All it takes is one picky toddler to make parents pull their hair out at the dinner table. If there is one topic that worries us the most, it’s our children’s health and what they’re eating (or not!). As a result, there are countless books on the market touting the best way to get your kids to eat more foods. From The Sneaky Chef, which advocates putting veggie purees in brownies, to 201 Healthy Smoothies and Juices for Kids, to What Chefs Feed Their Kids where chefs share their gourmet secrets, there are more than 60 titles to choose from just in our library system. Parents who are at a loss as to how to get their littlest ones (and often, their big ones!) interested in a plate of carrots can easily become overwhelmed with the advice. With the additional goals of trying to feed families with increasingly less time and high grocery bills, it’s enough to make many of us revert to pasta every night of the week.
The newest addition to the collection, however, might just change not only how you feed your kids, but also yourself. French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon is the story of one Canadian mother who moved her young family back to her husband’s native Brittany, on the coast of France. As you can surmise by the title, she discovered why French kids associate chocolate cake with pleasure, not guilt, and why they have astonishing lower rates of childhood obesity (20% in America, just 3% in France (p. 140)). She discovered why nearly half of French children eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables each day, while barely ten percent of their American counterparts struggle to eat the same amount (p. 117). Even their daycare menus resemble gourmet menus. One day’s lunch at her daughter’s preschool was listed as: beet salad bolognaise, roast turkey with fine flageolet beans, goat cheese buchette, and organic pear compote (p. 36). “By the time they are two years old,” Le Billon discovered, “most French kids have tried (and eaten) more foods than many American adults” (p. 120).
After a few months of struggling to slip snacks into her preschooler’s bag and being harassed for her children’s food habits even by family members, Le Billon started to investigate how and why French children learn to love food the way they do. Desperate to help her children (and, to be honest, herself) fit into their new culture, she came up with a set of ten “French Food Rules,” each of which she explores in a chapter. Each of these gives the reader time to digest (pun not intended) why this “rule” is important and the impact it has on our food choices and habits. They are examined in this order:
Rule #1 – Parents: YOU are in charge of food education!
Rule #2 – Avoid emotional eating. Food is not a pacifier, a distraction, a toy, a bribe, a reward, or a substitute for discipline.
Rule #3 – Parents schedule meals and menus. Kids eat what adults eat! No short-order cooking.
Rule #4 – Food is social. Eat family meals together with no distractions.
Rule #5 – Eat vegetables of all colors of the rainbow. Don’t eat the same dish more than once per week.
Rule #6 – You don’t have to LIKE it but you do have to TASTE it (say at every meal!).
Rule #7 – No snacking!! It’s OK to feel hungry between meals!
Rule #8 – Slow food is happy food. As in, eat slowly!
Rule #9 – Eat mostly real food (treats on special occasions = OK).
Rule # 10 – Remember: Eating is joyful – RELAX!
Le Billon came to realize that the French attitude toward food is not one of strict nutrition or guilt, but of nourishment and pleasure. There are no books in France on childhood nutrition. It is just so ingrained in their culture, that it is part of their social identity. They have passed it on for generations. Their relationship with food is totally different than it is here in North America (Le Billon found the same American attitudes in Vancouver). The French never eat in the car or on the run. The country takes a two-hour lunch break and an afternoon snack allows them to eat a more elaborate and well-planned dinner. They eat their meals at nearly the exact same time each day and all family members eat the same foods. They buy their food several times a week, mostly fresh produce and items from local markets and farmers. They set the table at every meal and pay close attention to the presentation of the food they serve even to their youngest family members – making it beautiful and fun, not just healthful. They have high expectations that their children will learn to love all foods and will behave at the table, with no coercion, threats, bribes, or whining. And the French never, ever, eat alone. As Le Billon states, “It’s really about how to eat, rather than what to eat” (p.75).
As a mother of a toddler myself, I also worry and wonder if my child is getting enough of all the nutrients, and why, oh why, will she not eat carrots but devours peas. French Kids Eat Everything’s title naturally called to me and immediately impacted the way I eat and the way I serve our meals. The rules make sense and several of them were already natural to our family. However, I now remind my daughter to chew slowly and take smaller bites. We talk about the taste and texture of foods more. I eat more slowly and carefully as a role model, and make my bites more mindful. I have always made sure we sit down to eat, but now I also make sure I don’t jump up and rush around clearing plates when she announces, “All done,” but ask her to sit there while Mommy and Daddy finish their meals. I ask her to touch and taste and smell new foods, telling her that maybe she doesn’t like something today, but when she’s older, she will. I keep the kitchen table clear of mail and clutter, and have reintroduced our cloth placemats. I hold back on making a serving of her favorite stand-by when we’re having more exotic fare. Like Le Billon, however, I realize that each day is not going to be a perfect reflection of the rules and I don’t beat myself up for that.
The most exciting anecdote of the adventure (so far!) was the day I served yogurt (yet again!) with the refrain of “no yogurt!” already issuing from her lips. That day, I stopped her and said, “Look! Look at your beautiful new tasting bowl!” (I brought out a tiny glass bowl I use for measuring out spices). She examined it with great intrigue and watched as I poured a tiny taste of beautifully pink (raspberry) coconut milk yogurt into it, saying, “Here is a tiny taste for you.” I then proceeded to eat a spoonful of my own, slowly and carefully, savoring it with lots of “mmmms!” as I closed my eyes and relished the sweet taste. She watched me with fascination, then darted her little hand out, grabbed her spoon and popped it into her mouth. “I took a taste! Mommy’s happy!” she said. “Isn’t it sweet?” I added. It dawned on her that she had eaten a spoonful and she stopped to savor the taste on her own. Then, to my delight, that little hand darted out again and again to clean the bowl. “Yogurt?” has been the hopeful refrain every lunch time since then.
The best part about this new book, is that Le Billon points out how much culture and ingrained beliefs about child-rearing impact children’s eating habits in France (and, indeed, in any country). The French also have many weapons on their side, such as a national identity as food lovers and daycares with chefs, staff, and a curriculum dedicated to helping every child learn to love all foods. Le Billon admits that everything that French people do may not be in alignment with the behaviors and beliefs of North Americans, but that we can still come away with key ideas that can make our eating habits more varied and healthy. She also points out that children are children everywhere, and, like their North American counterparts, French children say no to foods, eat something well one day but not the next, and need time to get used to unfamiliar foods. She reminds us that her ten food rules are, “habits or routines, rather than strict regulations” (p. 230). Even the French enjoy breaking rules on occasion. The book ends with a summary of her “French Food Rules,” books and online resources, and some simple recipes for beginner foods that the author’s children (and most French children) enjoy.
French Kids Eat Everything is a true pleasure-read. It is a story, a biography, and a book about food, a topic that everyone loves to talk about. But it is not a quick-fix, new fad story. The rules are not meant to be steadfast and unbreakable, but reminders about how to eat. French Kids is about a nation’s love affair with food and how we can embrace those ideals within our own culture. It is an important essay about our relationship with food – how we need to reevaluate what, how, and why we eat. It reminds us that food is not always about nutrition or guilt. It is joyful. Now, go eat joyfully.