I have a confession to make. Though Karen Le Billon has become an “online friend” and though I’ve always enjoyed her blog about school food in France, I wasn’t actually looking forward to reading her new book, French Kids Eat Everything.
First of all, the title seemed to promise a little too much, and I couldn’t help raising a skeptical eyebrow. (Really? Everything?) Moreover, after months of hearing about the superiority of the Chinese Tiger Mother, and then more recently learning that the French are better than Americans at Bringing Up Bebé, (not to mention dressing themselves more stylishly all the while), I was feeling uncharacteristically jingoistic: Oh, just leave us alone, you Superior Foreigners!
But then I opened up French Kids Eat Everything and I was hooked. As in, tote-the-book-everywhere-until-it’s-finished hooked.
Now, as someone who’s written about “kids and food” five days a week for two solid years, I’m clearly predisposed to be interested in a book about, well, kids and food. But I think any parent, even one less obsessed with the topic than I, will be fascinated to read about the often diametrically opposed ways in which French and American parents approach the feeding of their children.
The differences are apparent at birth, when French moms breastfeed on a strict, to-the-minute schedule, no matter how loudly their tiny newborns cry in hunger. (Reading of that practice made me cringe in horror, as it did Le Billon when she learned of it.) When solid food is introduced, our little jars of pureed baby food are almost unheard of in France, as is our obsession with food allergies, requiring the cautious testing of each new solid food. And the contrasts go on from there, from toddlers who are spoon-fed their lunches by preschool attendants, rather than being allowed to eating messily with their fingers, to elementary school menus that sound like those of a four-star restaurant. (Example: endive salad followed by Alaskan hake, a cheese course featuring blue cheese and a dessert of plain yogurt with apricots in honey syrup. Really.)
These cultural contrasts are placed in the context of a memoir of Le Billon’s year in her husband’s home town, a small, French seaside village. She tells us frankly about her initial gaffes and missteps (some of which are quite funny), as well as the insularity of the townspeople, who are less than welcoming to this foreigner. (And, by the way, while I speak here of contrasts between America and France, Le Billon, a native Canadian, speaks more broadly of “North Americans” and the French in her book.)
It’s Le Billon’s interactions with the villagers that bring out most starkly the contrasts in approaches to food. For example, when I first moved to Houston from the East Coast, I was annoyed to learn that it was customary for grocery store employees to offer my toddler a free cookie every time we shopped. In stark contrast, when Le Billon offers her own toddler a cookie for behaving well during a grocery outing, she’s immediately chastised by other shoppers for spoiling her child’s appetite and treating food as a reward. (!) Similarly, I’ve gotten so fed up with strangers feeding my children in their school classrooms that I recently pounded out a “manifesto” in protest, whereas when Le Billon sets up a table at her child’s school to honor local agriculture, replete with fresh strawberries, crème frâiche, and homemade bread and jam, the other parents actually snap at her for daring to feed their children between meals. (!!)
The book distills these cultural differences into ten “food rules,” rules which Le Billon tries to impose on two young daughters accustomed to American-style “kid food” and snacking at will. And by the end of their year-long stay in France, her children’s palates have expanded considerably, they no longer snack (except for one scheduled snack after school) and they’ve learned to eat more slowly and savor their food.
While there’s much to be learned from Le Billon’s experiences, I do have a few small quibbles. For one thing, the author thinks she got off to a “late start” in training her children to be French-style eaters, because her girls were aged two and five at the time. And so for a reader with a picky preteen or teenager, it almost feels futile to try some of Le Billon’s tips, like “taste training” via vegetable purees. The comparisons between French and American school food also bothered me a bit since Le Billon glosses over the fact that American schools have far less money to work with in preparing meals, let alone the support of the culture at large to promote healthful, mindful eating. And there were several times when I had the urge to pick up the phone and dial a random French citizen to see if he/she could possibly agree with Le Billon’s always-rosy assessment of eating behaviors in that country. For example, Le Billon makes it sound like each and every French kid is happily tucking into Roquefort by age two, yet she also cites many French parenting books devoted to feeding and eating behaviors. The very existence of such books makes me wonder if all French kids get with the program so easily.
But those small issues aside, I thoroughly enjoyed French Kids Eat Everything and also saw in hindsight the many (many!) errors I made in feeding my own children when they were young. There’s no way to know, of course, but I do have to wonder if my son, the veggie-avoider, would be eating differently today had I known to follow Le Billon’s French “food rules” from the start.
And now for your chance to win your very own free copy of French Kids Eat Everything! Just leave a comment below by 3:00 pm CST tomorrow, June 29, 2012 to enter. You can tell me why you’d like to win or you can just say hi. I’ll use a random number generator after the comment period closes to select one lucky winner and if you comment twice (e.g., to respond to another reader’s comment), I’ll use the number of your first comment to enter you in the drawing. I’ll email you directly if you win and announce the winner on TLT’s Facebook page, too.
Or should I say, bonne chance! :-)
[Blogger disclosure: As with most of my book reviews, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for my perusal. However, I never accept any other form of compensation for the book reviews you see on The Lunch Tray.]
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