In this entertaining and enlightening new book Karen Le Billon shares the 10 ‘food rules’ that help the French foster healthy eating habits from an early age. Moving her young family from Canada to her husband’s home town in northern France, Karen is surprised by the food education she and her family (at first unwittingly) receive.
In the following article Karen examines some of the strategies the French employ to get their kids to eat everything.
- Starter: Sliced radish and corn salad with vinaigrette dressing and black olive garnish
- Main course: Roast guinea fowl with sautéed Provençal vegetables and wheat berries
- Cheese course: Saint Paulin cheese and fresh baguette
- Dessert: Vanilla flan and meringue cookies
This menu (which costs about 3 euros per child) is not particularly unusual. Six million French children sit down to similar four-course school lunches every day, happily consuming favourites like beetroot salad. Admittedly, it helps that there is only one menu on offer, vending machines are banned and packed lunches from home are strongly discouraged. But the real reason French kids eat this way is simple: they like it.
The French believe that eating is a skill to be taught, just like reading, and they have a wonderful set of strategies and tactics for doing so. This has produced a nation of competent eaters able to self-regulate consumption, enjoy healthy foods (but also the occasional treat) and who are curious and accepting of new foods, rather than fussy and reluctant.
We saw this at work in our own family. When we moved to France for a year, my two young daughters were absurdly picky eaters (they followed the ‘beige food’ diet). The lessons we learned in French homes, in school and in daycare had an astounding effect, converting them into happy eaters-of-almost-everything, from mussels to mackerel, broccoli to spinach.
So how do French parents actually get their kids to eat a wide range of fish, fruits and vegetables – and like them? French Kids Eat Everything answers this question and more, summarizing the parenting strategies, curriculum, scientific findings and cultural norms of the French in 10 French food rules that children (and adults) can follow. The food rules cover everything from meal scheduling and snacking, to family dinners and treats. They also address picky eating which, interestingly, the French believe is simply a phase (much like the terrible twos).
Here are some tips from the ‘rules’. These are just some of the strategies that the French use at home (backed up by ‘taste training’ at school) to cure – and even prevent – children’s picky eating habits.
Top tips for picky eaters
• Don't label your child 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. The French 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!
• 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 twelve times before they will consent 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.
• Introduce your child to new foods before you serve them. This may sound silly, but it often works wonders. For example, show your child a tomato (better yet, go to the local market and let them choose one to take home). Let them touch it and smell it. Cut it open and let them look at the intense colour. Then try a variety of ways of introducing tomatoes to your family. Tomates Farcies (Savory Stuffed Tomatoes) are a French kids favorite, and one of the recipes in the book. (http://karenlebillon.com/2012/03/10/tomates-farcies-savory-stuffed-tomatoes/)
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.
• 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. They believe – and tell their children – that good-for-you foods taste good. Healthy eating habits are a happy byproduct. Broccoli? Yum!
Try saying ‘Taste this, it's really yummy’, rather than ‘Eat this, it's good for you.’
• Stick with a schedule that limits snacks to one – or at most two – per day. French children have three meals a day and one snack (yes, even teenage boys): breakfast, lunch, goûter (late-afternoon snack) and dinner. Snacking is forbidden at school (there are no vending machines and there’s no fast food either!), which means that children are hungrier at mealtimes and tend to eat better. Nine out of ten French families eats a sit-down dinner together every night and parents wouldn’t dream of putting their kids in activities during the dinner hour.
Serve a substantial meal with lots of different flavours and they won’t feel hungry until their next mealtime.
For a sampling of the types of meals French children eat, check out the French Kids School Lunch.
French Kids Eat Everything is published by Piatkus on 3rd May 2012.
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