Friday, September 21, 2012

french kids eat everything: a review

Recently, I went on a date with bestselling author Karen Le Billon and she told me, over a steaming cup of coffee and muffin, about the time she and her family moved to France, cured picky eating, and discovered 10 simple rules for raising happy eaters.

At least, that's what it felt like while reading her book French Kids Eat Everything

I won a copy of her book after entering a giveaway from the wonderful blog Foodlets, and devoured the first few chapters as soon as I ripped it out of the HarperCollins envelope. I took it into bed with me, and on a road trip the next day, reading page after page aloud to Andy the entire time.

We are in the "eat anything" phase of the girls' lives, and you can bet that I am stuffing their faces with as much nutrient-dense food as possible, because I'm afraid that they'll hit the picky phase and swear it off for good. Le Billon made me feel much better and to know that picky eaters are not inevitable. And when they do hit that phase, I can do my part to work through it gently with lasting positive results. 

After moving to France and being challenged by her French husband's family, the national school system, and pretty much every single French person she met, Le Billon finally decided to tackle her daughter's picky eating habits. Through trial, error, experimentation, and setbacks, she finally came up with 10 food "rules" that changed her family's life.

Some books about getting your children to eat are either too preachy or too simple - I don't believe that a diet can be 100% perfect but I also don't believe we give our kids enough credit, and are not so one-dimensional in their tastes! She addresses both these issues by being a warm, engaging, and self-deprecating storyteller while acknowledging that yes, in fact, your children CAN learn to like vegetables and blue cheese!

I know that as they get older the rules that "speak" to me will probably change, but for where we're at right now, these are my favorites:

Rule #1: YOU are in charge of food education!

Le Billon talks about the difference between authoritative parenting and authoritarian parenting. Authoritative parenting is kind but firm and sets clear limits and goals, while authoritarian parenting is controlling but more often ends up in indulgence.

As an authoritative parent, "The goal is to educate children to be self-confident eaters who eat a wide variety of foods, who are comfortable trying new things, and who know how to balance self-restraint with pleasure."

She suggests creating house rules about food and sticking to them, giving them simple but limited choices about the menu, and modeling positive eating behaviors.

Rule #4: Eat family meals together, with no distractions

The French would never dream of eating standing, on the go, in the car, etc. That is a huge cultural difference, and while I don't feel strongly about it, I do feel strongly about eating meals as a family! 
 To the French, "Eating is more than an essential physical act. It should also be a shared social event, in which children experience a sense of pleasure, discovery, and well-being."

We started eating more dinners together, and I started putting all their food on cute little tempered glass plates. It took about a week before they would keep them on the table, but now they actually eat off of them! The mess to clean up is significantly less, and bonus, it's adorable to watch. 

Rule #6: You don't have to like it, but you do have to try it.

"The goal is for your children to be curious and comfortable with trying new foods, and to be able to politely decline eating them," she writes. "Staying calm around new foods is a skill they should be learning, as well as the ability to experiment with tasting and eventually eating them."

And if they resist? "If your children don't like something, encourage them to believe that they eventually will." She says this to her kids: "Oh, you don't like it? That's okay. You just haven't tasted it enough times yet. You'll like it when you grow up."

Rule #10:  Remember, eating is joyful - Relax!

"French parents believe that healthy eating habits can be achieved without anxiety...For the French, eating is about enjoyment: food is one of life's shared pleasures. They don't count calories (certainly not for their children), but rather have an intuitive sense of a balanced, reasonable diet."

I love this rule. Food is fun! I want my girls to really experience their food and enjoy it fully. I don't want them to grow up paranoid or anxious about their relationship with food. It's hard enough to be a normal woman in our diet-driven society, and I refuse to feed into this attitude.

And the "rules" that I will personally have to work on:

Rule #2: Avoid emotional eating (no food rewards, bribes, etc.)

