Why French Kids Eat Everything

So what's the secret? Why are these French kids so cooperative at the table? Why DO they eat everything?
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Here comes another one... but it's not what you think. French Kids Eat Everything is a surprisingly charming memoir about a family who moved to France with two picky eaters in tow and returned to Canada a year later with a happier, healthier, more educated outlook on food. Make no mistake: This isn't a U.S.-bashing book. It's not even a pro-French parenting book. It's just the story of a mom married to a Frenchman who moved overseas and discovered a whole new way of feeding her family. A more peaceful one. And I think they're on to something.

In it, author Karen Le Billon describes her own heart-pounding fear about initially getting their young girls interested in sophisticated (to North Americans at least) French fare -- duck, blue cheese, radishes and so on -- that even French kindergarteners chow down with gusto. With nary a Goldfish cracker in sight, they do it with few fits and tantrums, and actually seem to enjoy eating long meals as a family. It's like the French Paradox, Part 2.

So what's the secret? Why are these French kids so cooperative at the table? Why DO they eat everything? Le Billon suggests 10 observations in her book (for example, no snacking) but I'd point out one of the most obvious here: Because their parents do. Their brothers, sisters and cousins do. Their friends at school do, too. France is a nation of food lovers and by this I mean food, real food made from real ingredients. Not necessarily complicated though sometimes it is, they take their food very seriously. And they take the job of teaching their kids about this national pastime even more seriously. Most people know how to cook and it's considered a crucial life skill to confidently handle yourself at any table, at any age. Manners, food knowledge and an open mind about trying new things are all, well, de rigueur.

My husband used to live in Paris and one of his French friends once described to me, only half-jokingly, their attitude about food: "We're obsessed," she laughed. "All we talk about is food. When we get up in the morning, it's all about what we'll have for lunch. At lunch, we talk about dinner." But there's a big grain of truth there. Eating can and should be a pleasure. That's what the French do so well; enjoy their meals, before, during and after.

On her blog, Le Billon also describes her children's school lunches, which sound more like a menu from a delightful Parisian café.

There is no 'kids' food' here -- if Roquefort is on the menu (and indeed it is), everyone gets it. If smaller children don't like something, they'll be told that they have to taste it, but they won't be forced to eat it. This is because the lunches are viewed as a way of introducing lots of different types of food to children -- a sort of culinary education. In fact, children are much more likely to eat new things if they see their peers doing so with enthusiasm. It's a gentle, fun way of broadening kids' palates.

The same thing happens at our nursery school here in Rome, Italy, where my 3-year-old and 17-month-old spend their mornings. A full-time cook is on hand to prepare a morning snack, three-course lunch (pasta, meat and vegetable) plus an afternoon snack for those who spend a full day there. Fresh vegetables and meat arrive daily from the open-air market down the street, the one where everyone in our neighborhood shops on a regular basis. At the end of the day, we get a report card for each girl, noting what was served for each course (though there's also a posted menu) and how much of it they ate. They always eat everything. All the kids do.

The French also make eating an experience. There are tablecloths, even at home. There are courses, even at home. The family gathers together, eats, talks, eats some more and best behavior is simply expected from an early age. But you don't get here without commitment. Certainly it's easier to instil these values when your children are surrounded by them everywhere but still, sports and other hobbies seem to take a backseat to this family and food-centric evening routine.

I'm so inspired by what Le Billon has done to transform her family's eating habits, from what she's discovered to the way she's presented it. It's not preachy and there's no finger pointing, just some great food for thought. As she notes in her blog: "I'm not saying we should eat exactly like the French. But we could reflect on if any aspects of their approach to kids' food might be useful in our communities. My opinion is that the French have a great approach to both what and how kids eat -- one we could learn a lot from."

Let the learning begin! This week we're sampling a few of her recipes at our place and posting the results on Foodlets.com, where I tell my own story of feeding our family" as well as I can. One bite (and two bibs) at a time.

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