The reason I'm grateful is that I'm raising my daughter in France, where I had moved before she was born. Now, four years down the motherhood road, I can see how much easier it is for me to teach her to eat well, to keep her fit and healthy. I don't have to struggle uphill against the culture -- here, the culture helps me.
Take what goes on in schools. First, there are no candy and soda vending machines in French schools. In fact, in 2005 France has banned all such sugar-dispensers from schools, and studies show that it is indeed making kids eat healthier. Second, schools offer children nutritious, tasty meals that could sometimes even be described as "gourmet". Every Monday my daughter's school displays a complete menu for the week. Here is one recent lunch my 4-year-old daughter ate: Appetizer: Endives with Mimolette cheese. Side dish: Cream of pumpkin and chestnuts. Main dish: Calamari in tartar sauce with parsleyed broccoli and semolina. Cheese plate (including Bleu). Dessert: Home-made pineapple cake. Fruits.
In case you were wondering: She is not in a private school in some posh part of Paris. She goes to a public school in a small village, smack in the middle of nowhere.
It's hardly a surprise that French kids willingly munch on things like endives or tabbouleh or scallops. Studies show that children learn their eating habits by observing others, and other kids in particular. If they see their friends happily dining on carrots, they'll start liking carrots, too. If they see them eating one chicken nugget after another, they'll start to love chicken nuggets instead. What's more, simply expecting that children should eat adult foods makes them, well... eat adult foods. Studies show that children need to be exposed to a new food even ten times before they'll start liking it. Children's menu's are not a common thing in French restaurants. Kids are simply to eat what adults eat. And guess what? They do.
There are no soft drinks or juices for lunch, either. To drink, school kids get water. An average French child (ages six to eleven) gets two percent of daily calories from soft drinks - compared to a mind-boggling eleven percent in US. France not only has a tax on sugary drinks, but unlimited refills of sodas are banned in French restaurants, too.
Another thing that helps keep French kids away from unhealthy foods is the culture of snacking - or rather, the lack of it. Americans snack constantly - according to a recent survey 94 percent Americans snack every day. Among the French, 70 percent never snack between the three traditional meals of the day. In France snacking is simply not easy. Eating on the streets, while walking, eating on a bus or a metro - these are big no-no's. Try doing this and people will stare.
In France kids eat four meals a day. If it's around noon, you can be certain most of the French people, children included, are eating lunch. If it's 4 pm, all kids are eating an afternoon meal called "goûter" (usually fruits, some yogurt, a pastry). But in between - nothing. If you are hungry, you have to wait for your next meal. My daughter doesn't see kids chomping on candy bars and downing giant soft drinks wherever she goes. She is not tempted, she doesn't throw tantrums that she "wants one too, now, mommy, now!" - and it makes my life easier.
Don't get me wrong - France is no paradise, and some things could certainly be better. High-school kids smuggle sweets into schools; many parents consider Nutella on baguette a proper "goûter"; the country is still very meathooked and schools serve a lot of beef and chicken, even rabbit. And the obesity rates have risen by 10 percent since 2006.
But if your kids go to school where they can easily get themselves a soda from a vending machine, when they are served pizza for lunch and when they see other kids eating unhealthy, when they are surrounded by people constantly snacking on junk food - it's very hard to make sure your children eat well and stay slim. Kudos to parents who succeed.