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Food for Thought: A French Approach to Educating Kids about Eating

Like a lot of moms I struggle with getting my kids to eat healthily. In my house, thankfully, the issue is not a matter of pickiness, as my children are happy to eat foods ranging from burgers to bulgogi and everything in between.

Our problem is snacking. Before meals. After meals. Carrots and cheese puffs, yogurt and raisins. Healthy or junk food- it doesn’t matter: my kids view my kitchen pantry as a 24 hour all-you-can-eat buffet, and it has to change.

The snack issue has been an ongoing problem, particularly with my middle child. He learned how to infiltrate my locked pantry by age 18 months. At two he was dragging chairs to the refrigerator and perching inside, hands full of pickle spears or cheese sticks. His constant eating habit has modeled this behavior to my toddler; now she, too, wanders into the kitchen 30 minutes after dinner whining that she’s “Hungwy Mama!”

I began to notice a pattern of emotional eating from my kids. They seem to turn to food for comfort, and most often, out of boredom. My toddler often requests to be fed during the “downtime” in her day or uses huger as a stalling tactic when it’s bedtime. I’m usually able to redirect her but the pattern concerns me nonetheless.

I know the importance of establishing healthy eating habit early in life, so I looked to the research for clues.

We know that toddlers are affected by stress just like adults. But a recent study found that the more stress that’s occuring in the home, the more likely young girls are to experience obesity. Is this because of snacking? Is it a result of the kind of emotional eating that my children do? Is it tied to the behavior of their mothers, who are turning to food out of stress themselves (which I admit to being occasionally guilty of myself)?

In my searching for answers I came across an interview with Karen Le Billion, author of the new book French Kids Eat Everything. (I know what you’re thinking: Enough with the Franco-American mommy wars, but bear with me.) In her book Le Billion outlines 10 rules for encouraging healthy eating in children, and several of them gave me pause.

Namely, No. 2: Avoid emotional eating, and No. 7: No snacking! It’s ok to feel hungry between meals!

Since I don’t know the obesity rate of French versus American toddlers, I can hardly compare. But it does seem that the French are onto something. The French take a leisurely, relaxed approach to mealtime. There is joy in the growing of backyard herbs, pleasure in the bundling of bouquet garni. There is delight in the daily trip to the market, taking in the sights, smells and colors along the way.

When it’s time to sit down for a meal, according to Le Billion, “they’re totally relaxed. There are no distractions, everyone has fun, so the kids want to come to the table.”

Contrast this to mealtime in my house. We’re often rushed. It’s loud. Children complain about my choice of cup, the toddler suddenly wanting a “big girl” glass and my “big boy” suddenly requesting a sippy. My husband and I often greet each other with lists of errands that should’ve been done yesterday.

The food itself is scarfed down in a hurry, and my family leaves the table one by one. We move on to “more important things”: spelling words and T-ball games and whatever’s on tv. The kitchen looks like a war zone; ketchup bleeds down the table leg.

Is the mealtime chaos contributing in some way to emotional eating? My guess is yes.

Because my children aren’t particularly picky, and because we do at least have family meals, I’d thrown my hands up on all the rest. If I adopt a different– a more “French”– approach to meals, will it cure the snacking epidemic that’s broken out between my walls?

And it’s not just about mealtimes. I hope that teaching my children to name their feelings instead of reach for the junk food will make a difference as well. I want them to enjoy the planning and preparation of meals, and savor the food and the company. I hope that as a mother I can give my kids the tools to be healthy eaters for their lives.

I hope so. It is, as they say, food for thought.

Photo Credit: Gamene/Flickr

Mary Lauren Weimer is a social worker turned mother turned writer. Her blog, My 3 Little Birds, encourages moms to put down the baby books for a moment and tell their own stories. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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