One of the most interesting features of a food culture is not so much the foods, though they can be enticing, but the structure. When I first moved to Italy, I found the rules intriguing. Why not drink a cappuccino after a meal? Where I came from in Toronto that was pretty standard behaviour. But ever one to succumb to peer pressure, I stuck to espresso after lunch in a restaurant in Rome and soon came to love the way it rounded off the meal and left me feeling comfortable. It was only in contrast that I was able to see that a milky cappuccino interferes with your digestion and makes you feel uncomfortably full.
When I asked my Italian friends for explanations of any of the rules, the coffee rules, the no cheese with fish pasta rule, etc., I received a variety of answers, but nothing definitive. Ultimately, no one could tell me much more than “this is how it’s done here.”
So it is really with great interest that I read Karen Le Billon’s book French Kids Eat Everything which is essentially the ten French food rules for children. At first I thought, really? The French have actually thought out these rules? And while the answer is yes, they have thought them out; they couldn’t explain them to you. But Karen, being a very smart woman (Rhodes Scholar, PhD from Oxford, fluent French speaker …) and the mother of two young girls, figured them out. She applied what I gather is her very analytical nature to the task of understanding just how it is that French children learn to eat so well – and with so little fuss, mess and crumbs.
So, what’s the secret? Rules! These are things like no snacking between meals, the adult plans the meal and everyone eats the same thing, families eat together. Why didn’t we think of that in Canada or in the United States? Well, it turns out that we did. Karen actually points out that the French ban on snacking is very similar to the way that North American children were taught to eat a generation or two ago.
French Kids Eat Everything starts when Karen, her husband Philippe and their two daughters (age 2 and 5 at the time) leave Vancouver to go and live in a small village in Brittany for one year. The couple’s children are so distraught by the food at school and the expectations of the adults that their mother tries to seek special permission to allow them to bring more North American style lunches from home. This sets fingers wagging and tongues clucking – Non! The children have to learn to fit in. And so their mother sets out to understand exactly what French parents do that is different from their North American counterparts when it comes to food. How do they raise children to eat beet salad and raw vegetables with vinaigrette?
Through trial and error she really does decode the system and puts it into action. It means a little more cooking and planning for the parents, but it pays off in meals that are actually a pleasure to eat and adds a note of harmony to the evening meal, too.
When I mention this book, and also Pamela Druckerman’s French Children Don’t Throw Food, to Italian friends they always look a little alarmed. The French, they say, are too strict, which makes me laugh. I thought it was just us Anglophones who were afraid of the French. And certainly, Karen does depict the other parents as somewhat unwelcoming (so does Druckerman – so I tend to believe them both), the villagers as disapproving and her own French in-laws as stern judges of the food habits of two very small Canadians. But perhaps this strictness is what has helped the French to keep their levels of childhood obesity down. Italian adults tend to stick to their food rules, but for some reason Italian children are becoming incessant snackers who consume large quantities of junk and processed snack foods. Both countries have seen their actual food systems become more industrialized, but in Italy the OECD recently reported that childhood overweight and obesity is now 1 in 3. Though obesity is rising in France among adults for some reason (I would bet largely due to the perseverance of the junk food lobbyists), it is the lowest in all OECD countries, and the rate for children has not changed much in 20 years.
It was fascinating for me to read this book because I’ve spent the last three years researching and writing my own book about food culture and the importance of feeding children traditional foods rather than processed and fast foods. I tend to agree with Karen’s analysis and her suggestions. As I was reading it, I found myself at times trying to urge her French husband Philippe to just explain the rules to her, but of course he couldn’t. As a French child he internalized these cultural rules and turned them into lifelong habits. He acted as moral support, he knew what the end result should be, but often it takes an outsider to see and actually define what people within a food culture do naturally.
As much as I enjoyed the story of their year in France, I found the most telling part of the book to be the ending when the family moved back to Vancouver. It had been difficult at first for the children (and their mother) to adapt to the French cultural food rules, but when they returned to Canada they really had to adjust their new rules and expectations because the rest of Canadian culture was not eating in a similar manner. Children are really influenced by their peers. It’s really sad to see that after a year of learning to eat like the French, which in this case meant shared multi-course meals at school and only one snack a day, the school in Canada was forcing the children to eat their lunch in ten minutes. This meant of course that they had no time to eat and instead had to snack more often. Naturally, most children were bringing processed food snacks rather than anything homemade or genuinely healthy.
There’s only so much that individuals can do. Some things have to be done together. I find feeding my son to be relatively easy in Rome because he shares a two course meal with fresh fruit for dessert every day with his classmates. The school also provides a snack of fresh bread with olive oil and fruit – though parents do bring the occasional cake for celebrations. My son’s friends influence his food choices and this is the reason that he likes anchovies, octopus, asparagus and broccoli.
If enough Canadian parents decide to implement a few of these rules, perhaps they will catch on. If the schools can be convinced to change their attitude to school lunch and recognize that it is an opportunity to teach children to be civil, to share, to feel connected to each other, lunch will become a happy part of the day. Things can change in a single generation, and perhaps this generation of preschoolers and early elementary school children will be the ones to internalize the rules so they can enjoy food and live happy, healthy lives.
Take a look at Karen Le Billon’s blog http://karenlebillon.com/ to learn more about her crusade to change school lunches.