Happy families have dining rules

By Danielle Wright

Tired of fussy wee eaters, Danielle Wright finds the French, with their method of 'educating' their kids about food, are on to a good thing.

At mealtimes, French children eat what their parents serve them. Photo / Thinkstock
At mealtimes, French children eat what their parents serve them. Photo / Thinkstock

Soup. I don't know many young children who eat it, but they should. In winter, there's nothing more delicious than a comforting bowl of hot soup on a stormy day. But, instead of thinking of it as a treat when I serve it up to my children, I feel as though I am torturing them.

Even with faces floating on it made out of butter, which they are supposed to gobble up before they melt, it seems odd. To the French, though, soup, beetroot, blue cheese, mussels and spinach are favoured equally by children and adults.

After reading Karen Le Billon's French Kids Eat Everything, I found out why. The simplicity of the French way of teaching children about food actually makes a lot of sense.

The French eat four meals a day - breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner - and have no snacks between. Lunch and dinner have three to four courses and are eaten at the table with the whole family. The rules set out at right are followed.

Apparently, French children do not eat in the car or in front of the television and definitely not standing. They eat, seated, at the table, with their families.

"Yes, eating with adults is a great way for children to be exposed to a variety of foods," says Isabelle Pasek-Evans, a Parisienne living on the North Shore.

"At a young age, children like to emulate their parents, so eating what the parents eat is a great way of introducing them to new tastes and making the experience a family fun time."

After having afternoon tea at Isabelle's home, I was amazed at the maturity of her then 5-year-old daughter eating crepes. In France, the dining table is seen as the home's happiest place, so different from mealtime battles many Kiwi parents endure.

Nutritionist Nikki Hart agrees there is much we can learn from other cultures and their food customs, particularly around eating food as a family. She referred me to The Families' Commission's report on families eating together. In this, New Zealand students who reported frequent family meals also reported better family relationships, better communication and more parental support for healthy eating. Frequent family meals were associated with better wellbeing, fewer indicators of depressive mood and fewer risk-taking behaviours.

So, for the last few weeks I have tried Le Billon's food rules. I set the table with a pretty tablecloth and flowers and served three courses. For once, my kids stayed at the table, actually seeming to enjoy themselves. I asked questions about what they thought the food might taste like, how it looked and felt, trying to engage their senses while smokescreening the fact they were faced with mushrooms.

It didn't always work, but it's a promising start. One day soon, I will say the magic words: "My son is a good eater, so adventurous, loves trying new foods." Fingers are firmly crossed.

French food rules

1. Parents are in charge of food education, not children.

2. Avoid emotional eating. Don't use food as a bribe or reward.

3. Parents schedule meals and menus. Kids eat what adults eat and no short-order cooking.

4. Eat family meals together with no distractions.

5. Eat your veges, have variety.

6. Use the phrase: "You don't have to like it, but you do have to taste it," at every meal.

7. No snacking. It's okay to feel hungry between meals.

8. Slow food is happy food, as in, eat slowly.

9. Eat mostly "real" food, not stuff from a box or fast food place. Treats are okay for special occasions.

10. Remember, eating is joyful. Relax.

* Excerpt of food rules from French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon

- Herald on Sunday

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