A few weeks ago, I reviewed “Bringing Up Bebe” by Pamela Druckerman before I even finished reading it. Well, let’s just say, I loved it. We immediately implemented a few of the principles – the sleeping and eating schedule is a sanity saver, and Thomas is happily sleeping through the night and eating even more voraciously than before. I’m also feeling much less guilt about our weekly date night and my weekly yoga class, and finding that Thomas can understand and follow direction – at least some of the time – if I calmly and firmly show him what is expected. Of course, this won’t work overnight, but I believe my 10 month old son is capable of great things, if I am only patient and consistent.
With that book finished, and the results already promising, I wanted more! I downloaded and began listening to “French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters,” by Karen Le Billon. This wonderful book delves even deeper into one segment of what Druckerman covered pretty extensively in Bringing Up Bebe: the foundation of French parenting is food, the unspoken rules that surround it, and the correlated life lessons that spring from French food culture.
I’m not going to beat around the bush here – if you have a picky eater, it is almost 100% your fault as a parent. I say this based on the French food rules that Le Billon teased out during the year she and her family, which included two VERY picky eaters, spent in France. Throughout the book, it’s clear that most of her kids’ eating habits were created and fostered by Le Billon’s own eating and cooking habits, food anxiety, general stress, and deprioritization of food.
If French kids (and truthfully, kids everywhere but here) can eat vegetables, fish, spicy foods, and other foods not deemed kid-friendly, then yours can too. American kids (including yours) don’t have strange and special needs – they mostly have parents who have let their children dictate the family’s eating habits, are picky themselves, or have no idea how to make food as important as it should be given its central role in our health.
Look, there are plenty of ways to foster your child’s autonomy, but building a healthy foundation for a long, quality life is something that requires guidance and attention. Left in charge, American children are facing an obesity, attention, and health epidemic like we’ve never seen before. They eat far fewer fruits and vegetables than kids around the world, and often fill their fruit and vegetable quota with sugar-packed fruit juices and fat- and salt-laden french fries. They eat more calories in snacks than they do at meals. And they eat fast, on the go, in the car, standing up, and often, alone.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and it’s not too late to change it in your family. By learning and implementing these French food rules, Le Billon’s two picky daughters (who were 2 and 5 when they moved) became adventurous eaters who love a variety of healthy foods. But, all of the rules rely on parents being in charge, authoritative (but not authoritarian), and focused on the pleasure that food, and the time spent preparing and eating it with your loved ones, brings to your life. Here they are (with brief explanations):
French Food Rules
Parents: You are in charge of food education.
- Your child will not naturally become an adventurous eater with a varied diet if they are in charge. By nature, humans want sugary, fatty, high-carb foods, and a child left to their own devices will eventually survive (but not thrive) on mac and cheese, Oreos, and plain white bread. Only you can guide them down a different, albeit sometimes difficult, path to healthy eating.
Avoid emotional eating. Food is not a pacifier, a distraction, a toy, a bribe, a reward, or a substitute for discipline.
- This is a hard one for Americans, since many of us have had these emotional associations to food drilled into us by our own parents. As a parent, you have to stop using food to solve problems. Food is for pleasure, social interaction, and (though the French don’t focus on this) health – and not a shortcut to making our kids do what we want them to.
Parents plan scheduled meals and menus. Kids eat what adults eat. No short order cooking.
- This is one I see all the time – parents eat a balanced meal, while their kids eat a separate meal of chicken nuggets and mac and cheese. Not only is that double the work for the cooking parent, but it’s unhealthy for kids. Get the kids involved in planning, slowly introduce new things, and use a little marketing (fun names, pretty presentation) for new dishes. If a child refuses to eat, don’t offer a replacement – calmly remove the offending food and try again later (the French will try 15 times, 15 different ways before determining their child really doesn’t like a food).
Food is social. Eat family meals together. No distractions.
