Born in Montreal and based in Vancouver, Karen Le Billon is an author and teacher. Married to a Frenchman, she has two daughters, and her family divides its time between Vancouver and France.
French Kids Eat Everything (HarperCollins) is Karen’s newest book, a memoir about family and food, inspired by a year spent in her husband’s hometown—a small seaside village in Brittany.
Karen has a PhD from Oxford University, and is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Rhodes Scholarship, a Canada Research Chair, and Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 award. She currently teaches at the University of British Columbia.
She is one of the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation’s Real Food Advocates.
Julie Wilson: North American children are three times as likely as French children to be obese. One of the ten French Food Rules is "No snacking." It's OK to feel hungry between meals. How is this different from the family that grazes throughout the day, eating 5-6 small meals a day?
Karen le Billon: Snacking is a hotly debated subject! Even researchers don't agree on the benefits and downsides of snacking. The French perspective (at least the official one, endorsed by Association of French Pediatricians and the Ministry of Health) is that snacking outside of mealtimes leads to excessive calorie consumption. They also believe that it is important to teach children to have a comfortably empty stomach, and to distinguish this feeling from hunger. French children eat so well at mealtimes (with high satiety foods) that they don't tend to feel very hungry between mealtimes. The advantage is that they can happily wait until their next meal, which they're more likely to have an appetite for. This approach definitely worked with our kids. And the French are so convinced it is the right approach that no snacking is allowed at school (there is a national ban on vending machines in schools).
Note: The causes of obesity are complex (there are genetic and epigenetic explanations, and it is also important to take levels of physical activity into account). So I'm not saying that the only reason that French children have lower rates of obesity is because of what they eat. But it's one important reason.
JW: The French introduce vegetables into a toddler's diet very early. For instance, you have a recipe for leek soup in the book: potato, leeks, pear, honey or maple syrup. The French also diversify their ingredients, introducing new colours and flavours into children's diets from an early age. I can't help but think about the kid who wears the same Spiderman pyjama pants to school every day. As a child, I couldn't have my food touch. There was comfort in that consistency. When it comes to food, do children innately want variety in diet and taste? Or are they creatures of habit who have to be "broken" in order to evolve their palates?
KB: Food is one of the great sources of shared pleasure in life. This is the attitude that French parents bring to food education. They encourage their children to eat lots of different foods because they truly believe they taste good, and that their children will enjoy themselves. They take advantage of the fact that many babies are naturally curious about foods, and introduce lots of variety before the age of 2, when the "picky eating" phase starts with French kids, as it does everywhere. But French parents view "picky eating" as a phase through which children quickly pass, sort of like "the terrible twos." They don't let picky eating become a habit! On the contrary, they foster an expectation of novelty and curiosity about new foods on the part of their children.
JW: People reading this are surely thinking, as I was when I began the book, that it must take more time to prepare these meals. However, on average, the French spend only 18 minutes more a day cooking than North Americans. How do they manage this?
KB: French cooking at home is not fancy "haute cuisine." The dishes are simple and thus quick to prepare. The recipes in the book take an average of 10 minutes or less. The French are good at combining certain ingredients in the right quantities; when you have good ingredients to start with, it isn't hard to make great-tasting food. That's why I included sample recipes in the book. Here's a typical meal which takes me 15 minutes to prepare, using recipes from the book: 10 minutes to prepare "tomates farcies" (having preheated oven while doing so!); then pop some apples to bake at the same time (our "Pommes au Four" dessert); 5 minutes to wash and prepare kiwi-endive salad (our first course). We sit down to eat the veggies first, while the "tomates" finish baking; then, while we eat the "tomates," the "pommes au four" are happily roasting away—and are done by the time we're ready for dessert. Voila!
JW: In North America, we associate McDonald's and fast food restaurants with convenience, yet in France it's associated with rebellion. Your husband remembers commercials from his youth, in which McDonald's felt like a child had designed a restaurant with adult-sized furnishings. How is the threat of fast food culture different to the French than to North Americans?
KB: McDonald's appeal to teens, students and many others on a limited budget. But it has actually adapted its menu in France to suit French taste buds, and even changed its restaurant style (for example, the chairs aren't bolted to the floor, and the restaurants look much more like French cafes). Academic studies have shown that French people take longer to eat their McDonald's meals (they are still a nation of "slow food eaters," even in fast food restaurants!), and serving sizes of the same items (e.g. a large fries) are actually smaller in France. In fact, when fast food chains don't adapt to French culture, they have trouble surviving (witness the recent news about struggling Starbucks in Paris).
Another reason why fast food is a limited threat is because the vast majority of children eat lunch at the cantine (school restaurant), and these meals are healthy, scratch-cooked and definitely not fast food. As lunch is the biggest meal of the day (40% of caloric intake, according to French Ministry of Education guidelines), this makes a big difference. Kids are taught that "slow food" and "healthy food" is the normal way to eat every day. And McDonald's (or any other fast food) is an occasional treat.
In response to fears about fast food culture, France started its own Food Revolution about 10 years ago. You can read more about it on my blog, here.
JW: To backtrack for a second, what is the difference between a picky eater and a fussy eater?
