I am going to start by saying that I am the mom of a picky eater. It can be challenging, frustrating and stressful at times. When my daughter was around 2 1/2 she changed from eating everything I fixed to saying "no" to everything, and refusing to eat most of the foods she had previously eaten without a fuss. It is normal for kids between 2 and 4 to go through a picky phase. The French call this "la phase d'opposition". According to the author, the French "know that they have a limited time frame to introduce new tastes, flavors and textures, and to build the foundation for healthy food habits. So they focus on introducing a wide variety of foods in the first 2 years of a child's life." I pretty much caved into my daughter's pickiness and fixed a lot of pasta for dinner... Would I have done some things differently had I read this book when my daughter was little? Yes, I think so!
"French Kids Eat Everything" was published in 2012, and describes the author and her family's experience living in a small village in the Brittany region of France, where her husband grew up, and most notably how different her children ate compared to French children of the same age. The differences were not only which foods they ate, but how they were educated about food and eating, and their overall vibe with food. The author, who is Canadian, and her family, were living in Canada, and decided to move to the small village for 1 year when their 2 children were around 3 and 5. The book also covers how Le Billon sets out to change the way her children and family approach eating, using her "French Food Rules" that she developed based on her observations and that she outlines in her book. She discusses her successes, failures, and her results, as well as how she continues this process once she returns home to Canada. The author makes a lot of compelling points based on her observations that may provide food for thought for other moms.
The "French Food Rules" that Le Billon lays out are not obscure ideas, and include things like: eating family meals together, eating more vegetables, eating mostly real food, no snacking, avoiding emotional eating and kids should eat what adults eat. There are 2 take away messages that struck me and that are really the basis for why the French are successful in fostering healthy eating habits and sticking to these rules, and perhaps why we struggle with these things in North America:
1) Training/education ~
The French make it a priority to train their babies, toddlers and children how to eat by introducing a variety of different foods (not just once, but multiple times), flavors and textures, and not "kid" type foods. According to Le Billon, this training is not only done by parents at home, but also in part at school. The author shares a story when she goes to her younger daughter's day care and the toddlers there don't play with their food and actually use utensils to eat and not their hands, and these are toddlers she is talking about. She explains that if children didn't cooperate, which was rare, their plates would be removed and they wouldn't get to eat the rest of the meal or snack.
The author also describes walking up to her older daughter's classroom on the first day of kindergarten and seeing a menu for the week posted on the door. Check out a couple of days from the menu:
Entree (starter): Endive salad with Emmental cheese and croutons Beet salad bolognaise
Plat principal (main course): Alaskan hake with organic pan-fried potatoes Roast turkey with flageolet beans
Salade/Fromage (cheese): Blue cheese Goat cheese buchette
Dessert: Plain yogurt, apricots in honey syrup Organic pear compote
Most (if not all) of the kids eat these meals together in the "cantine", which Le Billon describes as "what our high school cafeterias would be like if the food had been made by Cordon Bleu chefs in training, overseen by a nutritionist and served to you at the table by maternal waiters". The meals cost around $3.00 and assistance is given to those who need it. The kids also have a much longer lunch period to sit, enjoy their food, and interact with their schoolmates than the kids do in North America, with the total break time between 1.5 - 2 hours and 30 minutes of it is spent sitting at the table.
Le Billon writes that the French National Ministry of Education's stance is: "School is a privileged place in which children are educated about good taste, nutrition and food culture. Good taste must be taught and learned, and can only be acquired over time." She also details the Ministry's rules for serving food:
- Vegetables had to be served at every meal: raw one day, cooked the next
- Fried food could be served no more than once per week
- Real fish had to be served at least once per week
- Fruit was served for dessert every second meal, at a minim
- Sugary desserts were allowed - but only once per week
Le Billon describes that schools follow a teaching method developed by the national French Institute of Taste and each year, teachers begin with simple lessons on the senses that encouraged children to explore how food experiences are composed of taste, vision, smell, touch, and hearing. Wow! Okay, this training and education leads to my 2nd take away:
2) It's practiced at a cultural level ~
Parents, doctors, teachers and even the government believe in this approach. If everyone is on the same page, it certainly makes things easier, and that is not true in the US, at least in my experience. In talking with other moms, I have heard moms say they feel bad for always being the one to bring healthy snacks to group functions for kids, because the kids would rather have the cupcake, muffin, cookie, crackers as opposed to fruit, cheese, veggies, etc. I have been one of those moms myself. I have also been asked by my own daughter why we have different foods for kids (and don't get me wrong, she likes those different "kid" foods). This is a great question, though. Why do we have different foods for kids (mostly processed)? Kid meals ideally should just be smaller portions of adult meals, as they are in France.
There is a food movement happening slowly in the US and people are making the connection between the foods we eat and our health. Change doesn't occur overnight, and we can continue to add to this effort in our own communities. Whether that means opening the discussion in your school district about the foods that are offered as a part of the school lunch program; asking your schools to not allow parents to provide candy and junk for group snacks, birthday parties, celebrations; setting some ground rules for providing healthy snacks at sports events; and voting with your dollars buy buying real, whole foods.
I don't think you will be disappointed with this book. It is inspirational, funny at times and educational. I think there is a lot we can learn from the French approach and Le Billon does a nice job telling the story, without being condescending.
Another book by this author about teaching children that nutritious foods can taste good is: "Getting to Yum"