- By eating together and focusing on each other, you make food fun. Set the table, dim the lights, make eating together an event, and kids will start to look forward to coming to the table.
Eat vegetables of all colors of the rainbow. Don’t eat the same main dish more than once per week.
- Variety is the goal.
You don’t have to like it, but you do have to taste it (say this at every meal), and You don’t have to like it, but you do have to eat it (say this when your child rejects a tried and true favorite).
- This is the trick to introducing new things. A low-pressure taste is required, and then your child can reject it with no questions asked. Again, remove the food calmly, but don’t offer a replacement. Make sure there are items at the meal your child will eat – and if your child occasionally leaves the table hungry, that’s ok. They won’t die. But also encourage reactions beyond “this is bad” or “this is good.” Use all the senses to try a new food. Ask them what it looks like, what it smells like, what they like about it, and what they don’t like about it. Ask them if it tastes sweet, salty, bitter, or savory. And once your child has determined they like a food, don’t let them go back (hence the second part of the rule). They haven’t truly stopped liking a food – they’ve just felt the need to test a boundary. Perhaps most importantly, try new things yourself – if they watch you try something you haven’t liked before, they’re more likely to do it too.
Limit snacks. Ideally one per day (two maximum), always at the table, and not within one hour of meals. In between meals, it’s ok to feel hungry. At meals, eat until you’re satisfied rather than full.
- A child that arrives at the table hungry is more likely to try something new, and that very much works in your favor. If you follow the French schedule of eating at 8:00 AM, noon, 4:00 PM, and 7:00 PM, your child will never go that long between meals. And they definitely won’t die of starvation. As an added bonus, waiting for meals, and sitting down to eat them, will teach your child patience, and help contain the mess to just one part of your house (no more crumbs in the car).
Take your time, for both cooking and eating. Slow food is good, happy food.
- This is a difficult one for time-pressed Americans, but if you prioritize food, you can get a few birds with one stone: eating can be your meditation, your social interaction, your workout (what you eat is far more of a predictor than how much exercise you get in your overall weight and health), and your beauty routine. It can be the magical time that you and your family come together, build memories, foster strong relationships, tell stories and jokes, and enjoy each other’s company. Just ask yourself – what is more important than your child’s, and your, health?
Eat mostly real food. Treats, processed, or fast food for special occasions ok.
- Enjoy everything in moderation, but with a foundation of healthy, home-cooked, whole food. Save treats for the afternoon snack or an occasional dessert after dinner. Eat convenience or fast foods rarely (maybe Fast Food Friday will work for your family – Le Billon implemented this, and they mostly went to the local sushi restaurant for their “fast food”).
Eating is joyful, not stressful. Treat the food rules as habits or routines rather than strict regulations; it’s fine to relax them once in a while.
- This is the rule that makes all of the other ones work, because any diet that requires strict adherence to rules is going to fail. When Le Billon’s family moved back to Vancouver, they found it that many of the rules, from avoiding snacking to eating slow, were difficult to follow all of the time: especially if a child’s school or daycare serves three processed snacks a day and only allows 10 minutes for lunch. The point isn’t to be strict to a fault, but to follow these rules as often as you can, even if that’s only for dinner and on weekends.
I loved this book, both for the guidance and for the self-deprecating way Le Billon told her family’s story. I would highly recommend it.
As a result of all this reading, I’m working on an experiment for myself and my family this summer. I want to test out these rules, and eat and live more like the French. I once tried this in response to “French Women Don’t Get Fat.” I failed then.
This time, my motivation to eat well goes beyond an effort to lose weight, though I won’t lie when I say I hope that’s a side effect. I want to build a healthy foundation and a positive, realistic relationship with food. I want this for my son, but I know I can’t build it for him if I don’t build it for myself. As a full-time working mom who has always had a hard time simplifying, this will be a difficult experiment for me – it will take time, focus, and a lot of energy. But I truly believe it’s important, and I want to give it everything I’ve got.
I hope you’ll follow me on this journey – more coming soon!