» Eating on the Road- Tasty Tips from Karen Le Billon
By: Mary Luz Mejia
There’s no doubt that one of the highlights of travel includes eating as locals do. This is especially the case for us as I’m a food writer and Mario an excellent home cook. Recently, we heard Canadian mom and author Karen Le Billon on the radio talking about her latest book, “French Kids Eat Everything (And Yours Can, Too)”and instantly, what she had to say struck a chord. As new parents ourselves, we’re going to do whatever we can to get baby Nathalie to eat well, to appreciate that it took time to make the family a delicious meal and to encourage her to try new things.
As we’re about to fly off for our inaugural family odyssey to Europe, I thought it would be a good idea to solicit some food-friendly tips from Le Billon herself. Here’s our Q&A- bon appétit!
Q: What do you recommend parents do to introduce picky eaters to try new foods while travelling?
Le Billon: Where possible, have them taste new foods before you leave. For example, try tagines if you’re going to be taking a holiday to Morocco! Watch food videos on Youtube of foods that people eat. Anything to familiarize the kids with the food before you go – so they aren’t having to encounter the new food in a new environment (which is often over-stimulating). This is a version of French ‘taste training’; gently acclimatizing your children to new foods.
Q: How to get children to want to try new foods in foreign countries that don’t have chicken fingers and fries on the menu?
Le Billon: Often, kids do as we do (rather than as we say). Try the new food yourself, and if they see you appreciating it they may be more willing to try it. This is actually backed up by scientific studies that show the kids are much more likely to eat something if their parents try and enjoy it first. Having family meals together, sitting down at the table, is what the French do–so eating the same thing together, at the same time, comes naturally.
Q: We’re travelling with an infant- almost 7 months old. What can we do to gently introduce her to new flavours that are good and healthy for her while on the road in Amsterdam and Flanders?
Le Billon: For infants, I recommend soups. They’re the classic way French parents introduce new foods to babies. Even just tasting a little broth can be great. For example, if you’re in Flanders, you can try ‘moules’ (mussels). She’s too young for shellfish (stomach poisoning is always a possibility), but give her some sips of the broth, which will be really tasty. My family is Dutch, so I remember lots of great soups as a child such as Rijstsoep — with beef broth and rice, or Aspergesoep (asparagus soup) for example; often these are made with a clear broth, so they’re great for infants.
Q: What’s the #1 mistake parents make when travelling with children when it comes to meal time?
Le Billon: #1 Mistake: feeding kids snacks close to mealtimes because you’re worried they’ll be hungry. It ruins their appetite, and sets them up for not eating a proper meal, which means they’ll be hungry again too soon. This is French Food Rule #7: Limit snacks to once per day (and not within one hour of meals). Obviously, an infant might be on a different feeding schedule (although French infants only eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and have one big snack at around 4 pm).
Q: Your book states that we shouldn’t use food as a reward or punishment- and we’ve all seen parents do that. On the road, when kids can get over-tired and over-stimulated, how can frazzled parents avoid this food trap?
Le Billon: Avoiding emotional eating is a healthy food rule that kids will be happy you followed (at least when they grow up!). The French always have other distractions on hand. Stickers work well (even at a young age); they’re light, portable, not messy, and provide endless hours of amusement. We always travel with stickers, and I pull them out — kids have a lot of fun sticking (or unsticking) them on fingers, or paper napkins, whatever you have to hand. If the infant is still in the ‘put it in my mouth stage’, then I’d recommend other distractions, like a storybook, taking them for a little walk, or games. And, when traveling, make sure they’re getting enough water. They may be thirsty rather than hungry.
Q: Any other advice or tips you can suggest to make eating on the road fun, healthy and delicious?
Le Billon: The point of the family trip is to enjoy yourselves! I’d try to familiarize them with easy foods you know you can find on the road (like mashed potatoes, in the Dutch case), so that you have a fall-back. It’s always good to have something on the table that kids like and that you know they’ll eat. That way, they’ll be reassured, and will be more open to trying new things. The French approach is about getting pleasure out of food, so go easy on the new tastes. It is part of the adventure, but don’t fuss if your baby doesn’t like all of the new foods. Exposure is great, and will help her learn to like new things in the long run. Finally, we always traveled with a manual baby food mill. We had a portable one that didn’t require electricity. I would just pop a bit of whatever we were eating in it, and puree it — worked like a charm! It even works with raw apples, pears, and bananas — instant fruit puree.
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