“French Kids Eat Everything” – Book Review and Giveaway!

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.

Good luck!

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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  1. Heather Spears says

    I think this would be a good book to read to compare the U.S. vs French approach to feeding our children. I have a two year old and would be curious to see what is recommended. Thanks for a great synopsis of the book!

  2. Nina says

    Have been wanting to read this for awhile. My just-turned-three y.o. son is not picky, but I’m sure I’m missing out on how to tackle it if/when it does come about.

  3. Tammy says

    Having grown up coming from a French family and having spent much time in France as a small child I can say I have to agree about the way the French feed their children! Without having read the book yet, based on your reivew I have can see many similiarites in how I was raised and how I have rasied my son in regards to food and mealtime! By age 3 my son was asking for ham & brie sandwhiches, calamari and salads! He actually would get upset at me if I made him share a salad with me and insisted on having his own salad! By 2 or 3 he was eating foods most adults would turn their nose up at.

    Even though he did eat jars of “baby food”, most of the time he would just eat what we were eating, which I think helped him develope a taste for more than the traditional “kid fare” many childeren are acustomed too! I’m very proud (and lucky) to have a kid that will east most anything. But mostly I’m lucky that I was able to learn about food at a young age so I can could teach my family how to eat better! This sounds like a book I would love to read whether I win one or not! :)

  4. Erin in Alaska says

    I’m proud to say I’m a mom of a pretty adventurous eater. Her favorite cheese is Chevre and she adores veggies. But I know a lot of kids whose palates are limited to chicken nuggets and corn dogs. I’m not sure what I’d do if my child refused to eat broccoli (heck, she was almost in tears recently when the grocery store was out of cauliflower).

  5. Denise M says

    i would love to win because my daughter isnt 2 yet, so far not picky but i want to know how to keep her that way

  6. Kaci says

    I’m trying to learn new ways to approach food, so when I have children, they won’t have the same problems I did.

  7. Tina B says

    While I admit that I do get tired of the “silly Americans” attitude that many Euopeans have of us, I usually end up agreeing with many of their views.

  8. Kristine says

    I would love to read the book. I am always looking to expand my 6 year old daughter’s food likes. I am also due with our second child any day now and would love to get a kids that eats “everything”, just like mom.

  9. says

    If I won the book, I would share it with the Child Nutrition Staff in our district. I think it would be a great learning tool for us to know different ways to promote healthier eating habits in our children.

  10. Jacqueline says

    Sounds like a good read – and if I get a chance to read it before I have a child, I can already tell from your review that I would love to employ the French approach!

  11. mommm!!! says

    I don’t need the book but I just had to post (in a neener neener fashion) that I am half French and that my child eats pretty much everything, and yes I breast fed him on demand for a year, skipped baby food jars, and have a well documented portfolio of him making a mess of himself eating all kinds of gloriously messy foods with his fingers.

    I remember when he was about 4 and I was standing in the cheese section of the grocery store when a lady started talking to my child (he attracts the ladies 😉 ) and she asked him what his favorite cheese was because he was pointing to all these different kinds and picking them up and looking them over. My child replied most indignantly, “Port Salut!” That lady was like…whuuuttt?? I think she expected him to say something like “American” or at best maybe “cheddar”. LOL! Good times.

  12. Jessica says

    Saw a review of this book on a talk show last month. Now after reading your review I would love to read this book. I have a very picky 8 year old and a just learning to eat 8 month old and I think this book would be prefect to read.

  13. Lins says

    We are going to France this summer. Daughter is very excited, and will hopefully rise to the challenge of ‘no American-style food or eating’ that I have raised….

  14. Gia says

    So my “I will eat anything” three-year-old now has an opinion and is turning her nose up at foods that she used to love! I don’t believe in tricking her or giving in to her demands. So I would love to learn what “they” know. And my one-year-old? He’s not nearly as adventurous as she was at that age. Book, please.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      If you’ve posted a comment and don’t see it appear after a reasonable time, the comment is in violation of The Lunch Tray’s comments policy. No comment is ever censored for expressing an opposing view; comments which include personal attacks, ugly language (or even just a needling, snide tone) will always be censored. Some might object to this moderation policy as too strict, but I am deeply committed to keeping TLT a pleasant, safe space for all. If I’m particularly offended by and/or receive several comments in violation of the policy from a single commenter, all future comments originating from that IP address will automatically be placed in my blog’s spam filter and I won’t see them for moderation.

