I am a nanny. Or, well, I guess I was a nanny. My last official day of work watching my little charge was yesterday and honestly, I cried myself to sleep last night. But that’s beside the point… Having been a nanny for a little over a year, I got a tiny glimpse into what it’s like to be a parent, and with that came a small glimpse into the American kid-parent food battle. And while I absolutely adored my job, let me tell you, trying to feed a toddler nutritious, varied meals is not all sunshine and roses. I wiped up many a swatted spoonful and picked up more thrown morsels than I’d like to admit. But we tend to take this behavior as part of the baby/toddler phase. The fact that they will only eat PB&J or chicken nuggets and push everything else to the floor is normal…right? It’s hard to know to question the aspects of life we just assume to be The Way Things Are. We don’t know what we don’t know. But the book by Karen Le Billon called French Kids Eat Everything (and Yours Can, Too) provided a fascinating insight into how the American culture tends to view food and how these attitudes are not the norm across the globe, particularly in France. It helped me to be aware of the ways I have been programmed to think and talk about food and to see how this inevitably impacts the little ones around me. There were many points I wanted to remember while reading so I started taking notes. What follows are my notes + quotes (apologies for any errors), though I recommend reading the book yourself if you are interested! It was a quick and easy read and while I don’t necessarily agree with everything written, nor do I think all the advice can or should be applied (we live in a very different culture and some things just aren’t feasible here), I always think that there are benefits to seeing the world from another perspective. We tend to think that food is food and that it is relatively the same everywhere, but I had no idea how fundamentally different my views of food are (were) than people elsewhere. Let me know what you think!
French food rule #1:
Parents: you are in charge of your children’s food education.
Average of times children have to taste a new food before they willingly eat it: seven, though between ten and fifteen is recommended
(“So whereas I often assumed that my children didn’t like a particular type of food, my French friends would simply assume their children hadn’t tried it enough times.”)
“…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 by-product.”
(Food is fun!)
Chapter 2: Baby Steps and Beet Puree
The children were simply not allowed to play with their food. Little fingers that dipped into bowls were kindly but firmly removed. Failure to cooperate (which was rare) was met with a gentle but firm response: plates would be removed. The message was clear: if you can’t eat properly (which means eating tidily, even for toddler), you won’t eat at all.
“WE (the French) don’t play with our food.” > “Don’t play with your food”
Above all else, French children are never taught to view food as a reward.
French food rule #2:
Avoid emotional eating. Food is not a pacifier, a distraction, a toy, a bribe, a reward, or a substitute for discipline.
Rarely eat for “non-nutritive” reasons
A respectful attitude
They never, ever eat without putting a tablecloth on the table
Setting the table is a ritual that expresses the ceremonial and aesthetic aspects of French eating, at the core of which is the belief that eating is intensely social and that it rightfully happens around the table. (27)
Food is never eaten standing up, or in the car, or on the go. Food is not eaten anywhere in fact, but at the table. And food is only served when everyone is at the table.
Chapter 3: schooling the stomach
The French system is actually a highly perfected peer-pressure-driven food diversification program. … Teachers, too, played an active role in educating the children about food… They had three key goals:
1. Protect children’s health and support their academic performance by feeding them nutritious food
2. Educate children: to cultivate their palates, teach them basic rules of food hygiene and nutrition, and open their minds to food as culture, art, and national heritage
3. Discipline their eating habits, setting f up healthy routines for when, where, how, what, and why kids ate what they did
Book example for new parents: The Birth of Taste: How to Give Children the Gift of Enjoying Food
French Institute of Taste
Taste Training: Through exploring how food experiences are composed of taste, vision, smell, touch, and hearing , children learn to explore food through their five senses.
By making food education mandatory, the government ensured that healthy diets would not be restricted to the elite.
French food rule #3:
Parents schedule meals and menus. Kids eat what adults eat: no substitutes and no short-order cooking.
North America: autonomy and independence
“If the food is delicious, why do you need to have a choice?”
France: too much choice is (potentially) a symptom of lower quality
Chapter 4: L’art de la table
French food culture:
1. Eating is inherently social; the French make a point of having fun while eating; the table is a place of emotional warmth and connection; French children learn how the world works (by listening to their parents talk) and conversation skills (how to interact with adults, how to argue without offending someone, and how to listen well)
Not only expected to eat together, but to eat the same thing together (French “communal” vs. American “contractual”)
2. bon got: “good taste”
3. food rules/habits: shared social norms about when, where, how much, and how food is consumed
French food rule #4:
Food is social. Eat family meals together at the table with no distractions.
Chapter 5: Food Fights
aliment: cultural definitions of things we find nourishing and appetizing (example: frog’s legs)
Contrast in parenting styles between French and American; different assumptions of what is normal in a social situation (in France it is normal and expected to firmly discipline (your own or even other) children in public if misbehaving)
From the French point of view, the world is made by adults and for adults. (87)
Children are viewed and treated as mini adults, from clothes to furniture to behavioral expectations.
“…children’s primary job is to behave, and parents primary job is to help them behave.”
attachment parenting vs. indulgent parenting (90-91)
puériculture (the science of childrearing)
French researcher Claude Fischler
“One must eat a bit of everything.”
“Eating unhealthy foods once in a while is not a problem.”
Good understanding in French children of which foods are healthy/unhealthy and why.