This rule is the most convicting and challenging for me, as a reformed and relapsing emotional eater. I can learn a lot from the French in this regard. "Although they love to provide tasty treats for their children, they don't tend to do so in response to children's emotional needs," Le Billon writes. "They wouldn't offer candy to an upset child, or a whiny child, or a bored child...Think of other ways to soothe or reward your children, and they will, in turn, learn how to regulate their own emotions without the use of food."

I've stopped giving my girls crackers in their strollers and car seats (although we gave in grocery shopping yesterday and gave them some yummy samples of rosemary flatbread crackers!), and I am trying my best to distance my own emotional attachment to food when I prepare their meals so I don't feel like they "deserve" a treat if they've been good. Isn't a hug and a kiss enough reward for a fourteen month old? Yes.  

Rule #7: Limit snacks, ideally one per day (two maximum), and not within one hour of meals.

Le Billon writes that "unscheduled, any-time-you-like grazing only works for people who have a keen sense of their own feelings of hunger and fullness. Helping your children to develop this sense probably means minimizing their snacks - both in volume and in amount consumed." The French have a big snack in the afternoon, but otherwise, not a lot of eating outside of mealtimes happens.

This is more a rule for me, a chronic snacker, and goes hand in hand with emotional eating. I want to help my girls develop a sense of their bodies and what they're feeling - truly hungry? thirsty? or just bored? And know that it is okay for them to feel hungry between meals!

At the end of the book, there is a collection of easy and nutritious recipes with creative ingredients, like lentil apricot soup, endive and kiwi salad, crepes, and chocolate mousse. I haven't made any of them yet, but I plan to. Charity of Foodlets has with great results.

French Kids Eat Everything is an entertaining story with a practical call to action, and it's a book that I will read again and again and recommend to my family and friends.

So, do you want to read this book, or have you already? What "food rules" are in place in your family? 


  1. So interesting... I am really bad about the distracted eating and the snacks one. My doc actually suggested snacks throughout the day for X. 6 small meals a day is basically what we do with him at the moment. He is a weird kid though and while he enjoys food, he doesn't really get much nutrition from it yet. He is drinking a TON of milk throughout the day. I know some babes his age that refuse milk except for twice a day. Not my kid.

    I love that he will try almost anything though. I would have never believed my child would eat things like seaweed, Indian food, lentil soup, etc... but, he does! We feed him (mostly) what we are eating and he seems to dig it for the most part.

    1. Hey Jenni! That's awesome that X loves all types of foods. I feel the same way about the seaweed snacks, but they devour it!

      The great thing about her book is that her "rules" are really guidelines...when they moved back to the states, they had to implement more snack times b/c the school only gave a few minutes for lunchtime and they couldn't eat enough to keep them satisfied.

      I you're right that every kid is different, for sure, and especially babies as they're just starting to learn about foods. Mine weren't very interested in solids until really late - mama's milk all the way - and are JUST starting to eat substantial meals.

  2. i have to say the rules make sense to me. i grew up in finland and my mom is always amazed how much my kids snack and why they're water bottles are always laying around. she said we ate three meals a day and maybe one snack. kinda like the french. no wonder they are so slim compared to us roly-poly north americans!

    1. Thanks for your comment! It's so true. It's so easy to get in the habit of always having something to snack on. I'm really trying to curb the random snacking around here just because it's easier than sitting down and making it "meal time," especially when it's just me and the girls.

  3. Oooo, I've been wanting to read this! Even though I do not have kids of my own (I want to get married first ;) I think it's applicable to anyone. Or at least it sounds like it is! Even with a new marriage I feel like this book could come in handy- eating meals together etc.

    1. Hi Jade! You definitely should read it, it's a great book! It reaffirmed our desire to sit down as a family (even when the girls are in bed and it's just the two of us) and have a leisurely meal together. So far, so good! If you start the habits early, it'll be easier to stick to them when life gets crazy.

  4. Ooh la la -- I want to know what the rest of the rules are, because based on what you posted here I must be French. :) I am eternally grateful to my own parents for having such sensible rules about eating and, as a result, having a really great attitude about food as an adult. Hoping I can do the same for Lorelei! I am going to check out this book...


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