  15. says

    Wow, this book sounds awesome! I’d love to read it – could be especially interesting to compare it to some of the philosophies in “French Women Don’t Get Fat.”

  16. Martha says

    I’m an food obsessed mom who also serves 300 school children a day and can’t get enough of “food” books.

  17. Angie says

    This book sounds so interesting!! My 9 year old daughter always complains that the lunches I pack for her are not normal compared to what her classmates have in their lunches (chips, candy, cookies, etc.) I would love to read about how the French feed their children.

  18. says

    My youngest daughter has a weight problem, I would love to win your book. So she could see how the European children eat. She loved our trip to Europe and your book could help motivate her to try new things and change her eating habits to emulate the French!

  19. Laura says

    Great write up! I have two young boys that are getting pickier and pickier as time goes by. I think I need to get this book.

  20. Jennifer Hansen says

    Dying to read this book and wishing the library had a copy. My son is 5 and I don’t plan on having more. I’m sure I made a ton of food mistakes but I will brag that he is a much more adventurous eater than many of his peers. We’ve had a lot of battles that I didn’t like and still don’t. But I also am proud to say he likes yellowtail sushi, kale and blue cheese. :) I love food, good wholesome food. I loathe typical ‘kid food’. So I think this book will be a joy to read.

  21. Sofia says

    Being Portuguese and now living in WI I can totally relate to all this and would love to read the book as I encounter such problems with the way kids eat and getting my daughters to eat what I consider “normal” food.

  22. Casey says

    Adding it to my reading list! I love that they’ve taken to heart the “don’t use food as a reward” and “don’t overfeed someone else’s child.” Hope lots of American parents read this and shift the way we feed U.S. children.

  23. Sophie says

    Hi Bettina,
    I’m new to your blog but I have read quite a few of your articles in the past week. I grew up in Sweden, so I had a different school lunch experience. Therefore I was shocked when I saw the lunch menu of my friends’ children in Michigan, and also reading and seeing the pictures of other American school children’s lunches.

    I used to always hate school lunch growing up, but would still eat it as it wasn’t really that bad. Comparing it to the school lunches of many American schools it was actually very good and healthy. However, I have later found out that the Swedish school lunches are in fact not that healthy and contain endless numbers of “E-numbers”, but something that I do think is still better is the idea of what “normal” food is or isn’t, which I’ve seen has been a frequently discussed topic here. “Normal” school lunch would never consist of burgers, pizza, burritos or any of the like. They do serve all of those meals about once or twice a semester though, as they are the favorite foods of many kids (and adults) in Sweden, too.

    There are free universal school lunches, something that seems to be opposed by many Americans (?), and there are usually only 1 or 2 choices (allergies, vegetarian, halal etc. are all catered for but not included in these 1-2 choices). While I think this system is great, I do think that the right to bring your own packed lunch like in the USA, should also be available, but it is not.

    I have traveled extensively and seen the food, as well as school lunches of children in many different countries and it is not just a problem in the USA, it is a big problem in Europe as well. As I’ve already mentioned the Swedish school food filled with E-numbers, and the very unhealthy British lunches that have been shown in many blogs on the internet lately. Even in Italy, which is known for its very healthy Mediterranean cuisine and diet, I found that so much of the food is deep-fried. There has always been a fascination with the French and their eating (and other) habits though, and I have yet to encounter bad examples of the French when it comes to their cuisine.

    This comment of me introducing myself, my views and my experiences is getting long, but I just wanted to say that I think what you are doing for the children in Houston and their school lunches is great! I have visited Houston once and I ate at some great restaurants so it is crazy that the school food is the way it is. Oh and one last thing, while the view of American food in Europe is very low, I was so pleasantly surprised on all of my visits to the US of the great food that there is on offer. I’ve eaten both better and healthier (in restaurants and at home) in the USA than anywhere in Europe!

  24. says

    Hi! I’ve seen this blog around the internet, but just started reading some more posts here since your story about teachers handing out unhealthy foods as rewards? (Please don’t feed my child….) How crazy is that? I find it concerning since one of our children has food allergies too.

    Falling in love with your blog, and love the premise behind Le Billon’s book. Would love the chance to read it!

