Saturday, December 1, 2012

Salmon-wrapped leeks au gratin... and 7 reasons why Pablo loves good food


Steering away from my philosophical ramblings a bit here... onto parenting ramblings! As Pablo is hitting that challenging age of the "terrible twos", which actually are known to start around 18 months, I wanted to give a little recap on where he's at with his "education of taste" so far.

Generally speaking, he's at the stage where we hear a whole lot of "non" (French style of course!) throughout the day, there's a lot of testing of boundaries, of button-pushing, a lot of curiosity about how far a power struggle can really go... A fascinating process really, especially if you look at it like a scientist making chemistry experiments. That seems to be the way Pablo looks at it, intrigued at what he can do, what he can get away with, what power he can have over others (annoying them, making them upset, or happy, etc.) That being said, that power can be scary to a toddler, so that's when those reassuring boundaries come in.

A recent challenge was when Pablo discovered one of his many superpowers: taking off his bib in the middle of the meal. I had originally established a rule that we must wear a bib and sit in the high chair to eat. When he discovered I was annoyed when he was taking off his bib, he started doing it repeatedly, very early in the meal, and would push me into a power struggle. I fell in that trap a couple of times, and then realized the error of my way. A power struggle was making the situation worse, AND it was ruining my meal (a sacrilege to the French!) as I would get upset. And he wouldn't eat anymore anyway. So I thought, OK, just go with a simple, calm consequence. So the next time he took off his bib mid-meal, I said nonchalantly, "Ok, you are done with eating? Fine by me." (If he's hungry, he'll eat better at the next meal...) And I let him leave the table, while we continued to eat our meal. The first couple of times I did this, he was pretty surprised, and hung out near us, trying to get our attention. After about 4 times, he stopped taking of his bib during the meal. Now, at the end of the meal, he points to it saying "maman" with his sweet voice and signing "please", to ask if he can take off his bib, I ask him if he's finished eating, and if he's not, we go on with the meal. If he is, so be it. Let me tell you I was relieved this worked! I guess both Pablo and I learned a valuable lesson on that one...

The really good thing here though, is that Pablo remains an excellent eater, happily eating lots of different vegetables (and other foods) at every meal. He has not focalized his testing and resistance to boundaries over the actual food he eats. And I do think that is, at least in part, because of the "toolbox" of strategies I've followed since day one of solid foods (around 4 1/2 months), and some of the positive food associations I have tried to nurture. So I wanted to share some of those strategies here, in case someone might find them useful... In no particular order:

1. Variety, novelty, curiosity

Introducing as many different kinds of foods, vegetables, herbs and spices from the very start. By 18 months, there were very few things Pablo hadn't already eaten. Also trying new foods has become a habit for him, nothing unusual about it (we still try new dishes on a regular basis). I always make sure he tries, and I make tasting something new playful and fun, by being silly with it, telling him it will tickle his mouth (and his curiosity, and hopefully his fancy!). The point is to make it an exciting fun experience.

2. No assumptions, keep the faith

When he seems to reject a food (spitting it out), I remain nonchalant about it, and reoffer it several times over the following weeks, confident that he will most likely enjoy it eventually. There's nothing so far he has consistently rejected. I have noticed many times it's not that he doesn't like the food, but rather that he feels like eating something else on his plate. And sometimes he will chew a food, and then spit it out, which tells me he probably likes the taste, but is unfamiliar with the texture. (This happened with endive salad, he used to chew and spit. But instead of concluding he didn't like it, I kept giving him a few pieces when we would eat them, and he now swallows the whole thing. Took him a while to become familiar and comfortable with the texture.)

3. No "one more for Mommy"

I have made a big effort to avoid any emotional association to food, except that it's a pleasurable sharing experience. I try not to offer him food to comfort him, or reward him in any way. Also we try to never imply that he should eat to please us (if we did, what happens the day he specifically wants to displease us?), hence the no "one more for mommy" rule. Trying to remember that young children are in tune with their body and what it needs, if we let them listen to their body - which also led to...

4. Baby's boss... of his body

Letting him decide when he's had enough (and letting him feed himself as much as possible). I offer a variety, he chooses how much he wants to eat, as I always feel confident that he can make up for a lighter meal at the next meal. I found he really enjoys having a couple of different things on his plate, and pick one, then another, discerning the difference. Probably helps build a positive association between food and a feeling of independence and self-confidence, too.

