Thursday, 21 February 2013

A Fussy Eater, and a Book Review

2ndSister, age 6 and three-quarters, has not had a great relationship with food for some time. Always less enthusiastic about food than 1stSister, who wolfs down olives, chorizo and korma without a second thought, over the past few years she has started to reject even the standard foods from her diet (egg sandwiches, meat, sliced cheese and various other things on what seems to be a whim) so that whenever I prepare a meal, I always have in the back of my mind whether she is getting enough protein, and whether there is something (even bread) she is prepared to eat.

Mmmm, so tasty Mama.....!

 I've never gone down the route of forcing the girls to eat what's on their plates, or bribing with dessert only when they have eaten everything ~ I have my concern about eating disorders, and don't feel I benefited from being raised in an authoritarian household. But lately I've felt things were getting a bit silly. Letting 2ndSister off the hook because she has a 'sensitive palate' or 'food phobia' (preferring plain foods, surely, but also ensuring she gets the upper hand at the dinner table) was driving me mad. I wanted to try new foods (I love creating in the kitchen, it soothes and strengthens me) without having to think about placating the children. At the same time, I knew that coming down harshly and being insistent was only likely to push her further away from a) good, nutritious foods and b) new foods. But I was kind of at an impasse.

But things can change, with a few new ideas.We went out for a meal last night at a local (not particularly brilliant) bar and restaurant. I watched 2ndSister help herself to garlic ciabatta bread and snaffle it. Then she tried a scampi bite and enjoyed it, and took another. Rather than ordering chicken nuggets from the children's menu, she asked for an omelette like 1stSister which was seriously not the nicest omelette in the world, but she still ate four pieces because she was told to eat some. And wolfed down a dessert including lots of whipped cream, which she's previously avoided. This is after our Pizza Express lunch on Monday, where 1st and 2ndSister both wolfed down ALL their dough balls and pizza declaring them delicious..

Added to this is the fact that when suggesting to me that they don't like something anymore (1st Sister - bread and jam, 2nd Sister - pasta/bread/insert basic foodstuff here) I just tell them that's what they are having and they go ahead and eat it. I think the main thing is they are eating because they are hungry, as I've cut down on snacks. We've also started re-encouraging tasting new things, on the premise that a) of course you won't enjoy the same things as an adult until you've tried them time and time again, and b) this is how French people do it, and it will good preparation for our eventual return visit to Paris. I've been setting the table properly and trying to insist we are seated there for meals, waiting patiently until everyone else is finished. But it's not been a magic formula, although it feels like it.

And this is where the mini book review comes in. Although we don't really eat like a typical US/Canadian family, and not exactly like your usual UK one either, we certainly didn't used to eat like a French one. Apart from my Normandy-born friend Alexandra telling me how she existed all morning on a bowl of fresh cow's milk before school, and her moaning about the dearth of good yogurt in the UK, I didn't know much about French eating habits. I've always had an interest in French culture, however, and I studied social anthropology because I wanted to see the world from other people's points of view, so when one of the blogs I read recommended Karen Le Billon's "French Kids Eat Everything", I was literally just curious and invested in it then and there.

I didn't anticipate at the time that it would be a magic cure-all (indeed I still don't), but the other thing I didn't anticipate is what an amazing and interesting read it would be, even on a basic level as a sort of memoir about a Canadian's foray into French culture, and French food culture in particular (I'm no longer sure, after reading the book, whether it's possible to separate out the two.) I was absorbed by this book, not wanting to put it down, fascinated both by the human stories within and the conflict between different approaches to food and nourishment. By the middle of the book, I confess I couldn't wait to find out what Le Billon confesses she did WRONG in an effort to get her kids to eat more like the French, so I could avoid similar pitfalls, and work out what would work well, instead.

In summary, 'French Kids Eat Everything' is a review of a family's year in France, their adaptation to French life and, in particular, eating habits, and their eventual return to Canada. It does contain a few recipes (which at the moment I can't see my girls trying even yet!), it doesn't contain a prescriptive method for adjusting children's attitude to food, but it is packed full of interesting observations about cross-cultural attitudes to food, presented in a fairly humbling way. Le Billon doesn't think she has all the answers, or that the French way is the only way. She merely suggests that the year in France was a fantastic education in terms of their family attitude to food, and details the ways in which they adapted French rules into their way of life. She is honest and descriptive, and an account which could have descended into navel-gazing does include her own feelings on the many adjustments their new life takes, but contains just the right amount of self-reflection.