  25. Connie Fischer says

    Having lived in France with two small children, I can say that the difference in the approach to food between the U.S. and France in huge. Freshness of everything in France very important. People shop for food often as they want food at its height of freshness. Cheese has always been a part of the diet of the French, whereas cheese in the U.S. tends to come in square slices individually wrapped in plastic. This stuff isn’t real cheese – it’s some sort of cheese food whatever that is. French children are introduced to different foods in a matter-of-fact manner. None of this silly stuff with Mommy hovering over the child with big eyes just waiting for them to reject the food. When parents do that, well of course the kids are going to balk! The French place a huge emphasis on quality food, proper preparation of it and TIME spent enjoying it as a family. None of this fast food grabbed on the way home and thrown in front of the family. Time is taken to prepare a nice dinner even if it means it is served at 8-9PM. I think if more Americans realized how important this is and starting adopting the French way, we would have happier, healthier and slimmer Americans.

  26. Beth Gallagher says

    I’m so looking forward to reading this book! My 2 Ethiopian daughters have been required to try everything, and now we have a couple of very good balanced eaters. I wonder often if US kids are coddled too much on what they think they like and what they don’t. We seem to have a country full of obese and unhealthy kids!

  27. says

    I taught at a lycee in the south of France for a year, and the school food was amazing…and cheap. Lunch was served on plates with cutlery. The whole experience was very civilized and the complete opposite of my school-lunch experience in high school (foam trays, rectangles of pizza, a la carte giant cinnamon rolls). If I’m not mistaken, one of Le Billon’s distinctions is that the French are not inherently more civilized or culturally superior but they do deliberately and intentionally make food and culinary culture a priority to be addressed in schools.

  28. Michaelle says

    Suddenly I want to move to France! I love a good read, a funny story and learning! I’d love to win the copy!

  29. Jennifer Taylor says

    I found Karen Le Billon on Facebook a while ago and have been completely hooked by her! I would love to win a copy of her book – I’ve only read the “free-to-read” first couple of chapters. And I found your blog through her post about you today, so I’ll be regularly reading you going forward as well!

  30. Dominique says

    My husband and I have a five year plan (with the recession it may increase to ten) to move to France. I have two children, one of whom is picky enough to have been kicked out of Easter breakfast with the grandparents due to her faces while eating the meal they prepared. We’ve tried everything; we’ve always offered a wide variety of foods and while she’ll happily eat tabouleh, falafel, and naan, she won’t touch cheese. We’d love to find a solution!

  31. says

    I found your blog today through Michael Pollan’s site. I have always had a fascination with different eating habits in different cultures, and as a college student in Nutrition in Industry and Public Affairs Journalism, I hope to one day take part in reforming the U.S. food system. This book sounds like a great read to compare US and French habits, and could be used to help my studies! I will most likely buy this, even without winning the giveaway 😉
    I look forward to reading more of your posts!

  32. Jessica says

    As someone traveling to Europe next month to buy an apartment (part of our 10 year plan to leave as well), I look forward to reading this book.

  33. Jennifer C says

    I just checked this book out of my library and LOVED it! I have two little foodies in training and thought the book was really helpful in showing what I’m trying to do, and how to actually accomplish it (keep on giving them rejected food to taste again and again, for example).

  34. Stephanie says

    I’m a SAHM with 2 young, somewhat picky girls… and I LOVE FOOD so it kills me when I have to fight with them over eating, of all things! Found your blog through the FB page of our school lunch program. Now I’m a fan. Thanks :)

  35. says

    My husband studied culinary art in Provence, so our children started life eating asparagus and salad. They are 8 and 9 and we had basil/goatcheese pasta with cracked black pepper for dinner and they loved it. They prefer dad’s homemade hand-tossed pizza (way healthier than delivery or frozen) to any other and eschew school lunch pizza because it’s not dad’s.

    Unlike my husband and me, I don’t believe my children have ever eaten canned vegetables. Maybe at school, but they usually bring their lunch. It’s got to be as much about how the parents eat as how the kids eat – they learn what they see. Would like to read the book to know if she discusses that.

  36. Adrienne says

    My name is French and I have one child who tries everything and another who has 5 staples to her diet. I also enjoy reading esp on the topic of nutrition and children. Merci!!

  37. says

    I bought the book last week to take to the cabin this weekend. I am really looking forward to reading it. My daughter is expecting her first in August. Her first AND the first grandbaby. :)

  38. says

    I already have this book, so please don’t give me the prize. Someone else is sure to get as much out of it as I did!!! Just wanted to say I LOVE your review and I felt EXACTLY the same way when I read this book. If ONLY it had been out when my kids were little!!!

