Tag Archives: Italy

French Food Rules For Children

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.

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Snacks

Leave it empty

Don’t do it! Don’t eat them. If you are not a child, you shouldn’t snack. If you are a child, you should have some fruit between breakfast and lunch and a small snack after school. If we all followed this advice alone, we could probably stop the obesity rate from growing. And then if we made sure those snacks for children were unprocessed and nutritious (these are snacks, remember, not treats), we could be fairly confident that our children would grow up strong and healthy. We could trust that these good habits started in childhood would serve them well into adulthood.

It sounds simple, but North American cultures have become snacking, grazing cultures without clearly defined mealtimes. In France, as Pamela Druckerman describes in her book French Children Don’t Throw Food, children eat three meals, plus an afternoon snack. They don’t even have the morning snack. French children know when it’s appropriate to eat cake (after some dinners and for celebrations) and they learn early to stick to the rules, which makes them less likely to be consumed by their desire for all those delicious pastries. Those slim and stylish French adults just don’t snack.

Here in Italy there is a morning and afternoon merenda for children. It was traditionally just bread with olive oil and some fruit, sometimes it was a piece of frittata made out of the leftovers from the night before mixed up with egg, or it might be leftover garlicky vegetables on a hunk of rustic bread. As an occasional treat children ate bread with butter and sugar or a piece of crostata, which is a jam tart.

Unfortunately, the food industry has been pushing packaged merendine at children and their parents for years now so that many of these healthy ideas have been lost. Children now eat industrial sweet cakes at snack time – usually with some sort of banner ensuring that there are some synthetic vitamins stirred into all the sugar and chemicals. And, both children and adults increasingly succumb to temptations at the coffee bar – coffee bars used to just sell coffee and also pastries in the morning but now they have racks of chocolate snacks and potato chips available at all hours. It’s more common now to see children who have just had a packaged cake for a snack then stop to pick up some potato chips and soft drinks on their way home from school. And this is how the childhood obesity rate grows to one in three among Italian children.

If we only give children a snack at their designated snack time, they will come to the table with an appetite when it’s time for dinner. This often helps to eliminate a lot of picky eating behaviour. It teaches children when it’s time to eat and helps them to stop thinking about snack foods and treats as things that are potentially available all the time.

It’s hard to say no to a hungry child at 5:00 when dinner won’t be ready until 7:00, but it only takes a few days before they learn to eat at mealtimes and to stop thinking that they can graze their way through the day. It works for the French (though the food industry is busily trying to break these good habits, and the childhood overweight and obesity rate, still low compared to other countries, has grown to one in five) and it used to work for the Italians. If we ignore the food industry and stick to the structure, it can work for the rest of us, too.

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It’s In the System

I’ve been reading some of the latest weight loss tips and diabetes prevention tactics from diet gurus and nutrition experts. It’s all based on recent studies, the most up to the minute research. It never fails to surprise me how much these great scientific revelations mirror the food knowledge already contained in traditional food cultures. Since I live in Italy, I’ll compare what I learned this week from science with what Italians have been doing for centuries.

The experts have found that starches and refined sugars enter our bloodstreams very quickly and cause our sugar levels to spike and our insulin levels to rise. All of this causes us to put on weight and puts us at risk for diabetes. A few years ago the experts were telling us not to eat starches and sugars. Now they’re telling us it’s how we consume starches and sugars that cause our problems. The advice they’re now giving is to have a small fatty snack maybe just 20 or 30 minutes before your meal because the fat triggers something in the pyloric valve that slows the rate of digestion and this slows the glucose absorption into the bloodstream. Then whatever you eat afterwards has to wait to make its way from your stomach on down through your intestines.

The Italians call this antipasto. In a restaurant while you are thinking about what to order for dinner, or even at home while waiting for dinner to cook, you and your fellow diners share a plate of salami, prosciutto, cheese, some olives, some beans in olive oil, etc. Just a little to whet the appetite. One of the diet experts actually suggested that you make “antipasto bags” as snack bags to eat in the car or when you’re on the go. While I’m glad he acknowledged the antipasto aspect, I think putting it in a bag sounds disgusting. Sit at a table and eat from a plate, for Heaven’s sake. We’re human beings not horses.

Many of the other suggestions were to eat some protein with the meal. Well, there is some protein in the antipasto, the pasta sauce in the first course sometimes contains a little bit of meat or legumes, and the second course is usually a small piece of meat or fish and lots of vegetables. Another suggestion is to include vinegar, though I’ve heard brined vegetables are good too, for slowing the conversion of starch into sugar in your bloodstream. Olives with the antipasto should do the trick or other brined, mixed vegetables that are commonly served in Italy.

A glass of wine, we are all relieved to know, causes the liver to produce less glucose while we eat. Italians have always had wine with a meal – traditionally, it was just a little wine sometimes with water added to it – and they don’t drink wine without food. I don’t imagine anyone before thought much about the glucose produced in the liver. They likely noticed that warm happy feeling that comes over you as you eat, take a sip and chat.

