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The Real Reason French Kids Eat Everything

How dessert-based bribery saved my family dinners

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When I lived for a year with a family of seven in France, we ate something sweet every night after dinner. Sometimes, the dessert was as simple as sliced fruit, but other times, we ate pot de crème or pastries from the local patisserie.

After having my own daughter, I stressed about sweets. Perhaps I forgot about those daily desserts in France. Or I was more aware of the research showing that sugar is addictive.

I also saw the power sweets had over my kid. She begged for them constantly. If I told her in the morning she could have some ice cream after lunch and a trip to the playground, she always, always remembered, even if it was hours later.

French kids might eat a more varied diet than American kids, but they also often eat more sweets.

When she turned three or so, dinnertime became a nightly battle of wills. She fought about what and how much was on her plate. She would refuse to eat it and I’d refuse to make something else. Thanks to low blood sugar, she’d end up throwing herself on the floor and crying, sometimes for over a half an hour.

Most parents might think, Just make her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich already! For better or for worse, I was too stubborn. I wanted her to eat healthfully, sure, but I also wanted her to eat a varied diet and to learn to enjoy different types of food. I wanted her to be like the French kids described in Bringing Up Bebe and French Kids Eat Everything, who sit down to pureed soups and fish stews without complaining.

Finally, it all came together. French kids might eat a more varied diet than American kids, but they also often eat more sweets than many upper middle class, helicopter-type American parents allow. So I relaxed a bit about dessert and made small sweets after dinner a daily occurrence, if, and only if, she ate her dinner without complaining. If she truly hates the meal, we figure out an alternative, but for the most part, she now eats what’s on her plate.

The secret to bribing—ahem—rewarding my daughter after dinner is staying strict about the terms. If she whines or complains or throws a fit, no dessert. Usually her lust for a few bites of chocolate outweighs her temporary dislike for chicken, so I end up with my peaceful dinner and she gets her sweets. It’s a win/win situation, and that’s really the best case for a bribe, isn’t it?

Kristin Donnelly is the author of Modern Potluck (Clarkson Potter 2016) and Cauliflower (Short Stack Editions 2018). She has acted as a doula for many other cookbooks and lives and works in New Hope, PA.

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