Friday, February 28, 2014

A Book Review: French Kids Eat Everything

After reading an earlier post about Sidney's food experiences at his new pre-school, a friend recommended that I read Karen Le Billon's book French Kids Eat Everything (the subtitle includes the explanation "how our family moved to France, cured picky eating, banned snacking, and discovered 10 simple rules for raising happy, healthy kids"). Although we are living in Belgium, she thought I would be able to relate to the food struggles Le Billon's family faced when they moved from British Columbia, Canada (North America) to western Europe. I had remembered hearing about the book when it was first published a couple of years ago but never read it since I was blessed at the time with a child who ate absolutely everything. Fast forward two years and now the topic of children's culinary habits is especially timely so I decided to give the book a go. And am I glad I did since, as a mother of an increasingly picky and food adverse per-schooler, it struck so many cords with me.

Le Billon is a self-professed picky eater with a French husband and two young daughters who uproots her family from urban Vancouver to spend a year in the rural French village where her husband grew up. While she spoke French her children didn't and the family's complete immersion into French village life is the focus of the book. But it is food and the family's relationship with food that is really the central theme throughout the book. Le Billon quickly discovered that everything about food, from the purchasing and harvesting of it, to its preparation and consumption is completely different in a French village than it is in urban North America. Much like I discovered upon enrolling Sidney in school, Le Billon quickly found that school lunches in France are not your standard American cafeteria fare. The lunches, like most French meals, are social experiences, or as the principal of the school told her, learning experiences for the young children. To many Americans the meals appear to be too sophisticated, complex, and unappetizing for young palates. Or at least they did to Le Billon. Despite her protests, and much to the chagrin of her husband and in-laws, Le Billon attempted to convince the school that her children needed to snack, required choices in what they ate for lunch, and essentially could not comply with the school's food rules. Her argument was a non-starter with everyone around her and her girls, while initially reluctant to adjust to their new environment, soon flourished in their food focused community.

But for me, this book is about so much more than a single family's experience with culture shock; I found it to be both eye opening and reaffirming that food can and does play a pivotal role in every aspect of our lives regardless of how or where we live and what we choose to eat. But let me just say that I know food and dietary beliefs are extremely personal  issues where people will always disagree about what are the right and wrong things to eat. I know that yet too often find myself going down the slippery slope of being judgmental about what others eat and feed their children. I'm trying to be better about this but like all habits, this one is hard to break. And I am by no means in perfect on this front. In fact, I wish my family and I ate healthier, more balanced meals ourselves.

I've always loved food--preparing it, eating it, reading and learning about it--and have tried to bring my love for it into our home. Always one to make as many of our meals as possible from scratch, when Sidney was born I had the best of intentions to make all of his baby food myself, limit processed ingredients, and generally avoid convenience foods. I did make much of his baby food myself but did succumb on occasion to buying the pre-made jarred mush. One whiff and I was reminded why I wanted to be making my own. By the time he moved onto solid foods, much to my delight, Sidney was eating everything with gusto. I remember being especially proud when  at age 18 months he ate not one, but two homemade venison sausages. Our friend who had made them was equally impressed since at the time, his three year old daughter only ate small quantities of plain pasta. I naively thought my son had inherited my love of food and envisioned years of peaceful meal times and creative dinners in our future. Fast forward a year and a half and it was my turn to have the only plain pasta eating child. Dinner times became battlefields and what had once been the highlight of my day became a time I dreaded. In an effort to diversify Sidney's diet, or at least eat anything since the kid is so darn skinny, I went down the rabbit hole I had vowed to avoid, and started serving processed foods, convenience items, and ordering off of the incredibly unhealthy kid's menu in restaurants. And I soon found out, once you start down this path, it is really difficult to go back.

That is what Le Billon learned and that is what I am now facing on a daily basis. Whereas French children are introduced to a variety of foods from an early age, American children tend to have blander and less varied diets. Changing these acquired tastes of opinionated pre-schoolers who are used to eating what they want when they want it, is a painful process. For my son and many other children like him, foods deemed the wrong color or shape, new, or simply different are dismissed in favor of the good old standby of plain pasta. (I'll admit, one of the reasons I love traveling in Italy is that pasta is on ever menu making mealtimes a pain free events). Most evenings I make flavorful homemade dinners and find myself facing either the struggle of forcing Sidney to eat it amid loud complaints, his going hungry, or capitulating and feeding him more plain pasta. I look on with envy when I see other children digging in to their dinners without complaints and silently wish the same for our family.

But Sidney's school lunches are giving me hope. All of the children sit down together for a meal that is eaten off of real dishes with real silverware. They sit patiently at the table and don't leave until the appointed meal time is over. Napkins are used to wipe up the inevitable spills (although Sidney comes home surprisingly clean). As was the case for Le Billon's children, new vegetables are introduced in the form of a soup at the beginning of each meal. Since Sidney doesn't eat a lot of vegetables at home, if he is drinking them at school, I'm not going to complain. Yes, I may be taking the easy way out by having someone else force new foods upon him, but from what I am hearing, Sidney is trying and many times, enjoying these new foods. I'm not sure whether it is the peer pressure of eating what his classmates eat or the desire to please his teachers, but if Sidney is trying new foods, I don't really care how he does it. When he tells me he likes something I am quick to replicate it for our own dinners. Sometimes he'll eat it and other times he won't but I feel as though this is progress. But it would appear that the French method of feeding children just might work.

I hung on to every one of Le Billon's words describing her children's experiences with food since they resonated with me in an all too true fashion. I may have disagreed with her initial self-rightous attitude towards the French school having to cater to her children's food desires but I secretly found myself agreeing with her reasoning behind her arguments. But I also saw the other side of the argument and that one gives me hope for my own son and my own family. It made me think about the differences between typical American attitudes towards food and those of our current home in Belgium and yes, our former home in Albania. They are as varied as the countries themselves and I can see how my own food attitudes have been influenced by all of these environments. This isn't good nor is it bad; it is just the way it is. But, as Le Billon's experience attests to, part of living in a new culture is experiencing that culture and food is an incredible and necessary way to do so. With that in mind, I hope to make the most of our time here in Belgium.

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