Last year was really the year of the French parent, with a host of books being published on why the French make the best parents. And having lived in France for five years, I must admit that French children do seem to be exceptionally well-mannered and well-behaved, observing social niceties and the rules of expected behaviour from a very early age. I was especially impressed by their manners at the table; and food being a focal point of French social life, this is of immense importance there. However, French children’s food behaviour transcends mere table manners to actually eating right and staying healthy.
Which is why when I came across ‘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’ by Karen Le Billon, I had to pick it up to try and discover the reasons behind the phenomenon that I had been observing – and envying – for so long.
Le Billon has written a fairly long book on her food education. She moved from Canada to a small village in Bretagne, France, with her husband and two daughters. Her children, typical of North American kids, subsisted on snacks, pizza and burgers, refusing to try anything new and literally having a meltdown at the mention of vegetables. The mother traces the family’s ‘food’ journey, from her own initial resistance to the French way of eating, to accepting that the food culture there is superior to what she is familiar with, and then trying to instill similar values in her children. The book is anecdotal and Le Billon frankly details the mistakes that she made. And yet, one year down the line, her children were pretty much eating all vegetables (including spinach and broccoli!) and were also open to trying unusual and ‘exotic’ foods like snails, foie gras et al!
How did she achieve this? Le Billon has outlined 10 French Food Rules that she discovered and incorporated in her daily routine. I am not going to detail these – you should read them yourself, but I will point out four that I particularly liked:
- You don’t have to eat it, but you do have to taste it – Apparently children need to taste a new food at least seven to eight times before they start accepting it or appreciating its taste. So as parents, don’t give up if you ask your child to try something new and she says she doesn’t like the taste. Simply take it away quietly, without a fuss and reintroduce it a week later! Of course, the idea is to get them to at least taste the food and not simply refuse outright!
- Avoid emotional eating – Food is to be eaten for nutrition, and is to be enjoyed. Do not offer food to your children simply because they are cranky or bored – as a distraction – or even as a reward or bribe. This leads to eating for ‘emotional’ reasons and teaches children to eat even when they are not hungry, resulting in over eating, obesity and eating disorders.
- Kids eat what adults eat – No special, customised cooking for children, and ‘babying’ down their food. Teach them to eat the same things the rest of your family does – this is also more convenient, less time-consuming and better for the parents in the long run, as it teaches children to be more flexible and ready to try everything.
- And finally, my favourite – absolutely no snacking – Mealtimes should be fixed and on a regular time schedule, and snacking in between meals should be strictly discouraged. Not only does this lead to healthier eating habits, but children eat better during mealtimes since they are hungry enough and have not filled their little stomachs with snacks. Le Billon points out that the French even discourage eating ‘healthy’ snacks such as fruits in between meals, preferring their kids to eat complete, well-balanced and large meals.
Do read this book to discover the rest of the Food Rules. It is also interesting from a cultural standpoint, since it explains how and why so much of French culture revolves around food and eating. Though most of the book is more relevant to North American eating habits (I , for one, do believe that Indian children still have healthier eating habits than their western counterparts), there are enough tips that Indian parents living in urban areas can glean from it. More than anything, it will show you how to deal with issues of junk food, picky eating and bad table manners – relevant to all cultures and all ages!