  39. Laura N. says

    What I think is most interesting about this topic is the way cultural attitudes towards kids’ food reflect cultural attitudes about childhood. Many of us here were raised according to Dr. Spock’s or Dr. Brazelton’s books, and the impact that has had on how we raise our own children — and how we feed them — has not, as far as I can tell, been examined in detail.

  40. says

    I lived in France for a kid, but only for a year and I didn’t notice much difference in eating habits-but all the kids in my village went home for lunch, so I didn’t actually get to see what other kids ate on a daily basis. So I’m really interested to read this book and see what was really going on in those thatched roof cottages (really! it was a really old cute village that we lived in, complete with a 13th century Catholic church!)

  41. Kristin Troska says

    I would like to win this for my brother and his wife for Christmas. They have 3 little boys, Jake, Sam, and Ryan. Would be a nice book for them.

  42. Ellen Morgan says

    This will BE my next summer read! Introducing my kids to seasonal local foods was one of my favorite aspects of raising them! Now they ‘re grown .. Planning to start an after school cookIng program for kids to pass on the love of adventurous cooking. The kids take the meal home to share w/ their families. This helps busy adults too..

  43. Caroline says

    While I don’t have any kids yet myself, I’m really interested in reading this book! I think raising kids to be open minded, healthy eaters is clutch!

    My cousin is a genX yoga instructor, very progressive and a social activist. In spite of her health concious image, her kids are horrible eaters. They are 6 and 9 and I can’t recall ever seeing them eat things outside of corn chips, mac and cheese, hot dogs, and white bread. The kids look anemic. They’re always cooking two dinners. I aspire to raise my future kids to enjoy different flavors and I have vowed to never make a seperate meal.

  44. Sheri says

    This book sounds like a great read for a mom who is trying to stear clear of artificial food dyes and preservatives while encountering a preschool peer culture that embraces fast food.

  45. Vanessa L says

    I have been wanting to read this book after reading Bringing up Bebe. My daughter is 1 and I’m thankful I can get an early start on her eating habits.

  46. JazzyMommy says

    I would love to read this book. It sounds like a is based on a few of the same principals I follow when I feed my own son (who is now seven years old and a great eater). He loves to try new foods, ethnic foods and mostly gravitates towards healthier choices on his own. Having just returned from a week long camping trip with non-stop junk food menu, it might reinforce what I thought I was doing regarding my son’s nutrition and give me a few new ideas.
    I was shocked each and every day to see not only how much junk food kids would wolf down each day, but more to the point, is how much junk food their parents and other doting adults would constantly provide them. The only meal I witnessed the 4 year old and 9 year old eat each day was the sugar sweetened cereal Fruitloops or luckycharms which was always chased by two packets of hot chocolate and then the snack train arrived. The snack train arrived directly following each meal, every activity and of course continued through well into the evening around the campfire. Over the course of 7 days, I watched the two children pretend to eat, then give the plate to thier mommy with a request for a dessert treat, she would respond by quietly throwing their dinner away and saying “thank you for trying” and then fecthing their sugary reward.
    It started some mornings with candy before they managed to get out of bed. Soda, sippee pouches, candy, chips, packaged sweets, baked sweets, marshmallows, ice cream, freeze-pops…. it would have been easier and cheaper to hook up an sugar drip IV instead. My strategy was to try and make sure my son ate three good meals each day hoping he would be full enough not to start grabbing the endless plethora of sweets. I didn’t want to be seen as the big B he wouldn’t let her poor deprived kid have a few treats. For fun I brought some exoctic fruit to sample with the group of 7 kids, When I would prepare fresh fruit or vegatables before meals, she would actually caution me to not spoil the kids appetite! Her kids, by the way, NEVER took a piece of fruit or vegatable from the table. It makes me happy to be back home where kids are not asking for food treats every 15 minutes. I have thought for a long time that America’s snack industry is the main culprit in the explosion of childhood obesity and picky eaters.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      JazzyMommy: So many of us have encountered the same thing – camps, day camps, sports clinics, piano recitals, whatever — where it seems like the unspoken goal is to cram as much junk into kids in the shortest amount of time possible. You might want to check out TLT’s “Hall of Shame” series to know you’re not alone! Thanks for commenting here, and I’m sorry that the giveaway is over but I do definitely recommend reading Karen’s book.


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