Ask my children what their favorite foods are, and the answer might surprise you. Seven-year-old Sophie loves beets and broccoli, leeks and lettuce, mussels and mackerel—in addition to the usual suspects, like hot dogs, pizza, and ice cream. Claire, her three-year-old sister, loves olives and red peppers, although her all-time favorite is creamed spinach. Living as we do in Vancouver, where the world’s largest salmon-spawning river flows through one of the continent’s most Asian cities, our daughters also happen to love seaweed, smoked salmon and avocado sushi.
Our daughters’ enthusiastic eating habits are no surprise to my French husband, Philippe. But they still surprise me, because food fights used to be frequent at our house. Before our family moved to France for a year and embarked on our (unintended) experiment with French food education, dinnertime was parenting purgatory. Fries were my daughters’ favorite “vegetable.” Anything green was met with clenched teeth. Whining stopped only when dessert appeared. Our standbys were Cheerios, pasta and buttered toast. We considered goldfish crackers to be a separate food group.
Sophie was a picky eater right from the start. By the time she was three, Sophie had developed a fear of new foods that reminded me a lot of myself as a child. Anything objectionable on her plate would trigger her little “crazy food dance” (as we called it): arms waving, eyes rolling, Sophie would whine, sometimes yell and even jump up from the table to avoid being confronted with the fearsome food in question. Her somewhat quirky tastes didn’t make it easy to avoid setting off this behavior. For example, Sophie didn’t like vegetables, or anything white or creamy: cheese, yogurt, any sauce of any description or even ice cream. And she refused to eat things that most other children like, including macaroni and cheese,and sandwiches of any kind.
In contrast, Claire—her younger sister—ate almost anything. That is, she would eat almost anything until she started behaving like her older sister. This gave me a serious case of parental performance anxiety, combined with a good measure of guilt.
You see, my husband’s friends, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and other sundry and assorted relatives all expected our daughters to eat like French children. And French kids eat everything, from fruit salad to foie gras, spinach to stinky blue cheese. They eat things most North American kids (and some of their parents) would never dream of eating, like cardoons. (Don’t worry, I’d never heard of them either.) I have witnessed three-year-olds devouring seafood of all sorts and toothless babies sipping everything from béchamel sauce to vegetable bouillon. Some have even more exotic preferences: Didier, who would cheerfully savor la langue de boeuf (beef tongue), or little Fabrice, whose favorite food was museau à la vinaigrette (pickled pig snout), or baby Claire, who gummed her daily ration of Roquefort cheese with obvious delight.
True, you might find the rare French child who has an aversion to specific foods (cauliflower, in my husband’s case). But, for the most part, French kids consume anything put in front of them. They eat in a straightforward, joyous, and all-embracing way that seems bafling to the ordinary North American. And everyone assumes this is normal—including the kids.
This is, in fact, a junior version of the famous “French Paradox,” which has had scientists scratching their heads for years. French parents gently compel their children to eat healthy food. They expect their kids to eat everything they are served, uncomplainingly. They ask them to spend long hours at the table (where they are expected to be extremely well-behaved) rather than watching TV or playing video games. Despite this, French kids think eating is fun. And that’s not all: France’s rate of child obesity is one of the lowest in the developed world. And while rates of overweight and obese children are at an all-time high and are rapidly increasing in most wealthy countries, they are stable and even declining in France. This is not because they’re all on a weight-loss program; diets for French children are relatively rare because few of them need it.
Before we moved to France, I was stumped about how French parents achieved this.
What did French parents know that I didn’t? As I learned during our year in France, the secret lies not only in what, but also how, when and (most important) why French kids eat.
Now, learning this secret was not the reason we moved to France. I am not a foodie, and Philippe is one of the rare French men I’ve met who has relatively little interest in food (which helps explain why he could entertain the thought of marrying a foreigner). I had little desire to improve my cooking skills; if anything, the thought of having to cook
French food filled me with a vague sense of dread.
But living in France awakened my interest in how French parents educate their children about food. I began to ask questions, and also to voice my objections. My kids won’t eat that way! It’s too expensive! I don’t have the time! Luckily, discussing food is the national hobby of the French. So when I asked questions, people were only too willing to talk.
From my many conversations with parents and teachers, doctors and scientists (and from the research I did to back up what I was hearing) I learned that feeding children well doesn’t need to be conflict-ridden or complicated. And I learned simple tricks for teaching children to enjoy eating a wide variety of foods. I also learned that nutrition and healthy eating habits, while important, don’t need to be the main focus. Rather, enjoying your food is the focus, and healthy eating habits are a happy byproduct.
This view (food is fun!) helped inspire our family to reinvent the way we eat. Over the course of our year in France, we discovered ten French Kids’ Food Rules—which we adapted to life in North America when we returned home. Applying these rules challenged some of my most deeply held beliefs about children, food and parenting. This was sometimes uncomfortable, but our quest to reinvent our family’s food culture was also an experience that brought us closer together. I was inspired by seeing the French families all around us who fostered a healthy love of food—and a love of healthy food—in their children.
The foregoing is excerpted from French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.
Karen Le Billon is the mother of two young daughters. An author and teacher, she is a Rhodes Scholar with a PhD from Oxford University. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Independent and Dissent Magazine. She tweets at @karenlebillon, and her weekly posts about French school lunch menus can be found on her blog at frenchkidseateverything.com.