I've read a few of the Amazon reviews of this book, which are largely positive. I don't find any particular fault with it, especially as I found it so inspiring although I understand the criticism someone made that on the family's return to Vancouver, the family's habits altered back somewhat and they found this to be a problem with the book. I think this is a bit harsh, but I understand where they are coming from - tips as to how to integrate a more French attitude to food into cultures which are increasingly about fast food , snacking and eating on the go, is the only thing missing from the book. But once you have embraced the book's mindset, be challenged to find your own ideas. I can't see us doing the vegetable soups Le Billon used as her re-introduction to new foods, for example, but will instead try a puree or dip. At the moment I'm finding certain good habits difficult, but the art of compromise works wonders - no we may not go to the bakery for a snack when we are hungry and it is only an hour until our lunch in the city, but let's go and find a piece of fruit somewhere before we expire completely.

Some people may not find this book revolutionary - in fact many of the eating habits contained within are things our family already do, although many of our contemporaries don't. We already get weekly fresh fruit, veg, meat and fish delivered from an independent supplier, I try to menu plan a variety of healthy and international meals, I insist on a pretty healthy lunchbox, and restrict the type of snacks we have. The other side of the coin is that I love to bake, so we do indulge in regular sweet treats, but we're not over-indulging (a few years earlier I had read 'French Women Don't Get Fat', which I would also recommend as a companion piece). So for us to switch to habits practised by our nearest cultural neighbour isn't too much of a switch, whereas for some it might be. I would still say give it a go, though, even if you only appreciate the ideas and story within, without taking them on. The contrast between French and UK school lunches in themselves is fascinating (my girls regularly leave at least one item, even if it's a treat, in their lunchbox because they 'don't have time' to eat it in their short lunchtime). And in an age where many parents feel disempowered about taking charge of their kids' eating habits, it gives a mother the courage and confidence to implement tried and tested ideas about food.

So a wholehearted recommendation for Le Billon's book! And I'd be interested to know how other people deal with their fussy eaters and how stressful it can be. Obviously taking them to France for a year is hardly an option but I needed some fresh ideas in addition to those old chestnuts 'get them involved in cooking' (2ndSister loves making and baking everything but still wouldn't eat stuff) and 'just keep offering it them over and over again' which just didn't work with us.

New Food CatchUps!

Well, I have been keeping up with my new food trials, but not updating them here. And I really need to take shots on the camera and upload them! But is a brief recap.

Lamb Tagine - 29 Jan

I thought this tasted lovely, and was a nice alternative to curry. It didn't go down well with the children, though, although they enjoy anything that I serve with flatbread, and while my husband and I enjoyed it, it wasn't full of the most amazing flavours ever (I did enjoy the leftovers the next day though.) Sadly I thought making it as an alternative to Indian curry might mean calm stomachs the next day, but sadly ~ TMI I know ~ it didn't. So, I wouldn't make it again in a hurry because of its richness, but it was nice to make something new.

Meatloaf - 3 Feb

We used the Larger Family recipe for this, which Tanya describes as moist, and I found a little too moist but nevertheless enjoyed. Never having had meatloaf, the kids were sceptical, but it went well as part of a Sunday lunch. It was good to batch bake two, so there's still one in the freezer, and again, leftovers were good. Personally I would prefer to spend the money on a chicken rather than mince, but it was a lovely change.

Turkey Tetrazinni - 13 Feb

Why do all the Jamie Oliver recipes I try go wrong? This tasted OK, and was a good use of (the last of the ) leftover Christmas turkey, but the proportions were all out and everything ended up tasting dry; it would have been better if it had been served fresh than being baked in the oven.

