Many readers have written in asking introducing new foods to their babies. Some of you have babies who are just starting solids, and are interested in trying the French approach. Good for you! Research shows that diversifying your baby’s tastebuds is one of the best way to ensure they’re a lover of healthy food when they grow up!
To compare the French versus American approaches, a great place to start is the French equivalent of the American Academy of Pediatrics: the French Society of Pediatrics (FSP–also known as the Société Française de Pédiatrie).
Just like the AAP, the FSP produces online resources, including guides for feeding, and introducing your baby to solid foods. The focus of this advice is on ‘food diversification’.
In practice, French parents introduce a new veggie every 3 or 4 days. A recent study found that they introduced, on average, 6 new veggies in the first month, and more than 40% of the babies in the study were introduced to between 7 and 12 vegetables.
(Source: Maier, A., C. Chabanet, B. Schaal, P. Leathwood, and S. Issanchou. 2007. “Food-Related Sensory Experience From Birth Through Weaning: Contrasted Patterns in Two Nearby European Regions.” Appetite 49: 429-40.)
When asked to explain why they serve so many veggies, the French parents mentioned “taste development”, which is prioritized by French paediatricians and parenting books! The FSP tells parents: children’s appetite diminishes around the age of 2 years old. This is when ‘neophobia’ (fear of new foods) tends to appear (in about 3 out of 4 children). It’s important to maintain the “4 meals per day” structure to the eating routine, without forcing kids to eat. So before the ages of 2 and 3, French parents are eager to introduce their child to lots of flavors, textures, and tastes. (In contrast, the AAP explicitly tells parents not to serve babies adult food, on the grounds that it contains too much salt and preservatives. Slightly confusing–as it sounds like they are assuming that parents wouldn’t be making scratch-cooked meals for themselves at home!?)
So what veggies are French parents serving? The Society of French Pediatrics provides a list of starter vegetables at 5/6 months (I’ve placed the original text, in French, below).
They note that any of the following can be mixed into a small amount of potatoes, which should be introduced separately first.
First foods for babies
-zucchini (peeled and seeds removed)
-leeks (whites only)
-endive and chard can be used in limited quantities, and only baby endives and baby chard (to limit the amount of fibre)
-green peas can be used only if they are ‘extra-fine’, and served in small quantities. The French think that green peas are really hard on the digestive system and don’t tend to serve them until the babies are a bit older. The document also suggests limiting carrots, which they state can cause constipation.
Now, this list may not make sense to anyone with a nutrition background–at least if they received their training in the US. I’m not necessarily defending it! But it’s interesting that it is so different from the American approach.
From 9 months onwards:
The FSP recommends that parents wait before introducing certain vegetables which are too rich in fibre or pose a higher allergic risk: cabbage, turnip, onion, green leek, celery, celery root (celeriac), green peas, tomatoes, Jerusalem artichoke (salsify), cardoons, artichoke, peppers, eggplant, parsley. These are to be introduced around 9 months if the child is handling the other veggies fine. Then other veggies are added too, like fennel, cauliflower, broccoli, and beets. Note: the rate of allergies in France is approximately 5 to 8% (similar to that in the US) (source: Maier et al (2007)).
They also suggest starting with fruits later, and note that these should be cooked before pureeing for younger babies.
From 18 months onwards, the FSP suggests that babies can eat all vegetables. But they recommend waiting on ‘dried beans’ like kidney beans until they can chew them properly? They might pose a choking hazard.
The AAP guidelines are quite different. The first food they mention on their HealthyChild.org website is baby cereal. They mention vegetables (squash, peas, corn, carrots), but don’t provide a specific list (and don’t divide this list into age categories). When they provide a sample daily menu for an 8 to 12 month old baby, they simply mention ‘yellow or orange vegetables’ and ‘green vegetables’. Not specific enough to be helpful, in my opinion. And what about ‘red vegetables’? Or ‘purple ones’? As a new mom, I think I would have appreciated a list with more specifics.
The AAP does, however, mention warnings about nitrates and allergies that you should definitely read about–particularly with respect to vegetables like spinach. In fact, they warn parents against home-prepared baby foods: “NOTE: If you make your own baby food, be aware that home-prepared spinach, beets, green beans, squash, and carrots are not good choices during early infancy. They may contain large amounts of nitrates. Nitrates are chemicals that can cause an unusual type of anemia (low blood count) in young babies. Commercially prepared vegetables are safer because the manufacturers test for nitrates. Peas, corn, and sweet potatoes are better choices for home-prepared baby foods.”
The FSP makes other recommendations that the AAP might not agree with. For example, they recommend putting your baby on a ‘four meals a day’ feeding schedule from around 9 months old: breakfast, lunch, snack (which is like a mini-meal), and dinner. They recommend sticking to this rigorously. The AAP suggests, in contrast, three meals and three snacks per day (breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner, snack). It’s worth noting that France has the lowest rate of child obesity in the developed world–by far. When I moved to France, I know I found it very hard to believe that my daughters (then in kindergarten and preschool) didn’t need to be constantly eating. But according to the French they can wait comfortably between meals–even as babies. Controversial I know!
Other FSP recommendations: at the age of 5 months, they suggest making a thin vegetable soup (more like a bouillon) and serving this to your baby in their bottle, mixed with milk. By gradually reducing (not eliminating) the amount of milk, you get your baby used to eating vegetable soup. They even suggest that you can mix a spoonful or two of store-bought baby purees with the baby’s milk (again, in a bottle) to introduce them to new tastes! Or you can serve a thin soup using a spoon, before moving on to thicker purees. Definitely not the same as American advice!
A final, interesting note: the French do not focus on rice cereal as a first food. They certainly serve baby cereals, and they are important, but they’re not the focus of ‘food diversification’. There is a growing debate in the US about the use of processed white rice cereal as baby food. If you’re interested, check out Dr Greene’s ‘White-Out’ Campaign.
For a wonderful example of how a French mom feeds her baby, check out the French Foodie Baby blog — Hélène is a French mom living in the US, who offers a week-by-week account of feeding her 18 month old. This week’s recipe is salmon-wrapped leeks au gratin!!
I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Did reading French Kids Eat Everything change the way that you feed your children? Your baby? Will you try anything new or different? If so, I would love to hear about it!
ps Yes, you’re right. The advice from French and American pediatricians is contradictory. Confusing, I know. My recommendation: do your own research, and talk to your health care provider about what makes sense for your family. I feel like I should insert a disclaimer here — this is not medical advice!! And please check the information here with your health care provider if you have any questions.
pps The French original text is:
“La pomme de terre en petite quantité peut servir de
liant. Il est préférable de proposer un seul légume « vert »
par jour (en plus des pommes de terre) afin que l’enfant
apprenne le goût particulier de chaque légume. Parmi les
légumes « verts » il est possible d’utiliser : carottes, haricots
verts, épinards, courgettes (épépinées et sans peau), poireaux
(blanc), potirons. Les bettes et les endives peuvent
être utilisées en quantité limitée, sous forme de légumes
jeunes pour limiter l’apport de fibres. Les petits pois peuvent
être utilisés seulement s’ils sont extrafins et en faible quantité.”