I was talking to the mom of a 12-month-old boy the other day, and
as we were casually chatting about germs and toddlers putting everything in their
mouth, I mentioned that the old French remedy pediatricians would give to moms
50 years ago in France, was to feed their babies blue cheese, Roquefort and the
like, to boost their immune system and help them with digestion. (I have
certainly followed that advice, and gave Pablo blue cheese fairly early on,
probably around 10 months. Pablo loved its strong flavor.) She was very
surprised at the idea, so I marvelled at how children have such open minds about
flavors and textures at that age, and you can get them to try a wide variety
She responded something like, “Yeah, and then at 4 years old it’s
all over, they don’t want to eat anything anymore.”
This isn’t the first time I encounter this sort of attitude,
and have heard the same type of comment from moms of grown-ups, “Yeah sure,
you’re happy your kid is eating vegetables etc, but it’s not going to last,
I dare say this attitude bugs me to no end. I guess it does because the subtext I’m hearing is, “Just give up on it now, it’s no use offering your kid a wide
variety of foods because he may reject it all down the road.”
And my answer would be: isn’t it worth it to offer babies
and children good real foods, even if
they taste it and enjoy it just once? Even supposing (and I don’t even believe that
supposition to be valid) that tomorrow, Pablo starts rejecting every single
vegetable or food he eats now, he has been eating good, real, flavorful and
balanced foods for the past 18 months, and those 18 months are completely
worthwhile. It’s not lost or wasted. The enjoyment, the positive food
experience, the introduction of colors, textures, flavors, scents, all that is
in his brain somewhere, it’s a seed that is planted and will somehow grow and
takes its course.
It would be almost like saying there’s no point in playing
with your infant or showing him things because later on, he may be
completely disinterested in these same things and not even remember them.
A few months ago, I blogged about my friends at Gopher Springs Farm, and their desire to grow quality sustainable foods from the soil
up, making the best possible compost to get the richest possible soil to
plant seeds in and let them grow, their roots strong, fulfilled.
It’s kind of the same thing here. We know in child
development the first three years are so crucial in every aspect, how we relate
to our babies, how they learn, how the type of attachment we create during that
time will define them in many ways. And I believe this applies to food and the
education of taste. Those first couple of years of life, exposing them to a
wide variety of real foods, getting them engaged,
interested in the eating
experience in all its sensory glory, showing them the excitement of trying
something new, nurturing their open-mindedness about flavor and textures, sharing
meals with them as an opportunity to be in the moment and focused on the pleasure
of eating and doing so in each other’s company… All these things make up this
rich soil, this crucial foundation in their mind and their body. It’s planting the seeds of a life of balanced,
enjoyable eating. It’s never too late to start the education of taste, it can be done at 1 or 6 or 50, but if you have the opportunity to start early, why not do it?
I don’t even think it is true that all children start to
reject all “good” foods at 3 or 4 or 12. That is definitely not the case for
most French children (including myself), who are expected to eat “everything” – and they do,
mostly (Karen Le Billon explains this in detail in her aptly named French Kids Eat Everything.)
Yes, neophobia (the fear of new foods, an interesting scientific study on it here) can be common among
toddlers, but it usually dissipates by age four. A couple of thoughts on that:
1/ If a child does have this fear of new foods, this is the
time for a parent to hang in there and keep offering and gently challenging the
child to eat good balanced foods, finding fun playful ways to do it, and certainly
not the time to throw in the towel and just give in to the pasta/cheerio diet.
2/ If you expose your infant/young toddler to a wide
variety of foods and vegetables on a regular basis before age 2, these foods
won’t be new to them and not so scary.
I also suspect one of the biggest culprits for toddlers and
young children not eating well is the snacking on demand throughout the day…
I was asked recently how come Pablo eats so well during meals, and part of the
reason is that when he comes to the table, he’s hungry. His body knows he’s not going to be snacking 1 or 2 hours
later, so he eats well. And he enjoys the meal all the more.
Should Pablo go through a more resistant phase, where he
doesn’t embrace all foods as enthusiastically as he does now, I will consider
it exactly as that: a phase. I will certainly not label him as “resistant” and
give up on his education of taste altogether. I will keep challenging him and
offering him new foods, good foods, keep engaging him. Because the seeds we
plant when they’re infants and toddlers, need to be nurtured so they may grow
strong. We don’t just give up on them at the first sign of resistance. The education of taste is an ongoing, lifelong process.
I guess the other aspect of this “what’s the use?” attitude
that bugs me, is that it feels like putting the blame on the child. “The child
is resistant.” “The child won’t eat vegetables.” “The child refuses.” I don’t think
that’s fair. I believe in the old saying, “There is no such thing as a bad
student, only a bad teacher.” It’s up to us as parents to keep offering, to
model balanced eating habits, to make it possible for our children to keep
experiencing the pleasure and fulfillment that sharing a good meal of real foods, give their body and soul.
All right, all done rambling on. The recipe I’m sharing here is one of those “Really!? You’re feeding that to your kid?” recipes… Yes. Fish with Brussels sprouts and garlic cream, cooked in a parcel… Do not shiver, just try it. If you have never liked Brussels sprouts, this dish might make you a convert.
Cooking them this way takes away the bitterness, and those caraway seeds you might have had sitting on your spice rack for years (as was my case) will find their true calling here (they go well with all types of cabbages). As for the garlic cream, it makes the whole thing simply scrumptious.
I talked about the benefits of cooking in parcels before. It is very playful for kids, Pablo is always excited to be getting a cadeau (present) for dinner, the excitement when you unwrap it, the fun of pouring the sauce over it, of having your own little mystery package. You couldn’t sugarcoat it any better than that… (sans sugar, that is).