How to Turn Your Kids into Gourmets
Should American Parents take inspiration from France for education? That’s what Canadian Karen Le Billon thinks after living one year in France, and taking the opportunity to teach her daughters new eating habits. No more snacks and whining. Now they have dinner at the table, taste everything and they are crazy about spinach!
“French children eat everything, from fruit salad to foie gras, spinach or smelly blue cheese, and everything in between,” writes Karen Le Billon in “French Kids Eat Everything.” In 2008, this professor at the University of Vancouver left British Columbia, Canada, for Bretagne, France, with her French husband and her two children. Beyond the usual complications of expatriate life, Le Billon discovers the importance attributed to meals and an almost sacred relationship to food. Shocking!
At the end of her first day of school, Le Billon’s oldest daughter, Sophie, four years old at the time, was in tears, starving. “She didn’t eat anything the whole day,” wrote the mother. “Breakfast was inedible (according to her). Contrary to the preschool she was used to attending, there were no snacks in the morning or the afternoon. And she couldn’t get permission to drink a glass of water during class, even when she raised her hand.”
As a mother hen, Le Billon rushed to talk to the teacher and tried to bend the rules in order to send a lunch box for her daughter. Outraged, she quickly finds out that her remarks are not welcomed. Sophie will have to comply with the new school rules. “Madame” teacher eventually softens the tone and takes the concerned expatriate to visit the cafeteria. If for the French the dining room is a family institution, the tradition of the school cafeteria exudes exoticism for foreigners. The table is dressed up with real china, every child uses napkins, and the menus include: appetizer, entree, and dessert. Le Billon was stunned.
Snacks and Forbidden Games
It will take some time for her to realize that children can adapt. “Many people in North America believe that children do not like vegetables,” explains the author. “It is a mistake.” A cultural myth born, according to the Canadian, out of sayings and rhymes in which “eat your vegetables” is synonymous with punishment, while French kids grow up surrounded by songs that give value to the food: “Do you know how to plant cabbages,” “Lady Sandwich,” “The Time of Cherries” or even “Little snail.”
Faced with so many revelations, the academic decided to reeducate her daughters. If French children can do it, hers can, too! In “French Kids Eat Everything,” she lists 10 golden rules. Rule 1: Parents decide what to eat, not children. Rule 2: Food is not a tool for negotiation or blackmail. This is not a toy or a distraction. Rule 3: Adults and children eat the same meal, etc.
Rule 7 is fundamental: No more snacks. Le Billon notes on several occasions that French people are intransigent on this point. The nonstop snack practice is very common in North America, but is perceived with an evil eye by the French, said the writer. The Canadian herself used to give her daughters snack bars every half hour, and always had a stock of sweets at hand, everywhere – “In the car, in the stroller, in the hand bag” – in order to calm them down at any time. To be satisfied with just a single snack once a day after school was one of the most difficult sacrifices for the mother and the children.
Another revolution: sitting quiet at the family dinner table. “It was only natural for my husband. He’s French. For him, to be at the table is the best time of the day,” says the author admiring the French capacity to enjoy food. “The table is the place where parents and children can relax. They appreciate what they eat but also the fact of being together, which makes the culinary education of children more bearable,” she writes. “The dining room table is to the French what the car is to Americans!” she jokes.
Pleasure and Moral
The French don’t joke with the food. “The public schools play an important role teaching the foundations of food,” to the point that the work (or school) schedule is structured around the meals.
The Anglo-Saxon culture is “less food oriented” in the eyes of the author. “North America’s individualism also manifests itself at the table: No one can control what I eat, not the state, not the family. Children decide very early what they want or what they don’t want to eat, and the family accepts it, respecting their individualism.” Add to it “a very powerful marketing” and you will get a society that is less familiar with the diversity in foods.
Le Billon may be harsh with her compatriots, but she does not intent to provide a moral or dietary lesson. “I didn’t want to write a book that shows people how to avoid childhood obesity.” She wants to avert the negative aspects of the food culture and focus on its pleasures. “In the United States and Canada food gives you fear, anxiety. The French approach is actually positive.”
Moreover, the author speaks of her children but she also wishes adults could learn from her experience. She learned to enjoy cauliflower – not without pain. She’s also adopted such very French formulas as “To the table! or “Bon appetite.” According to her, “learning the table manners… is a rite of passage and a requirement for a successful navigation in the society.”
“The French think that learning to eat is as important as learning to read and write!” she says enthusiastically.
“French Kids Eat Everything,” HarperCollins Publishers, 305 pages.