5. Eating together

We do eat together as a family 95% of the time, and we all eat the same thing (following the French four-course meal format). Eating is a time of togetherness, another positive association.

6. Food for the senses

Keeping eating, cooking, and food in general, playful, introducing fun rituals, letting him touch food with his hands and explore it in a sensory way (taste, smell, touch, even hear: the crunch of an endive or the pschh of chicken browning in olive oil). Within reason of course.

7. "Non, non" to snacking

No snacking. Pablo eats 4 meals a day, 3 + 1 afternoon snack. It doesn't even occur to him to ask me for a snack, since he's never had them. He is fine hanging from 8 to 12 or 1pm, and then until 4-5 pm, then 7:15pm. This insures that he has a healthy appetite when we sit down to eat.

So... Pablo's "non" have not (perhaps yet?) landed on the food. We shall see how things evolve, Pablo may very well start refusing to eat anything but pickles, or noodles, at 2 or 3. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, though I am committed to stand by my strategies above to get me through it.

Now, one of the new dishes we tried recently, is this recipe found in a French cooking magazine grabbed while waiting in line at a French supermarket last September.  The cover intrigued me, "Our best recipes, for less than 1 Euro per person". It turned out to be a great resource for delicious, easy and affordable family recipes. I blogged about their savory herb custard a few weeks ago. These salmon-wrapped leeks were really delicious and an original variation on the classic baked endives and ham.

I hope you get a chance to try it, and in the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts, anecdotes and your own strategies to help your children eat well...  


Salmon wrapped leeks au gratin

Adapted from Best Of Gourmand Magazine

Serves 4

Prep time: 25 mn
Cook time: 35 mn

Age for babies: 10-12 months, cut up in very small pieces.

8 slices of smoked salmon
8 medium leeks
1 stem of fresh dill
3.5 oz grated Swiss cheese
2 tbsp butter

For the béchamel sauce:
3 tbsp butter
3/4 cup milk
1/3 cup heavy cream
2 tbsp flour
1 pinch of ground nutmeg
Salt and pepper

Wash the leeks, and cut the green part, leaving only the whites. Make an incision lengthwise to wash them while keeping their shape. Steam for about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the béchamel: In a small saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the flour and stir to obtain a "roux" (brown mixture). Pour the cold milk, then the heavy cream and bring to avoid, stirring constantly until the sauce thickens. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Preheat the oven at 400°F. Wrap each leek in a slice of smoked salmon.

Place the salmon wrapped leeks in a buttered baking dish. Pour the béchamel sauce over them.

Sprinkle with the Swiss cheese, and bake for about 15 minutes.

Wash the dill, remove the stem. Sprinkle over the gratin when it comes out of the oven. Serve hot.

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  1. Helene, I was directed to your blog by Karen Le Billion's blog and I am so glad to have found you! I am an American expat living in Belgium, and as I dietitian I am fascinated with the French approach to teaching children to eat. It is something I plan to adopt with my own children one day, as I feel it just makes so much more sense that the traditional american approach. So I am quite glad to read about your experiences. I look forward to exploring your blog more.

    Cheers, Courtney

    ps. I never would have thought to swap the traditional chicon au gratin for leeks and smoked salmon. Great idea, thanks for sharing!

    1. Nice to meet you Courtney, thanks so much for coming by! Hope you find useful things in the blog. :-)

  2. What a great post! I really like your approach to avoiding food power struggles and encouraging Pablo to eat a varied menu. I particularly appreciate your take on reframing food rejection.

    I hope you don't mind, but I referenced your post on my blog today at

    1. Thank you so much, Holly, for the kind words, and for the mention on your blog!

  3. I loved this blog post! We have really adopted the French way of feeding our 22 month old son from the start and not only is he a food lover but we are we having so much fun and I feel that we are all eating healthier for it! The issue I am starting to run into is really a clash between the French food culture and the American food culture. The schedule is really easy to keep and my son never asks for snacks or anything until the next mealtime is coming up but I feel like no matter where we go - playdate, birthday party, etc, other families are serving foods that I am not crazy about at totally inappropriate times. We went to a playdate in the park at 10am and the other mom brought two kinds of cookies and banana bread! How are you managing to balance the French way of feeding in this snack loving American culture?

