Guest Blog: French Kids Eat Everything

To start with, I never intended to write a book about children’s food!

The idea for French Kids Eat Everything emerged from our experience of living in France for a year (in 2009). In 2008, soon after the birth of our second daughter, my husband and I decided to move back to his hometown in France—a small seaside village in northern Brittany. We were wondering whether we would actually want to move to France permanently, so decided to try it for a year. I had no idea what awaited us (apart from romantic clichés about fresh baguette and sidewalk cafes); although I’d visited France regularly, I had never actually lived there.

The experience of living in France challenged my deepest beliefs about parenting and food. Our older daughter went to kindergarten at the local school, which was her first experience with formal schooling. Our younger daughter (a toddler at the time) went to the village preschool. During the year, I was struck by the dramatically different way that French children eat. My children were typical North Americans: fussy (with a limited choice of foods they would agree to eat) and picky (often rejecting even some of the things that they usually ate). In contrast, their friends, relatives, and schoolmates seemed to eat anything and everything—cheerfully! I was intrigued.

As the year progressed, I learned more about how both teachers and parents educate children about food. Fascinated, I began reading the scientific literature, and learned about cross-cultural research in psychology, sociology, and anthropology. This research gave me a deeper understanding of the differences I was observing. But most importantly, I learned from the families all around us. From them, I learned a set of simple rules and strategies they use to teach children how to eat well. ‘Eating well’, for the French, doesn’t only mean having good table manners. It also means that children eat a wide variety of food, are comfortable eating new foods, are sensitive to their body’s own signals (for example, knowing the difference between being satiated and being full), have age-appropriate self-control around food, and develop an innate sense of balance with respect to quantities and types of food that they eat.

Inspired, I decided to apply these rules to my own family. French Kids Eat Everything tells the story of our personal experiment with French food education. There were many hiccups and false starts, but (ultimately) a happy ending: rethinking how we eat has also brought us closer together as a family.

It didn’t stop there, though. We moved back to Vancouver after our year in France was over, and I was stunned at the contrast in school food (and by the marketing pressures brought to bear on families, and by the way in which the broader food system influences how we eat–issues that I now became more aware of). I was inspired to start a blog (which includes my French Kids School Lunch Project, where I blog weekly about the amazing school lunches that French kids eat every day), and to reach out to other people working on children’s food issues. To my surprise and delight, I was named one of the Jamie Oliver Foundation’s Real Food Advocates for my work. I’m so inspired by the many people working for better food for our children, and energized by being part of a movement that is gaining momentum and making positive change

Karen Le Billon was born in Montreal (Canada), and has divided her time between Vancouver and France for the past two decades. A Rhodes Scholar, Karen holds a PhD from Oxford University, and is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Canada Research Chair and Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 award. Fluently bilingual, she has studied and taught at universities in both France and North America. She is currently a Professor at the University of British Columbia.

Karen blogs on France, food, and parenting at FrenchKidsEatEverything.com, where she runs the ‘French Kids School Lunch Project’, a Tour de France of school lunches in France aimed at inspiring school lunch reform in North America. As a result of her work, she has been selected as one of the Jamie Oliver US Foundation’s Real Food Advocates.

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7 Responses to Guest Blog: French Kids Eat Everything

  1. Ashley Byrd April 10, 2012 at 10:29 pm #

    Thank you so much for inviting Karen to share on your blog! I love hearing about how other cultures teach eating culture, so to speak. It has always amazed me how Americans seem to struggle with proper eating as opposed to other peoples. I really wish my parents had worked harder to educate me on proper nutrition and such because I grew up as a very picky eater. It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 2003 that I finally came to appreciate food and what it meant and started becoming more adventurous. I’m going over to Karen’s blog now!

  2. meredith April 11, 2012 at 12:50 am #

    As an American-born mom, living and raising two girls in France, this post sure my attention. I’ve never parented in America, but I do see a difference in what my girls eat and what their American cousins will eat. I’ve been feeding my girls following advice their French pediatrician (and my French mother-in-law) gave me and something must be right because they eat a varied diet and are not over-weight. They each have a few foods they don’t like to eat, but I still prepare these dishes sometimes and I always ask them to taste a little bit. The thinking here is that after tasting something many times, one might eventually like it.

    My girls complain about their school lunches like just about any kid anywhere will do. But the menus are well-balanced…there are always vegetables and fruits, salads, main dishes, bread, cheese and desserts.

