Where in the world do children use wine glasses to drink their juice?
France! That’s where!
When we moved to France, my son was only two and a half years old. For the first 2 weeks, we lived in a hotel. Although the room we rented was equipped with a kitchenette, we ended up eating out most evenings. I already knew what foods to expect from previous visits to France, but the stark difference in how restaurants treat children here really hit me. At first, I was frustrated – no chaise enfant (high chair), no menu enfant (children’s menu), and no special eating utensils??? The biggest surprise was when they placed a wine glass in front of my child and filled it to the brim with the drink we ordered for him. For me, the wine glass was astounding. I thought to myself, “how many children come into this restaurant and break a glass each day? The number must be high!” As we settled into life in France, I realized that my son very quickly adapted to drinking out of a wine glass. After living here for 4 years now, I cannot remember seeing any child break a glass in a restaurant. I myself broke a glass at a café, but my son… never!
The wine glass is a good example of how we in the US often coddle our children when it comes to food. We purchase special plastic cups that cannot break; forks, knives and spoons with specially designed handles that they can easily grip. I sit here now in a café waiting for my son’s piano lesson to end and there are two children at the table in front of me quietly nursing their juice-filled wine glasses. The truth is, it was never a challenge for my son to drink out of a wine glass. I doubt that he even noticed the change, and I promptly started giving him water at home out of our glass juice glasses so as to remove the need to purchase anything special that we did not already have in our little Paris kitchen. The vessels for food and drink are just the accouterments to the food that children eat, but what about the food? How do we limit them when it comes to what they eat?
In the US there is a huge market that works hard to convince parents that they need specially designed foods for their early eaters. Beyond baby food, there are all kinds of snack foods available that are designed to be easy for little eaters to gum and swallow. When my son hit the food-gumming age it was an exciting time. I searched the grocery store shelves for things that I could safely feed him. I fell into the trap however, of always giving him a snack in a little cup that would not allow the little crackers or cereals to spill out if he tipped it. The snack kept him busy, quiet, and was something he seemed to enjoy. Soon we moved to France and suddenly these snack foods for young children were no longer available. It was OK though… I had a stash! I do not think I fully realized that these snacks were an expected part of my son’s day until his preschool teacher commented to me one day, “I noticed he eats a lot of snacks – crackers and things.” She said this with a tone of concern. It started me thinking… perhaps this was a bad thing.
My son was already a very good eater, he loved vegetables of all kinds from day one, spicy foods, and just about anything I put in front of him. He often would enter the kitchen while I was cooking and ask if he could try the raw vegetables that I had just chopped in preparation to cook dinner. Before dinner was ready most evenings, he had already eaten a healthy serving of vegetables. I felt really good about how and what he ate, but I began to wonder about the cracker snacks. It is true he needed fewer “snack foods”, and more substantial foods that would fuel his growth. Absolutely, there were other foods I could provide for him after school. A few bunny crackers were fine here and there, but I began to mix in other foods to dilute out the crackers. This worked well for us and continues today. My son is a bit dismayed at times when he sees his friends presented with candy bars, pains au chocolate (chocolate filled croissants), and processed cookies after school, but he lights up when I give him a home made dried fruit and nut ball wrapped in wax paper like a candy. And… sometimes I still give him bunny crackers from our stash, a cookie, or a piece of dark chocolate. I mix these with nuts and they are followed by a piece of fruit.
When we go out, we now treat our son to the adult menu. It is normal here. Over the last 4 years, I have started seeing more and more children’s menus at restaurants in Paris. Mostly they are still better than the children’s menus in the US. The French menu enfant usually consists of ham and fries with a small side salad or sliced tomatoes, a hamburger (with or without the bun) and fries, or a small cheese or ham pizza. Often we just get an extra plate and give our son a bit of each of our meals, and I see many other families doing the same.
The contrast in children’s food habits between the US and France is stark enough to be noticed by most US expats that move here with children. The difference is even greater in places that are more culturally divergent from the US. In the US, from the start we treat our children like they need special foods in order to learn to eat. This is true, to some extent they do! The problem is that we seem to be directing them down the wrong path by choosing the wrong foods at every choice – in the grocery store, at restaurants, in their schools (although this is getting a bit better). For example, examine the children’s menu you normally see in US restaurants. It usually consists of some sort of low quality chicken nuggets, a cheese pizza, plain pasta, hot dogs, etc. In short, the menu consists of items that are very bland, lacking in vegetables, and almost devoid of any nutritional benefits. Why do we feed them this kind of junk? I often think it is because it tastes good and we know they will eat it without any struggle. It is the easy, but unhealthy path. By doing this we are not teaching them to eat like us. They learn to expect special foods for most meals.
Feeding our children should be a very conscious, and well-thought-out activity. Meal planning is not an easy task for most busy parents. The default is easier. As parents we cannot assume that the pre-packaged, pre-prepared specialty meals and snacks for kids have been made with our children’s health in mind. This is a false belief. Most of the foods marketed for children are designed to make children want to eat them and cannot be compared in nutritional value to homemade, fresh foods that contain real fruits, vegetables (either fresh or frozen), whole grains, and fresh meats. We parents must make healthy family meals a natural habit. Set the expectations high and ask your children to try new foods often and to eat what you eat.
So I guess my take home message would be, do not fall victim to the hype of special children’s snacks and meals. You can make healthy snacks and meals that are nearly as quick, much healthier, and easier on your wallet. Challenge your kids with a wine glass full of water, milk or juice now and then, expect them to eat the foods you eat. You will be surprised! If you raise your expectations, they will drink out of that wine glass sans problem (without problem)!
How do you think your child would react if given a wine glass full of water at dinner this evening? What do you do to shape your children’s food habits? I would love to hear your tricks, trials, and tribulations!