Thursday, September 27, 2012

Book Review: French Kids Eat Everything

I read the book French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon almost a month ago now and have been eager to blog about it--so eager that I have too much to say about it. I have way too much to say about many things, but with picky kids, this is especially true. Because of that, I plan to write my review and experiences with this book in increments

Today, I'll post a basic overview (it's still long; this is why I don't tweet).

Le Billon is a Canandian woman who married a French man. They spent the first few years together in Canada and then, when their children were 5 and 3, moved to France for a year. Their children were quite picky (even Le Billon admits to being a bit picky) and they struggled at first with the strong and strict food culture that they experienced in small town France--a food culture that was supported by the local schools and jobs in a way an American could never even imagine. Over time, both Le Billon and the children came around and began eating a much wider variety of foods. They also ate fresher foods, spent more time eating their food, and ate it together. Frankly, any one of those things is kind of ground-breaking to real American culture (although we give our fair share of lip service to all those ideas).

Through her experience, Le Billon came up with 10 unspoken "French Food Rules."

1. Parents are in charge of food education (Le Billon said it's just as important to the French as teaching a child to read is to an American; even if it's tough, we don't just give up).
2. Avoid emotional eating and no food rewards, bribes, etc.
3. Parents schedule meals and menus. Kids eat what adults eat.
4. Eat family meals together without distractions
5. Eat your veggies (think 'variety')
6. You don't have to like it, but you do have to taste it.
7. No snacking. It's okay to be hungry between meals.
8. Slow food is happy food.
9. Eat mostly real food.
10. Remember: eating is joyful.

I would add one more thing that is strongly addressed in the book: French food is pretty and French eaters eat neatly. Le Billon went to great pains to describe how much care (care, not necessarily time) the French took to dress a table and make foods attractive. She also discussed at length how neat the children were when they ate. Messiness and finger eating was not tolerated, except with the very youngest children.

Yes, groundbreaking.

Le Billon was beautifully honest in the book, even introspective. She allowed the reader to see how embarrassingly picky her children were and how she herself was a bit picky as well as resistant to the idea that people not have more of a choice when it comes to food. In France, you eat what you're given. Unless you have a deadly allergy, it's very rude not to. This is true in the schools where there is only one lunch choice given (and kids don't take their lunches) and it was true in the homes. She allowed the reader a look into her own change of heart and she allowed the reader to see her struggle to change many of her North American habits. She also let us see how difficult it was when they moved back to North America to keep up some of their newfound food habits, as those habits were constantly undermined by the North American food culture.

I really appreciated this honesty. I've read a lot of articles about picky kids. I've gotten cookbooks for picky kids. Any parenting advice about picky kids I could get my hands on, I would read. Often--in fact almost always--I found myself under the distinct impression that the writer either didn't have a truly picky kid, or that the writer had no kids at all (or no kids he/she actually spent any eating time with) and that they were just spouting off somebody else's advice for some parenting magazine for which they were trying to freelance. Because of this, the American articles almost always offered the exact same advice and, even worse, tended to make the solutions seem really simple--as they would be if you were dealing with a theory instead of an actual kid who might tantrum, skip a meal, or even throw up. Because of this, you felt kind of like a failure (a hopeless failure since all the advice was the same, and why couldn't you make it work) when something didn't work. It's like another parent was standing there saying, "Oh, you mean your child didn't eat his broccoli even though you made it look like little trees in a forest." Nope, he told me just looking at it made his tummy hurt and then stood up and left the table.

Le Billon, on the other hand, struck me as absolutely sincere and as a fellow soldier on the front lines of the picky kid war.

Personal experience and honesty, however, did not mean there were no facts. This wasn't like a casual observation of her friends' kids. She throws in plenty of statistics about how well and varied French children eat as well as how much is spent on food, how many vegetables are consumed, that whole thing. I appreciated the facts and statistics.