I have to say, I can't see me getting to 13 anytime soon! My mobility and energy are severely compromised at the moment, plus it's Lent so we're mainly having light and easy meals. Still, the impetus is there, and I'm about to post a piece about our new eating habits in general.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Quick Takes: Lenten Sacrifice

7 quick takes sm1 7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 151)


We know it's Lent in our house, because 1stSister's hair is shorn, and 2ndSister inflicted a burn on her hand with a frying pan.


Thankfully 1stSister's hair looks pretty good, and I didn't even need to take her quickly to the hairdresser's for a tidy up. She's one of these kids who likes to take matters into her own hands (think stubborn, wilful, lovable) and wanted it shorter but she "mainly did it for Lent." Quite.


2ndSister's hand is healing, although obviously she always has an accident when there's something important to do with dance coming up, like there is next week (two dance exams, plus and extra rehearsal.) She's also about to start her First Communion class, so is pretty busy at the moment, and excited about everything!


Myself, I haven't planned much for Lent. Nothing new, anyway. As usual, we're using Sarah Reinhard's inspiring book at the family table. I've got my soothing and thought provoking Lent CD in the car. We've put away our Alleluias. We're selecting a different charity every week (although the Gospel says I'm not supposed to broadcast this, I know!), no desserts except on a Sunday, giving up sweets and chocolate except on movie night, and (gasp!) computer gaming time on a Sunday. I'm also trying not to automatically check Twitter and Facebook in my downtime, and read more instead, which is great because I'm into a really interesting book at the moment. I'm trying to read more non-fiction. Luckily the fiction book I'm reading is overrated and going back to the library on Saturday. I'm also trying to get my prayer focus back!


That sounds like quite a lot, actually, doesn't it?! To be honest, being 6 weeks away from delivering this baby, with my PGP (Pelvic Girdle Pain) radiating to my legs, and generally feeling pretty exhausted, is enough of a sacrifice for me! I'm trying to realise I'm not a lightweight or a martyr, and accept my limitations. It feels pretty weird knowing that 4thSister will arrive (by C-Section) by Maundy Thursday at the latest. This is truly an Easter baby, and the next 6 weeks a particularly challenging Lent!


Rather than spend money on each other, my husband and I enjoyed a simple family dinner and dessert we like (smoked mackerel salad and black cherry cheesecake) as our Feast of Saint Valentine and tried to avoid the whole commercial, romantic thing. I came home to find a very tidy kitchen and later got run a bubble bath, which were the best Valentine gifts ever, although I don't think they were designed as such. I did spend some money last month on a new book of love poems, which we can work our way through in the 30 minutes each evening we get together after the sisters are in bed and before I hit comatose exhaustion levels. Which reminds me, 1stSister was inspired to compose a Shakespeare-like Valentine poem last night, which, together with her impromptu hairstyling this week, demonstrates to me, at least, what an idiosyncratic nature she has and that we should embrace it!


I realised there's lots of mention of family but little of 3rdSister....who is now successfully potty trained in the home but yet to be convinced when out and about. So tomorrow I'm biting the bullet and we're saying goodbye to pull-ups forever....what was I saying about not having planned much for Lent?!

* with thanks to Jen Fulwiler @ for hosting - head over there now and read a whole load of other Quick Takes!

Monday, 11 February 2013

Meal Planning Monday

oops....have realised I haven't posted on the Blog since last week's menu plan. There is certainly a lot going on around here but mainly I think it is the fact that at 32 weeks pregnant I am happier and certainly more comfortable lying on the sofa than sitting up at the computer. And sadly, other than some more Rocky Road, I haven't baked  for the family in the week (although I did magic an amazing crumble type thing out of red cherry pie filling when 1stSister's friend came over, which is already the stuff of legend, despite it being out of a tin.) However, we're still going with lots of homemade food before 4thSister arrives and we're onto freezer meals as our default.

I tried to menu plan the month early and then realised that Lent begins on 13th so have had to swap some meals around. We will try to stick to simpler fare for the next 6 weeks, dessert only on a Sunday, fish twice a week etc although with me waking up at 3am with a penchant for pastries I suspect it's pointless me even trying to fast from things other than TweetBook :-)  Anyway here is this week's selection:

Meat Free Monday - Pasta with Pesto. This is the meal we never had when we returned from our minibreak, a useful storecupboard standby for when my planned Ploughmans got switched around last week and I find us without enough fresh stuff to whip up anything else!

