Do French kids really eat everything? We speak to author Karen Le Billon about adapting to the French way of feeding children...
Karen Le Billon moved with her young family from Vancouver to France in 2008, what came next was a transformation in how her children ate and behaved around meal times. We find out about the trials and tribulations of their journey...
What were your children’s original attitudes to food?
My kids had the standard ‘bland, beige food’ diet: a lot of processed carbs (white bread, crackers) and dairy. My older daughter was quite reactive; I talk in the book about her ‘strange food dance’: she would wriggle, jump up and down, and display all sorts of antics when confronted with a food she didn’t like (which included sandwiches and ice cream!).
What was the biggest culture shock for your family when you first moved to France from North America?
How long children sat at the table, how well behaved the children were at the table, how easily and cheerfully they tried new foods, and how long they could wait between meals—without complaint. Basically, they ate like French adults – even the preschoolers.
How did your children’s school lunches differ after the move?
French school lunches are simply amazing. The French have decided that teaching healthy eating routines to children is a priority, and they teach children about healthy food in the classroom and the lunchroom.
Starting when children enter school at age three, school lunch consists of four courses: a vegetable starter (for example, grated carrot salad, or beet salad), a warm main course served with a side of grains or vegetables, cheese, and dessert.
Fresh baguette, eaten plain, is also served. The kids drink water (there are no other drinks of any kind available at lunch, and there is a national ban on vending machines and junk food in all French schools). Dessert is usually fresh fruit, but a sweet treat is often served once a week.
There is only one choice on the menu, and food is served to children at the table until they are finished primary school (at 12 years old). This may be why the place where lunch is eaten is called a ‘restaurant scolaire‘ (school restaurant). High-school students typically get two choices for each course and often eat in a ‘self’ (meaning a self-serve cafeteria), although many French parents are ambivalent about this self-service model (preferring the idea of a restaurant).
The French Ministry of National Education sets a minimum time requirement for children to sit at the table: 30 minutes. This is in order to allow them eat their food sufficiently slowly and properly. Talk about ‘slow food’ training!
What were your children’s biggest challenges with adjusting to the French way of eating?
The elimination of random snacking was a big challenge. They were used to asking for, and getting, food when they wanted it. But when I realised this was reducing their appetite (so they ate less at mealtimes), I decided that random snacking had to go. We scheduled one snack per day (after school) and I made sure it was really healthy and tasty. After a week or two they settled into the new rhythm and have completely stopped asking for random snacks.
It took about two weeks for my younger daughter (a toddler) and a month (or two) for my older daughter. In general, the younger the child, the more quickly you’ll see a change. But it is never too late.
What do you think is the best way to remove stress and frustration from the table when it comes to feeding children?
Shed your guilt, and reduce the pressure. It sounds counter-intuitive, but less pressure and fuss, combined with the right routines and positive attitude to food, will lead to more success.
What were your biggest challenges when moving back to North America?
Fast food culture and an attitude that ‘food is fuel’. We have made a choice to try to keep eating like the French. This means a sit-down family dinner every night (usually with two courses, if not three). We work after-school schedules around this, to make sure that we can manage to have a family dinner every evening.
This is not easy given that my husband and I both work full time and have no help at home. So it requires a little organisation and planning; for example, I make (and freeze) soups or stews on the weekend, and thaw them during the week. Slow cookers are also great. The point is that I don't spend a lot of time in the kitchen cooking, and choose quick-to-prepare dishes that are healthy yet easy to make. I would estimate that I spend 15 minutes (hands-on) preparing the evening meal; things may take a little longer to bake in the oven, but during this time I’ll be helping the kids with homework or doing housework.
What’s a typical day’s diet for your children now?
Yesterday’s menu was:
Breakfast (7:30 am)
- Oatmeal (Steel cut oats) with blueberries, flax oil, and maple syrup
- Scrambled eggs
- Fresh fruit
- Organic apple juice
- Carrot soup (I make this in advance, and thaw and heat, putting it in Thermoses in the morning)
- Whole grain bread and butter ham sandwich
- Apple slices
- Fresh fruit and veggie plate (carrots, kiwi, oranges)
Dinner Served with fresh baguette and water – and a glass of red wine for the adults!
- 1st course: avocado, cherry tomatoes and vinaigrette Takes 2 minutes to prepare – I slice the avocadoes in half, remove the pit, drizzle the vinaigrette in the little hole…
- Main course: Winter stew (which has cubes of ham, cabbage, onion, chard, kale, carrots, celery) A family favorite. Made on the weekend, thawed during the day, takes only 5 minutes to heat up in the evening
- Salad course: Green leaf lettuce & cheese (Roquefort and Boursin) (My husband and I love Roquefort, as does our younger daughter – the Boursin is for the older one!)
- Pudding: Stewed peaches (we freeze them at the end of the summer; I pop them into a saucepan with a bit of water at the start of dinner, and they slowly stew while we’re eating dinner)
What are your top five tips for dealing with fussy eaters?
1. Don’t label your child as a ‘picky eater.’ The French believe that taste is a skill that can be acquired (and should be taught), much like reading. In other words, picky eating isn’t (barring medical issues) innate, but rather learned. They believe that children can learn to eat, and like, all kinds of food. And this is what they tell their children! Try telling your children: “You’ll like that when you’re a bit more grown up.” Expect kids to develop a wider palate and eventually they will (particularly if you model this yourself!). The French know this takes years, so be patient!
2. Ask children to taste everything you’ve prepared, even if they don’t eat it. Scientific research shows that children need to taste a new food, on average, anywhere from seven to 12 times before they will accept to eat it. Looking at it isn’t enough — they have to taste it! Positive peer pressure (particularly from other children who like the foods you’re introducing) also works wonders.
3. Introduce your child to new foods before you serve them. For example, show your child a raw beet, let them touch it, and smell it. Cut it open, and let them look at the intense colour. When a child says “I don’t like that food”, they often mean “I don’t know it.” The above exercise helps increase familiarity, and thus acceptance.
4. Talk less about health, and more about good tastes. In France, parents don’t cajole with nutritional information (such as explanations that a food has a lot of iron or calcium). Parents say: “Taste this, it’s really yummy”, rather than “Eat this: it’s good for you.” They believe (and tell their children), that good-for-you foods taste good. Healthy eating habits are a happy byproduct.
5. Stick with a schedule (and limit snacks to one–or at most two–per day). French children have three meals a day, and one snack (yes, even the teenage boys): breakfast, lunch, goûter (late-afternoon snack) and dinner. Snacking is forbidden at school (no vending machines, and no fast food either), and parents wouldn’t dream of putting their kids in activities during the dinner hour (nine out of ten French families eats a sit-down dinner together every night). Children are hungrier at mealtimes, and tend to eat better; serve energy-dense foods, and they won’t feel hungry until their next mealtime.
What's your experience of feeding children? We'd love to hear your opinions.