    I look forward to reading Karen’s blog on the subject.

  3. -MAARIT- April 11, 2012 at 5:51 am #

    When you go far, you see close better. Thank You for sharing what you learned to see. I can relate to your experiences as I am myself a mother who moved to France to live with my family of two school aged children. The amazement for French food was as strong as you seemed to have, even that we moved from Finland. My children did not eat in school cafeteria due to limited space they had for children who’s mothers were home but I did my best with the wonderful options I had now available in little towns fresh market every Friday. I think we learned the most about French food culture, when we moved from France to Texas to live few years… From Texas I have picked many ways to use beans, which is good way to reduce the amount of meat we eat.

    It will be interesting to see what recipes from the world stay in our table when we go home back to Finland. I sure have missed the Finnish dark rye bread!

    Thanks again sharing your learning experiences. I look forward reading them.

  4. Julien April 16, 2012 at 12:29 am #

    Hi just want to say that I know exactly what you are talking about. I’m French living in San Diego and I see how far behind is this country on how to educate American children on how to eat and how wide is the diversity of food you can find. Children shouldn’t have a choice from the beginning, it is what it is, don’t want to eat it then too bad for you. They might go to bed few times empty stomac but after a while everything will be ok. It can’t be a dictatur either, as parents we have to make it fun and entertaining. If children are old enough have them cook with you to see how every ingridients taste by themselves before cooking and then how everything actually taste together in their plates during dinner. When I met my step daughter beside Mac and cheese and broccoli nothing else existed but after though love she eat almost everything now or at list she taste anything before saying ” I don’t like it!”.
    Good luck to everyone of you how have kids. They might hate your change of strategy but you can be sure that down the road they really will appreciate every bite of you eating education.

  5. Kyle September 30, 2012 at 3:10 am #

    Schools used 2 have real food in the 50s and 60s. There was a YT video me and my parents watched showing school kids lining up for lunch in the 50s with real meals.

    We live in Oregon and my Dad was born in Akron Ohio in the early 50s and you’ll learn why the knowledge is important below.

    Dad moved back n forth between California and Ohio which at that time he told me was rather unusual to move half way across the country as a family.
    Workers did a lot during the 30s but were usually alone or with a group by caravan looking for work during the 30s depression as families often broke up.j

    Anyways Dad went to school thru the exciting 60s and they had real food such as chicken and mash potatoes or the women would cook different kinds of casseroles with usually some desert afterwards like pudding or cake.

    The reason why that happened is because of left over food from WW2 the government had stockpiled in case of invasion or Nuclear warfare which never happened so they had to do something with all this food ready to rot at anytime.

    The officials decided to give away the food to schools across the countries.

    My Mom is from Draper Utah and told me her little school had the same thing where it was real food instead of this greasy junk food.

    My idea is instead of banning junk food outright they need to alternate real food one week and fun food another week which 1 will give kids a sense of balance of play and work and 2 cooks won’t be stressed out all the time (If it’s a smaller school).

    Many small schools had cooks or house Moms would volunteer to cook for the kids.

    We have a church school that does just that and the food is much healthier then in the public schools!

    Public Schools have little to no moral values and since they are funded by government taxpayers will only do what they are told to do with very little insight to change their ways unless they have to (Example parents that sue for the slightest thing).

    If schools were privitize they would be forced to either adapt to changes or be shut down by inspectors that check for health and safety violations more

    Sorry for spelling errors but my eyes are really bothering me and I can hardly see. 🙁

  6. Kyle September 30, 2012 at 3:11 am #

    My idea is instead of banning junk food outright they need to alternate real food one week and fun food another week which 1 will give kids a sense of balance of play and work and 2 cooks won’t be stressed out all the time (If it’s a smaller school).

    Many small schools had cooks or house Moms would volunteer to cook for the kids.

    We have a church school that does just that and the food is much healthier then in the public schools!

    Public Schools have little to no moral values and since they are funded by government taxpayers will only do what they are told to do with very little insight to change their ways unless they have to (Example parents that sue for the slightest thing).

    If schools were privitize they would be forced to either adapt to changes or be shut down by inspectors that check for health and safety violations more

    Sorry for spelling errors but my eyes are really bothering me and I can hardly see. 🙁

    Sorry for not separating my ideas as I am not feeling very good right now and my eyes are bothering me. 🙁

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