I knew our eating habits had to change when Noah was around two. He basically existed on bread, with the occasional cheese stick rounding out his buffet. He would not eat more than a few bites at mealtimes and often outright rejected his food. Commiserating friends agreed this was a phase and some kids are just picky eaters. As much as I adore eating, this answer did not satisfy me. I did some research (translation: I typed “my kid throws his food on the ground and I’m losing my mind please help” into Google), and I found two books that I devoured as if they were chocolate cake: Bringing up Bebe and French Kids Eat Everything. The concepts made so much sense to me, and I realized a lot of things we were doing actually discouraged healthy eating habits.
I decided to take action. (My husband LOVES it when I adopt a new philosophy and make it a family-wide mandate. LOVES it.) We slowly tried new things, throwing out what didn’t work and keeping what did. It was amazing to see the difference in our eating habits when I changed the way we thought about food for our kids and ourselves. Here’s what works for us:
1. We (mostly) stopped letting our kids snack. This is hard in American culture. Everywhere we go, from the park to the zoo to the library, kids are snacking. But French people don’t snack. They believe snacks fill children up with empty calories. Even “healthy” snacks are not as good as vegetables, and kids are much less likely to eat a balanced meal when they’re full of cheese crackers and raisins. Conversely, hungry kids will eat what’s put in front of them. We’ve modified the snack rule a bit to fit our lifestyle. Firstly, if our kids are hungry between meals, they may have fresh fruit and nuts. No crackers or other fillers, because I want them hungry for lunch. Secondly, they do sit down for a small snack (and coffee for me) around 3:30, before dinner at 7. Finally, if we have a group playdate and snacks are there, I don’t deny my kids.
2. We treat mealtimes as sacred. Every meal for the French is an event, and children can sense that. One of the easiest things we started doing to encourage our kids to love eating was laying a beautiful table. We try to have fresh flowers and clean linens, so dinner feels special every time. We sit down together for every meal, never eating on the run. Even if we’re out, we pack a healthy lunch, and we find a place to sit down and enjoy it together.
3. We talk about our food. We make our kids try bites of everything before they are finished, and then tell us what they think. (“Gross” is not an acceptable answer.) What is the texture? Creamy? Crisp? What is the taste? Salty? Sweet? Buttery? We also have fun talking about origins of the food we’re eating. Food culture is so much about eating and talking together, and this is one of my favorite parts of having meals with my kids.
4. We encourage our kids to help us in the kitchen. We usually go grocery shopping together so that our kids are part of the entire process. We bake together at least once a week, and one or both of the kids are usually in the kitchen as we prepare dinner. They’re more likely to try foods they helped make.
5. We (sometimes) eat our meals in three courses. This sounds more intimidating than it is. The French always serve a vegetable starter with the notion that you’re hungriest at the beginning of a meal and therefore likely to eat the most of whatever is served first. It can be as simple as sliced avocados with sea salt, or cucumber salad. Then, after the main course, we usually have dessert. Again, think simplicity. Half a peach. A scoop of ice cream. It’s another way to get kids to sit for lengthier periods over a meal, and the thought of dessert fuels some great vegetable-eating in our family.
Our kids still have occasional bouts of pickiness, but I am always quite proud when my kids eat foods their playmates won’t touch or sit for long periods of time over a meal. Adults have commented that they can’t believe how well Noah and Violet eat. And while we still have a long way to go before they eat as well as I want them to, seeing them devour Brussels sprouts and kale salad gives me hope that we’re on the right track.
How do y’all handle picky eaters? What tips work for your family?