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Book Review: French Kids Eat Everything

As a sophomore in college, I spent my spring semester living with a mother and daughter in Montpelier, France. Nearly every night for the five months I lived in her apartment, my mère d’accueil (or host mom), Michelle, put a homemade dinner on the table.

Her food was simple, fresh and always made from scratch, and her menus forced me, then a mildly picky eater, to confront many foods–whole cooked fish, steamed leeks, eggs of all textures–that I would never have eaten at home.

Dinner was at 8:00 every night, and for the meal we transformed a simple wooden table that served as a messy desk between mealtimes by clearing the clutter, laying a tablecloth, napkins, silverware, a crusty baguette and little pots of salt and butter. Conversation was expected of everyone, which made these meals a better learning lab for my French speaking skills than many of the classes I was taking.

There was no snacking after classes. Michelle’s daughter was in high school and followed the same rule.

This was a very different routine from college life back home, where my sorority house served dinner at 5:30 p.m., we almost always ended up eating another meal later in the night, and many students snacked or drank sodas through their classes. In fact, I once saw a girl come into a class with a full pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and a spoon.

This stark difference in cultural approaches to meals is central to Karen LeBillon’s “French Kids Eat Everything.” The subtitle pretty well sums up what the book covers: “How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters.”

I heard about this book a while ago, and I resisted reading it for a while, because I’m getting a little sick of seeing the French culture romanticized into some kind of panacea that holds all the solutions to Americans’ ills, whether they be parenting- (the subject of Pamela Druckerman’s “Bringing up Bébé“) or diet-related.

The basis of the book is LeBillon’s decision to move her family, including her two young girls, to a small village in Northern France, where her husband was born and raised.

Starting with the foods served at her daughters’ daycare and elementary school–and the strict rules against bringing in any outside food or drink–LeBillon is forced to confront her family’s picky eating habits, and realizes that the way her daughters are used to eating is going to be a major hindrance to their fitting in socially in France.

LeBillon spends her year in France closely observing French food culture–which is as much about how, when, where and why people eat as it is about what they eat. She writes 10 “French food rules” and sets out to re-calibrate her daughters’ tastebuds and dining habits.

Just as important as training her girls to like vegetables is eliminating old habits like snacking in the car on the way home from school.

Much of what LeBillon learns from the French is common-sense healthy eating.

Kids are expected to eat what adults eat–and adults eat healthy, non-processed foods, including a wide variety of vegetables.

Nobody snacks between meals, but growing children are afforded what almost amounts to a fourth meal, a 4 p.m. heavy snack to tide them over until dinner.

From the time they are young, French people are encouraged to learn to listen to their bodies’ cues, to welcome hunger a sign that their next meal will be satisfying, and to not eat just because they’re bored. Food is not a bribe, reward or distraction.

To me, though, the most interesting part of the book comes after LeBillon and her family move back to their home in Vancouver. Their daughters have fully adapted to the French style of eating, and they can’t get through their homemade meals in the 10 minutes their new schools allot for lunch. They are baffled by things like school-sanctioned snacking and a trip to McDonald’s being offered as a class reward.

It’s here where LeBillon adapts her French food rules for a North American lifestyle, and encourages parents to further adapt them to fit their own lives.

This approach recognizes just how difficult it is to have the idyllic family dinner or the perfect, balanced lunch while living in a culture where many kids are so stacked up with activities that they’re away from home for more than 12 hours at a time on school days (I can remember wolfing down quite a few highly processed meals while driving myself from my high school to swim practice.).

While French school kids get an hour or more to savor a multi-course lunch cooked at school and served hot with real cutlery and cloth napkins, that just doesn’t jibe with the standardized-test-driven, college-credit-hungry regime in American schools. There is a bigger question about the wisdom of that approach to education, but any parent who wants to see their kids eating well isn’t going to want to wait for that debate to be settled before trying to make some changes.

So LeBillon offers some more attainable goals that make sense: Don’t buy processed food for your family. Encourage mindful eating. If you’re going to snack, treat the snack like a meal and eat it at the table. Find one meal a day when your family can all sit down together. Lead by example and eat healthy meals made up of “real” foods, and your kids will be more likely to follow suit.

There are some episodes in the book where, frankly, I thought that some of the French reactions to LeBillon’s American eating habits were just plain rude. For example, a family member berates her for interrupting her sacred dinner out because she needed help assisting her husband during a medical emergency.

Nevertheless, I think LeBillon’s experience, and in particular her list of food rules adapted for American culture at the end of the book, is a valuable resource for any parent who is trying to raise kids to eat well–or at least to subsist on something other than chicken tenders and Goldfish crackers.