Psssst…I have a secret to tell you. It’s going to blow your mind and you’ll be all “no way!” and I’ll be all “yes, way!” And we’ll do that for a while until it gets old and then I’ll tell you THE SECRET.
Are you ready? Here it is…
Children are designed not to starve.
I know! That’s just crazy talk, you say. Well, it’s not just me who says it. Let me, however, qualify that secret by saying that if you don’t give them any food and they aren’t quite coordinated enough yet to prepare food for themselves, then yes, they will starve. BUT if you provide them with plenty of healthy options and follow a few tiny rules, they will absolutely not starve. And in fact, they’ll thrive.
I was at the cardiologists one day having my old ticker looked at – it’s good, by the way, thanks for asking – and he starts telling me how his daughter-in-law is going to cause his grandson to have an eating disorder. “She chases him around the room with food on a spoon, she cries and yells at him. It’s ridiculous!”
Yes, Doc, it IS ridiculous. And I agree that this is setting up a battle that will, I guarantee it, rage on for many many years. It’s really important to remember that kids have no power but they want it. They want ALL the power, the grimy little miscreants that they are. So they look for opportunities to take the power. “What?” he thinks, “She wants me to eat that food on that spoon? I don’t think so.” And then he sees that this little action – the shaking of the head, the snapping closed of the mouth – evokes a response from the parent that is pure emotion: anger, frustration, even hurt feelings. And baby glows with the knowledge of this newfound magical clout.
It’s our job as parents to keep our progeny alive. It’s actually hardwired into our DNA, I think – something kooky like survival of the species or something like that. But we also give so much to our kids in terms of time and love that when they reject our food, it feels like they’re rejecting us. So let’s just stop for a moment and take a deep breath and turn our attention to the French.
In France, kids eat everything. And they do so cheerfully and enthusiastically. Oh, and tidily! No using fingers or making a mess at the French table, mais non! French parents don’t make special meals for baby, they give them baby appropriate versions of their own food. It’s supremely important to the French parent that their children develop a palate, and this was even proven as part of a recent study of French mothers. After nutrition, palate development was the second most important goal when introducing solid food to baby.
The other thing that French parents do is reintroduce rejected foods from five to eight times. They’re patient, they don’t yell, if the kids make a mess they calmly take their food away. And – here’s the kicker – they don’t use food as a reward or punishment! Well, I don’t know about you, but there goes my whole parenting model out the window.
In Karen Le Billon’s readable and encouraging book “French Kids Eat Everything (And Yours Can, Too)”, she lists 10 food rules that she says will turn all kids into eaters like the French. No snacks, no emotional eating, be calm, and then at the end she has this rule: Enjoy! And here is, I think, the crux of our problem in North America. We don’t enjoy our meals, we mostly don’t eat together anymore, we mostly don’t cook at home or revel in food the way the French do.
So, mom and dad, relax. Give junior some fois gras with béchamel sauce and cunard a l’orange – I’m kidding. You don’t have to feed them French food, just feed them in the French manner. Be calm, give them lots of healthy options, ensure that they try foods over and over again, and keep putting it on their plate until it becomes “not new”. Neophobia around food is how our ancestors survived being poisoned in the old hunter-gatherer days. It’s natural to eschew the bitter vegetable for the sweet fruit because sweet things rarely poisoned anyone, but bitter things often did. Understanding baby’s reticence to try new foods will help lessen the feeling of rejection.
Most importantly, sit down together and be joyful. If we can emulate the French in this one area then the dinner table will cease to be a battlefield, and instead it just might become an oasis of warmth and nourishment and a talisman against the ravages of this crazy world. And it will be in this idyllic, positively utopian bubble of familial love that the baby will eat the gall darned broccoli and even ask for more.