This morning I saw Karen Le Billon on the telly promoting her new book French Kids Eat Everything. I haven’t got the book yet, but it looks like it has a lot of great ideas gleaned from the cultural divide between the French and American way of eating (French = good food, with time taken to prepare and eat it, a government that works with the community to provide world-class meals in schools; America = quick + cheap food is king, but we’re trying to change).
On the morning news show, Ms. Le Billon talked about not catering to children by preparing separate meals for them, the no snacking rule, and that many French women began exposing their children to first foods that do not include iron-fortified rice cereal, but instead prefer vegetable purees — starting with leeks.
I love the idea that children should not be catered to at dinnertime, and think that if there is a healthy meal on the table, a child should at least be held to it once. But there are some times when our child consistently dislikes a dish and I wait until I have some leftover homemeade vegetable soup from the night before when I am making one of those meals for my husband and I. Sometimes forcing a child to go along with food they dislike causes unnecessary issues with food and I think there should be room for some flexibility there. By luck or insistence, our child eats extremely well.
Starting infants on leek puree is fine, but if they aren’t getting an iron source between 4-6 months, there could be trouble. A pregnant woman confers iron to her child during the last month of pregnancy, and those stores last 4-6 months, particularly if the woman is breastfeeding. Breastmilk contains very little iron, but it is very well absorbed by an infant. If you are not breastfeeding and you do not supply iron (such as that from a fortified rice cereal — rice because it carries very low risk for allergic reactions), your child could become anemic. I am not certain about breastfeeding practices in France, but I do know that most American women stop breastfeeding by 6 months despite recommendations. Can there not be both vegetable puree and vegetables?
Ms. Le Billon hashes out the snacking issue on her website, and seems so open minded toward her commenters that I really believe she’s searching honestly for middle ground on the subject. The French apparently don’t eat snacks but one time a day as a mini-meal, and a healthy one at that, following the school day. Denying a hungry child food seems unnecessary to me, but with this caveat: If you offer a healthy snack like whole fruit (not juice) or vegetables, you can help keep a child’s (or your own) insulin levels — blood glucose — steady, promoting good health and avoiding overeating during meals. Insisting that a child not eat CRAP — potato chips, cookies, packaged food high in salt and sugar — may cause a child to gripe that they aren’t hungry for a piece of fruit or a vegetable of or a bit of not-too-sweetened yogurt. If that’s the case, they can safely skip the snack anyway because they are expressing appetite rather than hunger, and this is where the French are correct. Hunger is biological — your stomach growls, there is even a longing in the throat. Appetite addresses the psychological — the presence of food, the smell of it — independent of bodily need. And I’m talking to you, not just your kids on that one.
My child regularly reports that children at her school bring Choco-pies, Cheetos, Doritos, Twinkies, you get the picture, as snacks. She’s probably telling me this in hopes that I’ll be won over by Parental Peer Pressure, but some of her friends have offered to trade these items for her strawberries, mandarin oranges and carrots.
I wouldn’t use this book as an excuse to be a hardass with your kids, but the emphasis on the enjoyment of GOOD (well prepared, fresh) food sets the French apart, and certainly we could learn from what Le Billon attempts to teach us.