Saturday, July 27, 2013

French Kids Eat Everything

French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters
© 2012 Karen Le Billon

320 pages

Upon landing in France to spend a year with her husband's family, Karen Le Billon noticed something peculiar about French kids' behavior at the dinner table. First, they were at the table, not in front of the TV: they were sitting politely there, as though they were actors in a 1950s film on table etiquette; and they were eating their vegetables.  Not pizza-declared-a-vegetable-by-Congress, but actual vegetables. And it wasn’t just one French families, but entire  cafeterias and villages full of them!  Spooked, but slightly envious, Le Billon committed herself to figuring out how the French created such well-mannered eaters. In French Kids Eat Everything¸ she documents her exploration of French food culture, and distills it into ten rules which can apply just as easily  to American families.

Those rules are partially sourced in both French parenting and in French gustatory culture. Her account gives further evidence to the lesson of French Women Don't Get Fat and Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong: the French take food very seriously. It is to be eaten at the table, in special dishes, preferably with a tablecloth, and at ordained times.  In Bringing up Bebe. Pamela Druckerman called attention to well-behaved French kids as well, and attributed it to the fact that the French expect their children to act like little adults. Le Billon's French husband concurs, guffawing at the notion that children are innocent.  Children are untamed animals who must be civilized. Food culture is part of the education that refines selfish, noisy babies into that most elite specimen of mankind, the French person. The manners of the table teach children manners for life: the importance of spending time with family, of slowing down and disengaging from the hubbub of life outside,  of participating in little rituals that imbue the ordinary with meaning, of honoring your community by eating local produce.  Although the education is intended to groom children and open them to a life richer in experience and pleasure, the grooming itself requires discipline: French parents tend toward the authoritarian, insisting that their children try various foods time and again. Their authority is moderated by wisdom: they don't insist or expect that children eat a new food completely up, only that they try it. "You didn't like it this time? That's ok; maybe you'll like it next time," Le Billon learns to teach her children.  Although children may pass through a period where they are adverse to trying new things, persistence will see them through, as it will adults:  people can learn to enjoy any food if they try it enough times.

The book records Le Billon not only divining out these rules by observing French families eat and talking with them about food, but her efforts to teach her mini-barbarians, her oh-so-American children, how to be civilized. In the end, the fact that she's living in France is a tremendous aide: the lessons she flounders at teaching because she's just learning herself are zealously enforced by her children's teachers, friends, and family. When the Le Billons return to America, her girls are anomalies, and Le Billon has to figure out how to apply the lessons of French epicureanism to America's fast food  mentality. That helps the  book become more than a romanticized paen to French dining, or an entertaining account of cultural exploration. There's nothing in the 'rules' Le Billon notes that can't be applied to every culture, or any:  most, indeed, is simple discipline. The trick for American parents reading will be applying those lessons while living in a culture which prides itself on being 'real', instead of mannerly.

French Kids Eat Everything is most enjoyable, especially for people interested in the simple pleasures. The rules, for the curious:

1. Parents are in charge of food education
2. Avoid emotional eating (no food rewards, bribes, etc)
3. Parents schedule meals and menus -- kids eat what adults eat.
4. Plan family meals together -- no distractions
5. Eat a variety of vegetables
6. You don't have to like it, but you do have to taste it
7. No snacking!
8. Slow food is happy food.
9. Eat mostly real food.
10. Remember -- relax. Eating should be joyful.

Bringing up Bébé: One Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, Pamela Druckerman
French Women Don't Get Fat: the Secret of Eating for Pleasure, Mireille Guiliano
Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong,  Jean-Benoît Nadeau & Julie Barlow


  1. Fascinating. I've watched both French and Italian families eat (in restaurants mostly) and have been very impressed by the kids behaviour - *so* different to in England where kids can barely sit still for two minutes and are usually very noisy. I think its because they consider meals not to be just about food and fueling up in preparation for other activities but a pleasurable and very social experience in itself.

    Oh, and I *so* agree with the thought that children are untamed animals who must be civilized. I've lost count of the number of times I've thought or said that! I think it's a fundamental error that most of the west has fallen into - we no longer train our children to be civilized. More fool us!

    Oh, and those 10 rules rock!

  2. I wonder why Britain and the US have taken such similarly unhealthy paths in other areas, like promoting automobiles at the expense of cities?

  3. I'm afraid that I don't know enough about non Anglo-American cultures to even hazard a guess!

    It's a very interesting question to look into though.....


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