Shrove Tuesday - Mixed Grill followed by Pancakes For the past x Shrove Tuesdays, we've had Pancakes for dinner and pudding, no savoury course, just pancakes. Given that I don't eat eggs, this is pretty poor I reckon! Thankfully, all this menu talk of Brinner (breakfast for dinner) inspired me to order in a load of organic meat steaks which I've split and bagged and can do for a mega mixed grill for me, and any other takers, before the pancakes course. Given the horse meat scandal (I'm not bothered about eating horse, to be fair, I just like to know what I am eating and whether it's injected with chemicals), I am quite excited about having some proper steak along with chips!

Ash Wednesday - Turkey Tetrazinni. As it's Lent, I try to use up freezer stuff (hence the big turkey breast from Christmas will finally be gone) and cut down on my weekly chicken in favour of fish. I've wanted to try this recipe again - Jamie Oliver does a version - and it seemed the right time. Although I may have to cut down on trying new things already as my hormones can't take it - my husband loved last week's meatloaf, but the kids were scared, and sentences like "shall I give you feedback about this dish?" have me apopletic :-)

Saint Valentines Thursday - Mackerel Salad & Dessert. Yes, I know I said no desserts in Lent apart from on Sundays but it's the Feast of Saint Valentine for goodness sake! It took all my restraint not to order loads of heart shaped confectionery along with my fruit and veg boxes, but decided to settle for a heart shaped pudding instead. My husband enjoys smoked mackerel very much, and although there's a sustainability issue in the media at the moment, I'm satisfied with the practices of the fisheries we buy from, so this is a Lenten treat for us!

Fishy Friday - Fishfingers and Chips Fridays are generally fishy in our house, and this week it will be fishfingers and oven chips while my husband works over at his annual project, the Hucknall Beer Festival.

Saturday - Spaghetti Carbonara. A Saturday night favourite.

Sunday - Pork Steaks with all the roast trimmings. And a pud! Especially since 2ndSister has a ballet exam in the morning.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Meal Planning Monday

Meat Free Monday: Tortilla wraps with leaves, grated cheese, refried beans, salsa and soured cream ~ and some cheeky tortillas chips with melted cheese on the side! At this juncture perhaps I should mention that we always have half-fat mature cheddar cheese (unless we're using parmesan) and I skimp on things like soured cream as I try to control my tendency to gallstones by eating a healthy (ish) diet. So although this may sound very decadent, it's not really ;-)

Tuesday: Chicken Alfredo Another attempt for me to make a cheesy chicken pasta sauce that the Americans swear by...

Wednesday: Curry Night I've had to move things around a bit this week. Wednesday I'm serving 2 types of bought chicken curry with basmati rice and 2 types of naan. John will collect from school and take 2ndSister to her swimming class, on their return 2ndSister and I have a church meeting while everyone else eats then takes 1stSister to Brownies, then 2ndSister and I will return for our dinner. So, had to be curry really which will keep!

Thursday: Chicken Salad 

Friday: Fishfingers, Quorn Nuggets, Oven Chips, Peas & Salad. 1stSister is having her friend over who is vegetarian at home, so I'm going to try the kids with quorn nuggets instead of chicken ones & Emily can have some fish if she likes. (I've not served quorn in our house for over a decade now as consuming egg white upsets my digestive system completely....TMI!!!)

Saturday: Greek Meze Falafel, pitta, cous cous, houmous, tzatziki, feta & red onion salad, olives, the works, basically. This is one of my favourite dinners and I love it round the family table.

Sunday: Chinese New Year Feast Bought-in Chinese dishes to be served with rice, noodles and prawn crackers. The kids have always done Chinese New Year projects at school so know all about it and it's an excuse for us to get out the Oriental placemats and chopsticks and do something a bit different.

With thanks to Mrs M! Link up your own menu now :-)

Sunday, 3 February 2013

New childcare plans: incoherent spiel

The incoherent spiel is mine (although I suspect the government has also produced some incoherent spiel on the topic) as I am sure I haven't clearly thought this through.