Of all that the book was, there was one thing that was absolutely striking to me. Several bits of French advice are in direct opposition to the advice given in any North American parenting magazine. Whenever I read an article about how to help picky kids, I'm told (by some freelance writer I'm positively convinced has never actually met a picky kid in her life) to do several things: let your kids choose foods at grocery stores, let them have a say in what's on the menu or even plan what to have for dinner one night a week, let them experiment with their food--touch, smear, or whatever it, and make their food look fun (only by 'fun' they mean 'elaborate'--let's make a salad that looks like a clown; and with all due respect to all those pinterest pictures out there of people's elaborate and gorgeous food creations, that's just not something you can throw on the table any old Tuesday night. Especially if you yourself wish to eat).

The French tell you that food should be eaten neatly (no smearing experiments). If it is not, the dish is taken from the young child until they are willing to eat it neatly. Le Billon was in awe of the neat French children.

The French tell you that parents are in charge of the meals and that the children eat what the parents do. The even eat it on similar serving dishes (no Elmo plate and bowl sets). Kids don't choose food at grocery stores and they don't get to plan meals.

The French do believe in making food beautiful, but they do not make it quite so over the top kid-friendly as we sometimes try to do.

If French children are rude or complain about the food, it is removed from them. There isn't a big guilt trippy, cajoling tado about it. The plate is simply removed. (Groundbreaking.)

And, you know what, I think the French are on to something. I have tried just about every bit of American piece of advice there is. Most of it has backfired. Just so you know, backfiring is worse than failing. Backfiring is not a gun that didn't go off; it's a gun that went and shot you in the face. Letting my kids have choices in their food has only made things worse for us. When they've realized they've had a choice, it's like they've realized they've had a choice. A choice to reject something if they wish. A choice to demand something else. A choice to say, "I like tomato soup, but only this kind and only this consistency and color and only with these crackers. Nothing else will do. I will not eat homemade soup. I will not eat orange-ish soup. I will not eat tomato soup with the tiniest little chunk. I will not eat a brand of soup I dislike or have not tried. I will not. I will not. I will not." Yeah, will. It's a powerful thing. And a thing that, for the record, I'm usually all for. But it hasn't worked in the training of our children to eat food. (Also giving my kids too much freedom to choose has limited my choices and ability to enjoy foods.) And it highlights one of the fundamental differences between French parenting and values and American parenting and values. As Le Billon put it, we Americans value our autonomy. Pretty much above all else. We are individuals, darn it. Usually, I think this is a really good thing. Usually, I think that this is what makes America great. But when it comes to food and your five-year-old, well I'm coming to believe that if you want your kid to wind up with more than spaghetti, fries, and chocolate cake on his I-guess-I-can-eat-this list, then you'd best just kindly remove the plate when they make barfing noises at your perfectly good food. Remove it people. And smile. And don't give it back later. Because, guess what, you're in charge. And eating is a life lesson that kids need to learn that is just as important--if not more so--than algebra.

Tune in next time to see just how picky my children are and what I'm trying to do about it.


  1. I love this so much. My kids are exactly as you describe yours. And ignore all the advice I get from parenting magazines. (I'd like for children to read more parenting magazines, lol) And I totally agree how people always look at you in this judgy way when they talk about their kids eating sushi! ha ha

  2. Just read both your posts on this book...I'm so glad to hear you liked it. I have had this book on hold at the library for a couple of months now and have been very curious about it. Hopefully I'll get it soon so I can read it myself. Henry is a very picky eater and I am ready to try some new methods to get him to eat real food. I'm curious to hear how the food rules work out with your picky eaters!

    1. You should definitely read it. Henry is at an age where he's just going to reject a lot of foods. I think a mistake I made with my kids at that age was to just give up or assume they just wouldn't eat things. With Emma we've been gently pushing A LOT more and lo and behold she eats things that I would never have expected her to (and which she originally rejected). I keep thinking, "If only I'd done this with Mark and Elizabeth..." but it seemed so hard at the time. It's definitely harder now to have intensely picky older kids (and embarrassing and worrisome) than it would have been to push, encourage, and give more help to my smaller kids.



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