I am an Indian mother raising two children in America. I have a very picky five-year-old boy and an eight-year-old daughter who will eat anything as long as it is not too spicy. What? I’m Indian! Their Western eating habits have evolved from being annoying to worrisome, especially as my son is barely grazing the lower edge of the growth charts and is bound to fall off any day now. And to make matters worse, my angst grows when I hear my father’s voice in my head and I can sense his disapproval.
After feeling desperate and hopeless for many years, I decided I had to take control of the situation by putting my focus on it. I have recently started experimenting with a style of feeding children which is more the way French mothers do it. The children are offered one snack after school and nothing else before or after dinner. My kids are starting to understand that dinner is it! We have stopped eating in the car. It has to be at the table, with placemats, and cutlery. The kids are learning to not expect food on-demand but at certain times during the day and only in a setting that honors the importance of eating well.
Dinner has been a struggle, and frustrating experiences in the past have led to complete meltdowns and me manipulating their eating with guilt-inducing tactics. I now try to make the experience pleasurable. We bring our best place mats and dishes out every night. We have a four-course meal two or three nights per week. Even when we eat out or order in, I try to ensure that we lean towards healthier options, Japanese food instead of pizza or a pub meal. We include a homemade soup, usually something very simple like dal – Indian lentils – or some boiled veggies like cauliflower, carrots, kale, zucchini etc. that have been blended with some stock, butter or maybe crème fraiche. Then we have a salad, entrée and dessert. Dessert is usually fruit along with some chocolate, ice cream or rice pudding.
And I use no more language that makes dessert the goal, “If you eat X, then you get dessert.” Instead I say “Let’s first eat X, then Y, then dessert.” If they don’t at least taste the first course, they cannot proceed to the next course and have to wait it out until the next meal. Yup…that was not fun the first time we tried it, but I am glad I stuck with it because I have not had to explain it since.
Dinner has turned into a fun game, except the winner is not the fastest one but the person who eats all their courses…slowly.
Finally, we are talking more about what we are tasting, how it feels on our tongues, etc. The only rule is they can’t just say, “I don’t like it.” They have to describe what they are tasting as they develop their palates.
We have been at it for only a few months, but I can tell the difference this approach is making in how my kids show up for meals. We are still years from perfection, but I am grateful for every sip or lick or bite that they take of the rainbow colors that fill their plate, and for their willingness to stick with me on the greatest teaching challenge of my life. And while I call this approach French, I am also realizing that this is exactly how I was raised in India…to value food and associate it with pleasure not guilt, to look forward to engaging with the family during meal times, and to appreciate the ceremony around each meal. What a gift my parents gave me, and I hope my children will thank me some day for passing it on to them.