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You Just Have to Taste It: Getting Your Kids To Eat Like The French

When my kids started attending daycare in Paris, I was struck by the lunch menus. Every day, the 3-and-unders were served four-course meals.
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This post is part of Stress-Less Parenting Club's first workshop. Pamela is sharing her best advice on everything from teaching kids patience to asserting your authority as a parent. Here, she tells us how the French turn their children into little gourmets.

When my kids started attending daycare in Paris, I was struck by the lunch menus. Every day, the 3-and-unders were served four-course meals. A typical lunch started with carrot salad and moved on to salmon in lemon-dill sauce with a side of pureed broccoli. This was followed by goat's milk cheese and baked organic apples.

Amazingly, the toddlers -- mine included -- actually ate these gourmet lunches, often with gusto. When I sat in on one meal, the kids had made it to the cheese course, and were earnestly debating the merits of Roquefort.

When it comes to children's food, we Americans could use some help. Picky eating among kids is more or less the norm. Family meals often become a battleground strewn with negotiations and threats, not to mention lots of uneaten broccoli. We corral children into a "kids' food" ghetto, or allow them to subsist on a short-list of their preferred foods. (An American mom recently told me that she'd received a food list for a visiting child on a play date.) Perhaps it's time to swallow our pride and see if the French can show our children how to eat.

I'm the first to say that French parents aren't perfect. Their kids grow up to be Frenchmen, after all. But they have cracked some basic child-rearing problems, including how to avoid picky eating. You can find hamburgers and chicken nuggets in France. However, these generally aren't daily fare. At family meals, everyone eats more or less the same thing. Not only do French kids consume all kinds of foods; they mostly do so happily. So what exactly are French parents doing differently?

For starters, they don't let kids snack throughout the day. In general, French kids eat at mealtimes and at the official afternoon snack. That's it. Parents don't panic if their kids get a little bit hungry (I'm not talking starving, I'm talking hungry.)

This creates a virtuous cycle. When hungry children sit down to lunch, they're more likely to eat what's put in front of them. And as at the day care, what's generally put in front of them first is vegetables. In other words, the French serve meals in courses, vegetables first. So if you have a hungry child faced with a bowl of steamed green beans or cut-up carrots, he will probably eat it. Wouldn't you?

The most sacred French food rule of all is this: You just have to taste it. French kids don't have to eat all the haricot verts on their plate. They just have to take a bite. This tasting rule is crucial. Kids don't like a lot of new foods simply because the foods are unfamiliar (we grown-ups are often the same way). By taking a bite -- even just one -- that fear dissipates a bit. Kids might never demand to eat artichokes. But they'll gradually warm up to them, and add them to the slowly growing repertoire of foods they'll eat.

The really hard part is that parents are supposed to oversee all of this without acting like prison guards. Or as a French nutritionist and mom told me: Never let them see how desperately you want them to eat their vegetables. Keep the mood light. Present even the tasting rule as something enjoyable. Explain to children (even little ones) that gradually tasting foods usually makes you like them. And don't be too ambitious. One new food per meal -- served alongside something you know they like -- is probably enough.

If a child tastes a food (or in the worst case, just sniffs it) and says he doesn't like it, react neutrally. Don't offer a replacement. But keep whatever the rejected food was -- sautéed onions, cauliflower in the stir fry -- coming back. Prepare it different ways (drenched in cheese or pureed in soup). Treat it like a fact of life and, eventually, with most foods, your child will too. Quite likely, he'll even come to like it.

Behind all of the French food rules is a conceptual difference. We Americans generally feel that our kids have fixed preferences, which we should respect. The French believe it's their role as parents to gradually shape their children's tastes, and to guide them through the pleasures of different flavors. French parents gradually teach their children how to eat, the same way they'll later teach them to ride a bike. Both take patience and some false starts. And both, believe it or not, are supposed to be fun.

This might all sounds like theory. But it actually works -- even in our family. My kids aren't constantly clamoring for broccoli. But they'll eat it. And at the end of the meal, they do clamor for Camembert.

Pamela Druckerman's most recent book is Bébé Day By Day: 100 Keys to French Parenting.

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