If you are an American family, chances are you have picked up some bad food habits along the way of daily life. Let's face it...our culture is not geared towards good, healthy, balanced food habits and if you are trying to do it right, you're facing an uphill battle. It's easy to forget about some simple basic rules. In our family, we struggle with eating enough of our meals at the table (although I will say, we almost always eat dinner at the table together as a family). We have all three developed some truly terrible table manners over time. Our table is often piled with papers and clutter which we push out of the way to eat. And we gobble up our meals way too fast. We forget to stop and truly savor our food. Finally, some of the shorter members of our family (who shall remain nameless...cough, Burrito) are a bit picky in their food choices.
When I saw French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters by Karen Le Billon on the "Grab and Go" shelf at my local library, I was intrigued. I've long been interested in the eating habits of the French. They manage to eat a balanced diet without all the guilt and self-hated that food causes in the United States. They eat real food, delicious food. They eat butter! They eat chocolate! And a lot of other weird stuff, to be honest. But they love food and they stay healthy. We could use a bit of that in America, eh?
The rules (principles) are enumerated on the back of the book and unpacked throughout the chapters. Le Billon's husband is French and she is Canadian. After they decide to take a year to move to France, Le Billon shares her family's journey toward better eating habits. She is alternatively irritated with the rigid ways (and superior attitude) of the French and intrigued by how they do really seem to know what they are talking about when it comes to food. Along the way, she gently nudges American and Canadian parents toward good habits. She isn't rigid or judgmental herself...just honest about her family's journey and ultimately very compelling in convincing the reader to take on some new food habits. Her chatty but informative style makes the reading very approachable.
Several of the rules were particularly helpful for me. For example: "Kids eat what adults eat." How many of us as parents have become "short order cooks"? Junior is picky and would never eat that, so we make something different for Junior (Kraft Mac and Cheese, anyone?). When Le Billon moved to France, she was amazed at the complex foods that were served to the children for school lunches. Endives and pate and fine cheeses and fish and beets. Would your kids eat that stuff? But when kids are not given another option, it's amazing what they can come to enjoy! French parents don't make a big deal out of it if a child refuses a meal. They simply remove the dish and don't offer any substitutes. Pretty soon the kid gets hungry enough to start eating. Of course, it helps that it is like this everywhere in French culture. At school and home and friends' homes. Kids aren't babied, so they learn to enjoy all kinds of food. The culture itself is helping parents meet their goals. Admittedly, it is much harder to do this in America. But we can still stop making it easy for kids to be picky eaters. We may not have control over every place our kids go, but we do have control over our own home.
Another rule that was very helpful to me was the "no snacking" rule. French adults rarely snack but children may have a snack at 4 PM and then usually a later dinner. This is the only snack of the day, however. Like you, I always travel with a snack in my purse. We get in the car and my daughter starts immediately whining that she is hungry, even if she has just eaten! But can all this grazing and snacking really be creating good food habits for the future? And as Le Billon points out, a child who snacks on crackers and cookies and less healthy food all day won't be as hungry for the main meals of the day in which more healthy food is served. So she recommends cutting the snack down to just one a day. And she also recommends that the snack be something really appetizing and delicious to the kids, but healthy as well. As I contemplated this rule, I realized that I was doing things like providing my daughter a snack during church services (supposedly to keep her quiet) even though fellowship hour immediately followed the service...with a huge snack available. So, I cut out the church time snack and so far things are going fine! (I realized after reading this book that a friend of mine from Europe never provides her daughter a snack or even toys for church. She is just expected to sit and behave. Wow! And she does!)
One of the most key rules was that "Eating is joyful." How often do we forget this in America, with our calorie counting and our guilt over one piece of chocolate cake? How often do we stuff massive amounts of food down, without even tasting or savoring or enjoying it? I love the balance found in this rule. After all, food is a tremendous gift of God. He didn't have to make it so flavorful and varied and colorful and amazing. It could have all tasted like porridge. But He gave us tremendous beauty and variety. When God gives a gift, it behooves us to sit down and appreciate it. The French may not (mostly) be doing this for a religious reason, but those of us who are Christians can. We can savor food, enjoy variety, enjoy real foods (not just manufactured ones) and give thanks to the Creator of all! This is what is missing in most of the diet plans out there: the joy of food. When you enjoy food and give thanks to God for it instead of fear it, it changes your perspective. You don't have to eat as much because you are taking the time to savor it. And you don't have to be afraid of food either. Or make an idol of it.
I have been making an effort to help create a mood at our table for dinner too. The French get out the tablecloth and the whole works. I'm not sure I can manage that just yet, but I do try to clear the table thoroughly (as often as I can!), to remove any plastic cups and use glass (classing it up a bit!), and to create a space for us all to enjoy and look forward to our meals. I'm working on this. One day, I even fixed a lovely lunch for my husband at the table (instead of us scarfing down lunch when we get a chance on the couch or in the easy chair). We had a wonderful conversation together and both felt re-energized for the rest of the day. My daughter and I have stopped turning on cartoons for lunch and have been sitting at the table and eating together. This has really improved our attitudes toward each other and given us some wonderful conversations.
Ultimately, Le Billon and her husband decide that the French way of life is too rigid and even judgmental for them to continue living there indefinitely. I appreciated the honesty about this. It is all too easy for outsiders to glamorize a culture and pretend it has no flaws. Le Billon takes from the French culture what she can, applauds it, learns from it, but also adapts it to her own family's needs. I learned a lot from reading her book and was inspired to eat healthier and enjoy family and food more. It was just the shot in the arm that I needed. I think that every parent would benefit from reading this book (as would those who are not parents but are looking for a more balanced approach to food in their own lives). Le Billon closes her book with a few recipes she has made for her kids--simple but also challenging foods.
4.5 stars. Highly recommended.