Need help with picky eaters? The French get it right

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  September 25, 2012 06:00 AM

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[Ed note: the answer addresses these two similar questions]

1. In case you do any follow-up from your article in 2009, Her 4-year-old won't eat, I would want to know if having an alternative in the refrigerator defeats the whole purpose. I can't imagine my son trying something new if he knows something he likes or somewhat likes is available instead. He's stubborn to the nth degree. If he's hungry at meal time he'll make up for it at another meal or snack. If it's at night, he'll wait until breakfast. Even though he won't be happy. Nothing I read seems to work. :-(
Also, can't the child just fill up on the one food s/he likes? Or do you give a limited amount of the one food? That's what I see my son do at times.

From: Terri, Chicago.

2. My daughter is 6 months old. We've been feeding her stage one foods since she was 4 months, when she showed all the signs of being interested in food. But she seems to have regressed in the past week, pushing her food out with her tongue and generally being stubborn about eating. Is this typical behavior, and will she go back to loving to eat soon?

From: Patricia, Framingham, MA

Dear Terri and Patricia and all of you who struggle with picky eaters; based on how often this topic comes up, I'd say there's a bunch of you out there and I hope you read through this post, all the way to the end.

First, some direct answers:

1. Terri, I followed up my conversation with Mass General's Dr. Ronald Kleinman, who I quoted in the 2009 entry you refer to. He responds, "Your son is only 4! He doesn't need to know what's available in the refrigerator. What's available is what's on the table. If he doesn't eat that, he may be hungry, but he'll have to wait until the next eating opportunity." If that's breakfast, OK, yes, breakfast. To your second question, won't he just fill up on one food, the one he likes? Only if you keep putting more of it out. If he wants to eat more and he's hungry enough, he'll eat something from what's available on the table.

2. Patricia, kids are not like rocket ships. "They don't go straight up," says Kleinman. "There's a lot of zig-zagging and tapering off and even some downward spirals." One week? NBD. Give her time, she'll even things out on her own, as long as you stay matter-of-fact about it.

Which leads me to the French. I just finished reading -- and loving -- "Bringing Up Bebe, One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting," by Pamela Druckerman. I was happy to learn that Kleinman agrees it's a terrific book.

Druckerman writes that she was shocked to find that the French do not have picky eaters. Druckerman doesn't put this forth as a list of rules, so I'm summarizing to make it simple:

1. Be dogged about introducing new foods, don't give up when your child rejects the same food time after time.
2. There are no substitutions! Never offer a different food to replace the rejected one.
3. Serve adults and children the same food.
4. Insist a child must taste a food, but not that he finish it. Kleinman has an addendum to this one: "When we insist a child 'can't get out of his chair until he clears the plate,' we are not teaching him to respond to his hunger cues."
5. React neutrally if she rejects something. Stay calm and cheerful and, "above all," she writes, "stay the course, even if [the] child doesn't take a single bite."
6. Be creative: She rejects a food repeatedly? Cook it differently. Poach it, steam it, bake it, grill it, season it, stuff it.
7. Talk about the food. Druckerman writes, "The conversation about food should go beyond, 'I like it,' or 'I don't like it.'.." She quotes from a government-issued food guide for parents (and notes that it is widely accepted advice) which suggests asking, "Do you think this is crunchy, and that it'll make a sound when you bite it? What does this flavor remind you of? What do you feel in your mouth?"
8. There is no such thing as "kids' food." Kleinman applauds this advice, and so do I, as long parents cut or puree food according to the child's ability, a point Druckerman also makes. Kleinman adds, "We go beyond what's appropriate in this country when it comes to worrying about choking hazards. I won't give my granddaughters (2 and 5) hard candy, but I do give them raisins."
9. Think variety, variety and more variety. Druckerman writes, variety is "the guiding culinary principle" for French parents in the feeding of their kids. "The ordinary, middle-class French parents I meet are evangelical about the idea that there is a rich world of flavors out there, which their children must be educated to appreciate." I love that!

There's more but I'll quit (this is just chapter 12!) C'est si bon! Have you read the book? Did you like it as much as I did?

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3 comments so far...
  1. I also loved the book. I take a group of high-school kids to France on an exchange every year, and even aside from the education their palates get within their host families, they're almost as floored by the school cafeteria - three-course lunches that include things that you'd never see on a school cafeteria tray in this country: chard, leeks, mussels, blood sausage, beets, fennel, tongue, various gloppy stews that are actually very good... things their own parents, for the most part, wouldn't attempt to serve them, but that they see even little sixth-graders downing with great appetite. They mutter among themselves that this French food isn't quite what they were expecting, and they like some things but turn up their noses at a lot of it without even trying, which I find a little frustrating, needless to say!

    Posted by alien57 September 25, 12 01:30 PM
  1. Once you've established good eating habits, it's OK to offer a substitution once in a while. There are going to be dishes that nobody likes but you (at our house it is eggplant), or are too spicy for kids' taste, or just happen to be the one or two things that your decent eater is just never going to like. Offer a reasonable substitute at the time of making the meal. We're having tacos; if you don't like the spicy beef I'll you can have a scrambled egg or bean taco, but I'm not making an entirely different meal.

    And once in a while as a treat for everyone, have a kids' meal with their favorites, then an adult meal later on for yourselves.

    Posted by di September 25, 12 01:54 PM
  1. A four month old child getting solid food?

    Maybe this is a case of too early???

    I wouldn't think of this specific example as a picky eater, merely one that is too young to be comfortable with solid food. Of course she can't exactly say so...but a baby who doesn't want the food will push it out of her mouth in exactly the way that her parent described.

    Posted by Irene September 25, 12 10:34 PM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. I also loved the book. I take a group of high-school kids to France on an exchange every year, and even aside from the education their palates get within their host families, they're almost as floored by the school cafeteria - three-course lunches that include things that you'd never see on a school cafeteria tray in this country: chard, leeks, mussels, blood sausage, beets, fennel, tongue, various gloppy stews that are actually very good... things their own parents, for the most part, wouldn't attempt to serve them, but that they see even little sixth-graders downing with great appetite. They mutter among themselves that this French food isn't quite what they were expecting, and they like some things but turn up their noses at a lot of it without even trying, which I find a little frustrating, needless to say!

    Posted by alien57 September 25, 12 01:30 PM
  1. Once you've established good eating habits, it's OK to offer a substitution once in a while. There are going to be dishes that nobody likes but you (at our house it is eggplant), or are too spicy for kids' taste, or just happen to be the one or two things that your decent eater is just never going to like. Offer a reasonable substitute at the time of making the meal. We're having tacos; if you don't like the spicy beef I'll you can have a scrambled egg or bean taco, but I'm not making an entirely different meal.

    And once in a while as a treat for everyone, have a kids' meal with their favorites, then an adult meal later on for yourselves.

    Posted by di September 25, 12 01:54 PM
  1. A four month old child getting solid food?

    Maybe this is a case of too early???

    I wouldn't think of this specific example as a picky eater, merely one that is too young to be comfortable with solid food. Of course she can't exactly say so...but a baby who doesn't want the food will push it out of her mouth in exactly the way that her parent described.

    Posted by Irene September 25, 12 10:34 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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