“New is normal”
French food rule #5:
Eat vegetables of all colors of the rainbow. Don’t eat the same main dish more than once per week.
Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline
My mistake, I decided, was that I’d been to permissive in the past, but had now overcompensated by being too authoritarian (strict, controlling, punitive). What I needed instead was to be authoritative (firm, but kind, and gently supportive).
habits and customs, rather than regulations
Chapter 6: The Kohlrabi Experiment
neophobia: fear of novelty
– usually appears around age two (a phase, not a lifelong condition)
– may be protective behavior, may have an evolutionary basis, may be primarily psychological (developmental phase of opposition to parents), or may be from developing taste buds
– kids learn what to like or dislike
When I asked, most parents thought that their kids were testing limits rather than really expressing a true dislike of the food offered to them. And they insisted that it was important not to enter into a power struggle: if their kids refused food, their parents would simply take it away, with little fuss. But no substitute would be provided—and parents held firm to this rule.
My child will not continue refusing to eat if I simply refuse to react.
…babies’ innate curiosity about (and love of) trying new food. (110)
Rules are about positive discipline, combined with unquestioned routines that make it seem entirely natural for french children to try new foods.
French food rule #6a:
For picky eaters: you don’t have to like it, but you do have to taste it.
The trick is to get the kids to take the initiative rather than forcing the issue.
French food rule #6b:
For fussy eaters: you don’t have to like it, but you do have to eat it.
Focused on variety of taste, texture, and color (instead of micronutrients, like iron)
The French understand ‘appetite’ as a psychological state, which primes you to eat (and be satisfied) by certain foods.
Société Française de Pédiante – “food diversification” section
Very precise about ages and stages for introducing new foods
At four months, the first food for French babies is not necessarily cereal (as is usual in North America), but rather a thin vegetable puree or soup. Standard advice from pediatricians is to dilute this with milk, and serve it in a baby bottle. On day one, a dollop of soup (say, leek soup) in their milk introduces them to the taste.
On successive days , the amount of soup is increased (and the amount of milk is decreased). Within less than a week, baby is drinking vegetable soup rather than milk for the main meal of the day. The next step is to gradually thicken the soup, moving to a sippy cup, and then to a spoon. (118-119)
[The author doesn’t] agree with everything in the French model: despite all of the research demonstrating the advantages of breastfeeding, France has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the industrialized world. And if French mothers do breastfeed, they typically stop at two months.
Cookbook author: Cyril Lignac
The Birth of Taste by Natalie Rigal
To buy: the BabyCook
It’s all in the marketing – the presentation (including cutlery, serving dishes, tablecloth) AND the name
festive and fun
The table should be the happiest place in the house.
“You don’t like it? That’s because you haven’t tasted it enough times yet. Maybe next time!”
“You’re hungry? That’s fine. You’ll really appreciate your [insert next meal]. We’re having something really yummy: [insert name of dish].
Assess the quality of a child’s food intake over a period of a week rather than demanding a completely balanced meal every time they sit down.
The point is to taste the new foods, not necessarily to eat a whole bunch.
Chapter 7: Four Square Meals a Day
Why French Kids Don’t Snack
French food rule #7:
Limit snacks, ideally in person day (two maximum) and not within an hour of meals.
In between meals it’s okay to feel hungry.
At meals, eat until you’re satisfied rather than full.
High satiety foods (usually protein- and fiber-rich): whole grains, beans, lentils, oats, lean meats, fish, leafy greens and high water/fiber content fruits and vegetables
Benefits of scheduling meals and limiting snacks:
– no more negotiating
– no emotional eating
– less mental stress
– time saved
– money saved
– better nutrition
– less temptation for parent to snack
Chapter 8: Slow Food Nation
It’s not only what you eat, it’s how you eat it
French food rule #8
Take your time, for both cooking and eating. Slow food is happy food.
In France, nutrition, fueling yourself, feeling dull, personal health nor weight loss aren’t the primary goals of eating. Enjoyment is the goal of eating.
The French take longer [than Americans] to eat less [than Americans], allowing the body’s signals of fullness to kick in before you’ve finished eating. (163)
I’m full vs. I’m not hungry anymore
Are you full? vs. Are you satisfied? / Have you had enough?
Chapter 9: The Best of Both Worlds
Anecdotal story of trying to live by the French food rules while back in Vancouver, with one kid in daycare and the other in school. Issues included not enough time for eating slowly, social pressures, and a culture of snacking.
French Food Rule #9:
Eat mostly real, homemade food, and save treats for special occasions.
(Hint: anything processed is not “real” food.)
terroir: a word referring to the close relationship between people, their land and climate, and their food
The 100-Mile Diet (book)
The essence of the French approach is this: find a balance between the foods available where you are living, your terroir and traditional cooking skills, and a schedule that lends itself to mindfulness cooking and eating.
Chapter 10: The Most Important Food Rule of All
idea: frozen homemade soups
French Food Rule #10:
Eating is joyful, not stressful. Treat the food rules as habits or routines rather than strict regulations; it’s fine to relax them once in a while.
Seek to avoid excess in eating: excess control of food and obsession with healthy eating are to be avoided, just as much as indulgent or unrestrained eating of poor-quality food.
Moderation + Balance
Additionally, the blog site The Conscientious Eater was recently recommended to me by a dear friend as a place of healthy food talk (not just talk of healthy food). I haven’t read too much yet but I am heading over there now to check it out!