Sometimes after mulling over books to read you decide upon a title that seems like a wildcard. It’s not your normal story line or genre. And sometimes that’s a great thing!
French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon was my wild card read. The cover and title captured my attention. I was intrigued by the idea that any kids ate everything. A foreign concept in my world.
Author, Karen Le Billon takes you on a journey. This journey is the account of her year spent away from Canada and living in Brittany, France. Le Billon has two children and is married to a Frenchmen. The story details their attempts to mesh with French food culture, especially in the realm of feeding her children the French way. She has humor generously sprinkled throughout this book. You smile at her attempts to gain ground in healthy eating that solidly lands her in a myriad of mishaps.
She’s transparent about the struggles she has melding into a new culture and doing things that those surrounding her do with ease. Like feeding her children a balanced and varied diet. She describes the struggle of being an outsider in a culture where food rules are a large part of society.
The book finds its outline in these ten rules, dubbed French Food Rules:
- Parents : You are in charge of Food Education!
- Avoid emotional eating : No food rewards, bribes!
- Parents plan and schedule meals and menus: Kids Eat what Adult’s Eat! No Short Order Cooking
- Eat Family Meals Together: No distractions
- Eat Your Veggies : Think Variety
- You Don’t Have to Like it, but You Do Have to Taste it!
- No snacking! It’s ok to feel hungry between meals
- Slow Food is happy food, As in Eat slow!
- Eat Mostly Real Food – treats are special occasions
- Remember eating is joyful – RELAX
Karen comprises her list of rules based on the values and practices of French Culture. She comes up with ways to implement these ideas and goes back to the drawing board when her ideas don’t mesh with reality for her family. She commits different faux pas and violates cultural standards on different occasions. And sometimes she wishes to forget their year in Brittany and find herself back in Canada devouring a bagel slathered with cream cheese and not trying desperately to persuade her young daughter to eat the beet and vegetable purees that are offered at preschool lunch time in France.
At the end of her year in Brittany, France Karen heads back to Canada. Upon reentering westernized culture her family is faced with the challenge of implementing French food rules into their lives. That proves difficult. She discusses the benefits and pitfalls of both cultures.
I suppose that a book spanning three hundred pages on food rules directed particularly to families and children might seem a bit much, but it is filled with insight and ideas that I haven’t thought of and new perspectives to approach family meals.
Here are the pearls of wisdom that I’m taking with me and trying to incorporate in my kids’ lives and my own:
“The average number of times children have to taste new foods before they willingly agree to eat them: the average is seven, but most parenting books recommend between ten and fifteen.” (pg.11).
Karen describes French parents as simply offering new foods to children and expecting that children will taste them. They needn’t eat the full portion. Just taste. They believe with enough exposure children will eventually embrace the new flavors. This concept had me revisit foods that I have offered my girls, but had little success with and were pulled from our menus. Lately I have tried to include new fruits and vegetables whether raw, in side dishes, or served as fresh dessert.
My girls gingerly touch the new offering sitting next to a familiar food on their dinner plate. Madelyn’s nose curls slightly, “I know I won’t like this,” She predicts. I remember Karen’s admonition to stay positive, “Oh you will. Just taste it. You just have to try it enough times!” Keep it pleasant. Karen describes the importance of being positive about all foods. Not relegating some foods good and some bad. If the girls can't offer a positive thing to say about a food I try to get them to say something about it's smell, appearance, or color. "You don't like oranges yet, but don't they smell good? Do you like the color?" This is much better than forcefully demanding a clean plate. It gives space for little people to warm up to food, not fear it.
Karen highlights the importance of table in French culture. “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.” (page 27).
Karen describes the French as those who view meal times as supremely social times. There is no snacking and emotional eating that takes place. Eating takes place with family at a table in an unhurried pause filled with warmth and connection, not hurry. People are satisfied with their meal because they have eaten it in the presence of loved ones and focused on the flavors and food in the moment. They get up full.
I have tried all school year to revamp my ideas of family dinners. We are not all together every night, but the three or four nights we do share family dinner I’m trying to make it notably special. This book really helped me rethink family dinner. Refocus my approach on pleasure and enjoyment, instead of a power struggle or a surrender to kiddie only approved dishes.
Last Monday night I remember scanning the faces of my children as they ate new foods and old ones willingly. There were funny stories and adorable quotes emanating from the mouth of my four year old. There was a nine year old downing seconds of a food I never thought I’d see her eat. Across the table sat my husband who smiled widely and seemed to really be enjoying our kids, the food, this sacred handful of moments we were all sharing. It’s working! My heart smiled. All the extra preparation and thought paying back in joyful small moment dividends.
Later that evening as we cleaned up the kitchen together I paused over the open door of the refrigerator, “Look Keith” I pulled him over to the open door. Dish cloth in hand he obliged me. “Look at what’s in the fridge” I said happily. He nodded not nearly as amused, but being a good sport nonetheless, “Vegetables.” he muttered. He went back to wiping down the counter. I felt the joy of that victory. It was long in coming. It hadn't happened over night. It had happened over the course of several months. Gradually.
I took notes and highlighted so much of Karen’s book but there are two things that I’m taking away too for my own personal growth: Pleasure and Slow Eating .
Karen highlights the French attention to pleasure at meals and in their thoughts towards food, “Pleasure is the most important goal for the French when they are seated at the table. The most important thing is to enjoy your food.” (pg. 161). She contrasts this with the American approach that associates food primarily with health. This is surprising noting elevated American obesity rates in comparison to the French. French people seem to enjoy their food, yet maintain a healthier weight.
She introduces the concept of slow eating being key to these realities.
She introduces the concept of slow eating being key to these realities.
Slow eating allows one to fully enjoy a meal. Slow eating also enables you to realize your satiety level and realize you are indeed full. You don’t overeat.
I find myself putting my fork down and just talking, waiting to eat more bites. I’m letting food fill me and letting my body tell me if I need another bite. The method proves true, I’ve been surprised at how full I can feel rather quickly if I eat slowly.
Karen talks about the phrase the French ask their children at meal times end, “Are you satisfied?” Not “Are you full?” I’ve been asking myself this question and found it helpful and enriching. I’m making food with a higher attention to flavor, quality of ingredients, and most of all joy and I’m finding that I’m more satisfied with the result.
Food is one of the foundational ways we tend our bodies and the plate is the path way to family chatter and communing. Why not put a precedence on this special time and tweak and tinker with different ways to make it better, more satisfying?
The best part of our meal is reflecting on the joy of the day. Last week my friend told me they ask "What's your rose of the day?" Rose meaning the sweet spot of the day. We are calling our joy of the day our rose and my girls love it.
We also tell jokes that aren't allowed to leave our special table. The girls giggle and sometimes remind me of those special secret moments.
If you are weary of eating the same four kid approved meals and bored with dinnertime read this book :)
Here is the author's blog: https://karenlebillon.com/