clenched teeth. Whining stopped only when dessert appeared. Our daughters subsisted on the carbohydrate and dairy-rich diet that is the mainstay of North American families. Our standbys were Cheerios, pasta, and buttered toast. We considered goldfish crackers to be a separate food group.” And yet, she goes on to remark that if you were to ask them what their favorite foods are now, her seven-year-old “[. . .] loves beets and broccoli, leeks and lettuce, mussels and mackerel— in addition to the usual suspects, like hot dogs, pizza, and ice cream.”
Le Billon’s description of her year navigating an entirely different cultural mindset and approach in regards to food is beyond fascinating, and the difference between the French and American approach to nutrition and food is stark. I have found incredible value in continuing to step outside of my own culture and consider how different people- in our own nation and around the world- parent their children and conceive of parenting in general. This book fits right into that category.
I don’t want to give away the entire book, so I will simply share two suggestions from the author that have been game-changers in our house lately:
Have You Considered… Serving Your Meals In Multiple Courses?
I can hear audible gasps already. What do you think our family is running, a five-star Michelin restaurant? I have to admit; the idea of having “courses” was about as foreign to me as any food concept has ever been. In fact, I spent a lot of time Googling “how to serve multiple courses,” but my time was only rewarded with recipes for fancy dinner menus, not suggestions on how to actually serve it.
The idea of multiple courses comes from the way that French families eat many meals— in courses. The first course, second course, third course… maybe even four. Or more? I’m forgetting.
But here’s why we’re adapting this idea for our household— it allows us to give our children vegetables first, when they are most hungry and open to trying new things.
So for example, if I made chicken and rice and broccoli for dinner, I leave the chicken and rice in the kitchen (this is key because if my kids can see it, they want it) and bring plates of broccoli to the table. We all eat broccoli for a while. Then my toddler announces when she’s ready for the “next course.” Honestly, it’s been extremely successful. Broccoli has always been a fan-favorite at our house, so that’s been easy, but we’ve also had success with things like butternut squash (previously a gag-inducing food for our littles).
This is not an every-day, every meal occurrence. Breakfast at our house never has courses. Lunchtime? Once in a while. Dinner? A couple times a week, maybe. But every time we do it, I love the concept of it more and more. It requires no extra work, but simply adds a little extra low-pressure exposure to new foods. [Side note: I have no idea if this simple adaptation is what the author was suggesting in her book, but we’re happy with it!].
Have You Considered… Eating As Joyful?
One of the more baffling (and inspiring) stories in her book is the way that families in her town seemed to truly enjoy coming together and eating together. Dinner with friends seemed to expand for hours. Even small children would sit graciously for long amounts of time, enjoying the company of others.
In our family, we’re trying to ‘up the enjoyment factor’ when it comes to eating together; attempting to view eating together as sacred, even for a moment. Before I read this book, I was like one of those whack-a-mole games at mealtime; sit down to eat, jump up to get someone milk, sit down and take a bite, whoops forgot a napkin, sit down and take another bit, shoot forgot a bib… Calm and joyful was probably not the mojo our family meals were exhibiting.
Since reading the book, we’ve been trying a few new things:
- Getting things ready before we sit down. This is so obvious; it pains me to write it. But somehow I kept sitting our kids down before there were drinks and bibs at the table. Getting everything ready to go, and then inviting everyone over helps to mark meals as a “together” time. Even a little thing like having a full water pitcher at the table (instead of jumping up and going to the sink every time someone needs more) is a game-changer.
- Staying longer at the table. With little ones, this is tricky. I have to say that some kids’ temperaments seem to lend themselves towards sitting still much more than others’. But the book emphasizes teaching our children to enjoy their food, savoring bites and flavors, rather than scarfing and going. So we’re trying to find ways to slow meals down a bit (courses! talking!), which leads me to the next suggestion…
- Telling stories. One thing that has helped us linger a bit is telling stories. We’ll ask questions about each other’s days, remark on favorite things that occurred, or discuss things we’re thankful for. Or we’ll tell silly, nonsense, made-up stories about squirrels and geese and bears and crackers. (Our three-year-old has been on a huge story-telling kick lately). Or we’ll reminisce on some memory about when our toddler was a baby. Or recount that funny time at the grocery store. Involving our kids in the stories, rather than talk around them about adult things, has been delightful.
- Inviting people over for dinner. There is something about opening up your home to other people that is refreshing. More adults are eating vegetables (role models!) and there are new stories to hear (and new people to tell stories, too). There has been a great joy in inviting people over to our home and centering that time together over a meal.
The dinner table has been a spot for both a headache and joy for us in the first few years of parenting. Just as we train our kids in how to share and how to use the bathroom and how to respect others, so we are also training our kids on how (or how not) to eat. And just as our parenting strategies change in different seasons, I anticipate our dinnertime strategies will change as well, as we learn what does (and doesn’t) work. But I love the idea of trying, together, to recapture the delight that can come in eating healthy meals together.
Have you read this book? (If not, I highly recommend it!) Did you have any “aha” moments and takeaways? What are the things that have worked for your family to encourage joyful and healthy eating?