KB: Great question! Picky eaters are very selective about what they eat. They probably have a degree of what scientists call "food neophobia," which is generally defined as the reluctance to eat, or even sample, new foods. Children with neophobia often reject many "new" foods. This can result in children eating a limited variety of foods. But the good news is that this is usually a temporary phase. Gently encouraging children to continue trying new foods is the key. Researchers have found that tasting foods repeatedly (anywhere from 7 to 15 times) will usually result in acceptance of a new food.
Note: This doesn’t mean forcing a child to eat, but rather gently, calmly encouraging them to taste something. So we say to our kids: "You don’t have to like it, you just have to taste it." (French Food Rule #6!).
Fussy eaters, on the other hand, will reject foods that they like one day, but then happily eat the next. This sometimes happens with my younger daughter, who likes her breakfast oatmeal one day but then (frustratingly) won’t touch it the next. Inconsistency is apparently a consistent pattern in toddler behavior, so when my children were younger I let it slide. But now (and especially with my older daughter) I’m firm: If they’ve liked it in the past, they have to eat it now.
The French don’t tolerate kids' fussiness about food—which often arises because kids are testing limits, and turning food into a power struggle. Being firm and consistent avoids these power struggles. Above all, no short order cooking! At lunch (at the school cafeteria) and at home, only one menu is on offer. The kids soon adapt—and everyone is happier as a result. Read my full blog post on this topic.
JW: The #1 French Food Rule is "Parents: You are in charge of food education." Parents also set the meal plans. What differs between North American and French culture that we (North Americans) seem to have lost that authority? Clearly, it's not cruel to want your children to eat well, to insist upon it. Where's the disconnect, do you think?
KB: Every family is different, and there are many families in Canada and the US that eat well, and prioritize food education. But if the surveys and statistics are to be believed, then only a small fraction of kids are eating the recommended fruits and vegetables every day. And we are world leaders in producing overweight and obese children. So something has gone wrong.
One issue that isn't to blame is "working mothers": French and American mothers work outside the home at very similar rates. The French also have longer workdays (again, this is from national surveys).
I personally think that a combination of inter-related factors is at work: the myth of "kids' food" (which didn't exist traditionally in France, and is still a marginal idea), the power of food marketing, the influence of food corporations (wonderfully documented by Dr. Marion Nestle in her book Food Politics), the poor quality of lunches at many schools, the busy and stressful lives that many parents lead, and the (admirable, in many ways) emphasis many parents in North America place on autonomy and independence in their children. On this latter point, French parents are clear: They decide, not the children. We tend to want to foster independent decision-making much earlier; but given all of the other factors above, I don't think that children are enabled to make the best decisions.
JW: When you try to quit something, like cigarettes, the physical withdrawal lasts only a few days, but the social and psychological triggers will remain in place for some time. Your family lives between France and Vancouver. When you're away from France, what sort of behavioural models do you keep in place to ensure that the family stays on course with the French Food Rules.
KB: Another great question. My kids fit seamlessly into the French way of eating when we're back in France. We have just moved back to France for a few months, for example (I am a visiting professor for one term at a university). They eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as having their one snack per day—and that's it. They don't expect to be fed at other times. So the transition to France is easy. Going back to Vancouver is harder, as we attempt to maintain the routine. I've decided to let them snack once at school, so they don't feel deprived. But we talk about the importance of healthy snacks, and the idea that they will grow out of snacking when they group up.
JW: Second to this, when attempting to find "real food," what are acceptable fast food replacements?
KB: I make my own "fast food": Extra batches of soup, which I freeze, for example. That's the best fast food I can think of (and is often faster than going to a restaurant). Failing that, sushi is a good choice for us—there are lots of sushi restaurants in Vancouver. My kids prefer the veggie sushi, which is fine by me. Seaweed snacks (another import from East Asia) are another favourite at our house!
JW: As a child, which healthy foods did you hate? Do you now love them? And what is the one healthy food you've always loved? (For me, it's brussels sprouts.)
KB: Cauliflower was always difficult for me, but I actually tried the French Food Rules out on myself and learned to like it! I've always liked broccoli. In fact, I've never understood why people don't like it. To me, it tastes mild and is so lovely when steamed!
For an example of a typical school lunch in France, check out the below menu, a real school menu in Cannes.
Monday, April 2nd
Cucumber vinaigrette salad
Pork sautee with curry (fish and turkey options proposed as alternates) and couscous
Dessert: Apple puree, unsweetened
Tuesday, April 3rd
Vegetable potage soup, locally grown ingredients
Bolognaise of Charolais (high quality)
French beef (meatless option: tuna with tomato & basil sauce)
Organic spaghetti with grated emmental cheese
Dairy: Plain yogurt
Dessert: Organic fresh fruit
Wednesday, April 4th
Goat’s cheese on toasted crackers
Roast ‘Red Label’ (quality designation) veal (meatless option: omelette)
Green peas and carrots (stewed with onions—yum!)
Dairy: Tartare (a white, soft cheese)
Dessert: Organic fresh fruit
Thursday, April 5th
Cordon bleu scallop (meatless option: Fish filet, sauce meunière)
Dairy: Petit suisse (a yogurt style dairy product)
Dessert: fresh fruit
Friday, April 6th
Grated organic carrot salad
Fish filet with sauce niçoise (think: tomatoes and olives)
Dessert: Vanilla cream
To see more French school menus, visit Karen's blog.
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