The Italian system of eating is about pleasure, it’s about prolonging our time over the table so that we can be with our friends and family longer, enjoying our food, talking, arguing, living. It’s not about fuelling ourselves to get on with the next task, the next chore, or raising the country’s GDP. The American model is all about intellectualizing food and digestive processes and creating a scientific mystique about food that makes us think we need expert advice and specially designed food products.

North Americans don’t need to eat an Italian, a French or a Mediterranean diet to be healthy. We don’t have to eat prosciutto and olives specifically. But, we need to build up local traditions and foods and create healthy structures that might share certain elements with the traditional food cultures. We need rules about when to eat (at meal time), where to eat (at a table), what to eat (real food, not food products) and why to eat (to enjoy life).

More than anything, we need to stop looking to scientific experts for help, and we really need to stop talking about our digestive processes while we’re eating.

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Truck Drivers and Vegetables

Rape ... white beets? turnips? They're good, whatever they are

The trucker drivers’ strike in Italy is revealing. The supermarkets in my Roman neighbourhood are struggling to keep their shelves full of processed foods and their produce aisles stocked with the many non-Italian fruits, vegetables and nuts that they normally sell. Of course, they also sell industrially-grown Italian produce too, but the strike has made it difficult to transport all that fresh food out of the south and into the centre of the country.

When I heard the report of food shortages, I thought I better not be late getting out to my local fresh produce market. The news reports said some vendors were closing their stalls because they had so little to sell. In the market where I shop, almost everyone was open but some didn’t have much to sell. It was the ones who rely on large industrial farms for their supply who were struggling the most. Those who sell their own produce grown nearby, however, seemed to be fine. There’s a married couple from Umbria who sell their own onions, potatoes and green vegetables, but they didn’t have the apples from the north or the oranges from the south that they usually stock.

Then there is Loredana and Domenico. My friend Marjorie Shaw (who runs her own travel business called Insider’s Italy) introduced me to them a few years ago. Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday they come to my neighbourhood market in Monteverde Vecchio and set up a small table. They only sell what they grow on their farm out toward the Fiumicino airport. They grow vegetables and, at this time of year, lemons. In summer they sell the most amazing melons I’ve ever tasted, though Domenico said they are in fact grown by his brother.

Loredana said they don’t use pesticides, herbicides or fertilizer (other than manure from nearby livestock farmers). Their produce tastes incredibly good, but that might be partly because Loredana always takes my arm and makes me listen to her instructions for cooking them. The rape pictured above was delicious peeled, boiled in a little salted water along with the green tops and then all mashed together with a little drizzle of olive oil. And the brocoletti I boiled for just a few minutes then drained and served with olive oil, lemon and a sparse sprinkling of coarse salt.

The best part is that Loredana says they pick what they’re going to sell early in the morning, load it right into their truck and then make the half hour drive to the city. I’m grateful, at a time like this, that they still do this. It takes a strike like this one to make you realize how even the fresh food markets have become so reliant on industrial agriculture.

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As I was saying …

I’ve spent the last few years researching and writing a book about the importance of growing up within a culture of food. When the society you live within collectively creates rituals and rules about consuming food, people tend to be healthier and tend to enjoy their food. Look at Italy, where I’ve been living for the past ten years, where generations of families have created delicious recipes, where there are rules about eating, where snacking is minimal.

Or, perhaps I should say was because all of this is changing rather rapidly as children in Italy – in countries all over the world, really – are eating more like American children. They’re eating sugar-loaded breakfast cereals in the morning and packaged cakes at snack time. They’re eating fast food hamburgers and hot dogs with french fries, frozen pasta and pizzas, and they’re washing it all down with soft drinks and sweetened juice. The obesity rate among children in Italy has reached one in three – just like American children.

Rather than look to their own traditions for answers, Italians are paying more attention to nutrition science and seeking out “healthy” products, as North Americans have been doing, hoping to tweak things here and there to find the balance. My bet is that this strategy will work about as well as it has for Canadians, Americans and the British – all of us with climbing obesity rates and food anxiety. Our prodigious and intricate knowledge of food health, as the food activist and writer Michael Pollan has written about so thoroughly, has left us worse off.

It breaks my heart to see the collective wisdom of generations – a system of knowledge that stretches far back into the past well beyond the people any of us can actually remember, a system that has incorporated food knowledge, health knowledge and pleasure – shoved aside in favour of the latest research from the food scientists and the latest scientifically formulated food products from the food industry.

In this space, I intend to continue to write about the importance of culture to health. I’ll continue to discuss the great things that food cultures have to offer, particularly to children, and also look at where, I think, they’re going wrong. I’ll talk about my own life and the challenges I face raising a young child here in Italy, and I’ll talk about the people I encounter along the way.

I’ll update often and I’ll include pictures. I hope readers will use the comments section to carry on the discussion. Check back tomorrow and we can talk about lunch …

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