    1. Hi Sarika! First, thanks for coming by, AND for launching a really great interesting discussion! I don't really have an easy answer to that one. Raising my son bilingual, I went to a bilinguism workshop, and when the professor was asked what to do about speaking a foreign language to our child in mixed company, and concerns that it was rude etc, she basically said, "Too bad. Explain nicely that raising a bilingual child is important to you, and remember the long term benefits." Same type of reasoning with this. I've had to turn down snacks offered by other moms... This may become more of an issue as Pablo gets older and is in school, I'll have to see how I deal with it then... I'm more concerned about explaining to Pablo than to other people. And I guess it could be good to say, "All families do things differently, this is how we do things and here's why." There are a few things like that, which I find myself doing a bit differently than a lot of other moms (in regards to TV also, hoping to do no TV at all until 3). I guess we just have to own it... As far as playdates and special occasions, I am a bit more lenient, and will let Pablo have a taste of something that might be offered to him (depending on what it is...), so he's not too frustrated. As long as it doesn't become a daily habit, I consider it OK. I think kids get the special occasion thing...

  4. We are a Franco--America. Household and follow the French eating method. My children are very good eaters, I never worry about them liking the food wherever we go UNLESS it is a place with poor food (like a fast food restaurant, they won't really eat it). My children also do not snack except for the occasional piece of fruit, No snack traps, goldfish, crackers, etc. I don't buy them at all. it unnerves me that they are fed a snack in their 3 hour morning preschool, but I try to look at the social aspect of communal eating and move on. I do not carry food around with me or allow them to just get whatever they want out of the fridge or pantry. I get them involved in meal planning, cooking, shopping for food, etc and it definitely interests them more in certain things, My 4 year old has started suggesting Recipes, usually random combinations of food which to me sound a bit off but I let her try, like Greek yogurt with grapes and maple syrup. It is so so so so so important the healthy eating and relationship with food. I am so incredibly shocked at the stories I hear and witness of children in the US who only eat PBJ or Mac and cheese, I mean look at what is offered as kid food on menus at restaurants. I love recipes, ESP the fig tart. Can't wait to try the leek and salmon!!!

    1. Hi there, nice to meet you, thanks so much for sharing your experience and success stories! It's inspiring. So wonderful that your child is coming up with recipes, such a great creative outlet. Glad you found some recipes you liked, let me know what you think of the leek and salmon!

  5. Helene,
    I am so happy to have found your site! I love this post and will definitely be making this recipe for the family soon.

  6. Hi Darci, had the same feeling when I found yours! :-) Thanks so much for coming by! Let me know how the dish turns out!

  7. Oh my goodness, Helene! As a salmon and leek fan, A HUGE fan, this gratin is a must make for me! Looks so delicious. I love gratin, cannot live without it in winter time. Thank you so much for sharing the recipe and gorgeous photos of the dish. You are certainly making me hungry!

    1. I am a big fan of gratins too! Gratins and soups, such comfort foods, aren't they? Hope you get to try this easy one soon, it's quite tasty! :-)

  8. Being a French mum in England, I tend to agree with all of you expats in the US.
    It took me years to realise that I never had snacks with me when every mum here has a snack in their bag at any time... I never realised because my son never asked for snacks. I have no idea whether it's because I'm French or whether it's because my son never asked but it's worked for us! Now, the only snack my children have is after school and it's always a piece of fresh fruit as I read that the best way to get them to eat what you want them to eat is to give it to them after school, when they are so hungry.

    Now, about this recipe... are the leeks quite strong in there or is the test softened by the bechamel? I am really not fond of leeks (though I'll have them in casserole) but am really tempted by this recipe...

    Thanks for your blog!

    1. Thank YOU for your kind comments!
      You make a good point about the fruit at snack time. The same idea goes for vegetable first course when kids are the most hungry, and it definitely applies right after school too.
      About the recipe, you might want to just use the leek whites, less strong in flavor than the green part. But the leek does taste quite different in this than leeks in vinaigrette for example, so you might want to give it a try. Otherwise, you could substitute endives for the leeks... Would love to hear your feedback on the recipes you try!

  9. I couldn't help but giggle at the Pablo-bib power struggle. I work with 3-10 year olds and I found that since having my own daughter I am more relaxed about similar incidents (I am very good at my non-emotional responses and stare down :)). I cringe slightly inside the day my almost 9 month goes to pull these things on me but know there is strength in strategies like what you listed above. Thank you for always inspiring good parenting!!!


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