You know I'm a fan of larger families, so I understand that complaining about quotas of how many children a person can take care of may come off as a bit rich. And I'd rather the government incentivise parents to stay at home to provide pre-school care for their children than fund childcare in a way that pushes encourages women back to work, anyway. However, 3rdSister (aged 2 and a half) currently attends a playgroup setting for 2 three-hour sessions per week, which is beneficial to us both (I'm also on the Committee, and we've been talking about this particular issue since 2012.) So, I feel I do have a vested interest in how many children our UK childcare workers are encouraged to look after. (As well as being opinionated about it in a largely uninformed way.)

The facts are: previously, childminders (who care for children in their home) and other childcare workers employed by both nurseries and playgroups, were permitted to care for a certain ratio of under fives (1 adult: 4 two year olds). Myself, I would have struggled with that, even ~ I have enough on giving my 2 year old one-to-one care and attention on a physical, developmental and emotional basis, and I don't have to fill a form or checklist about it later and endure assessments. I do, of course, try to strengthen our bond as well during that time as a) come 3.30pm she's vying for attention with two very noisy and loquacious big girls and b) I'm 31 weeks pregnant and, um, a teeny bit drained. So, I'm possibly trying to do more than your average childcare worker, I'm trying to be a mother. And I gather that childcare workers aren't there to be substitute parents, although they are expected to contribute more to a child's welfare than a mere command and control method. Some days command & control, keeping children alive, basically, is as much as I'm going to manage, to be honest, and I've always said, hats off to those who work in the cacophony and chaos of a pre-school setting.

And now they are putting the numbers up - now it is proposed that one adult can look after SIX two year olds in a childcare setting! I find this incomprehensible!

I'm not saying this CAN'T physically be done, my own failings in this area notwithstanding. (Although the columnist Zoe Williams makes a hilarious case for why it can't.) Corralling and entertaining a large number of under-fives isn't impossible. It's an intensive, exhausting role but  it's not impossible. (And I think it's underpaid, obviously. Childcare workers, ditto care home workers and nurses, are inherently undervalued in our society, socially and financially. As, ahem, are parents.)  But it's possible.

But paying attention to the physical needs of children this age just isn't enough. The government inspectorate OFSTED themselves require various boxes ticked regarding what activities are provided, in addition to managing toilet needs, meals, snacks and ensuring they stay where you put them. How, looking after 6 two-year olds, do you manage to have an individual chat with each of them, expose them to the exact area of learning they are supposed to be experiencing or pay attention to their unique needs?

The proposed changes come in the guise of 'raising quality'. It is suggested that qualifications need to be raised for this to happen - specifically, basic Maths and English qualifications, as far as I can gather, rather than the need for becoming genetically spliced with an octopus, or additional years experience. But how does this actually help? Ensure you can count to 6 time and time again, as you check on your charges? And raising wages for those looking after more children ~ in theory, the new system is going to let more children through the doors and provide 'better value' for parents who pay for childcare. But as I mentioned, it's already a ludicrously underpaid sector. There will be diminishing returns. There is already a large chunk of parents who would not place their children in a childcare environment if they weren't feeling the need to go out to work themselves. How on earth is splitting someone's responsibilities 6 ways going to raise quality of care? I just don't get it!

As I said, being an advocate of the 'larger' family (by which I mean, sadly, more than two kids, in this day and age) I may seem to be giving out mixed messages. But, the more little people you introduce into a family, the more joyous bonding and special interactions you get, as well as increased work. You have siblings who will make each other chocolate spread sandwiches, snuggle up together and forge a little team, rather than a group of peers of the same age, with similar needs, vying for the attention, hitting prone position the minute they need to go in a buggy, kicking off about what they are wearing, eating, doing, can't be only MY 3 girls who have been definitely terrible two year olds. Twin two-year olds would have been fun enough. SIX of them?!

So there you have it. An inconclusive ramble, perhaps, but my thoughts on some absolute idiocy the UK Government seems to have come up with, this week. Tune in soon for next week's instalment ;-)