This is the second part of a two-part post entitled Trouble at the Table, in which I review and summarize  Karen Le Billon’s book French Kids Eat Everything. It was actually one of those reads that changed my life and my kid’s by default. I hope I do it justice.

Neither his food pickiness nor my astonishment over it seemed to diminish as my child grew from a three to a seven year-old.  “Do you know what a good cook your Mom is?” my husband kept asking him. This justified my dismay but did nothing for his food fears.

I have always been an adventurous eater. When I was a toddler, my Dad was cooking crepes from the recipe in The Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, the cookbook that united Julie with Julia. Somewhere there are pictures of me eating raw shellfish at five years-old. And no one told me I wasn’t supposed to like spinach until it was too late.

 As I continued to make my kid his chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I slowly admitted to myself that somehow I’d dropped the ball. My idealistic parenting expectations had been hijacked. I had given up the food bus driver’s seat to him and that needed to change.

When I stumbled on Karen Le Billon’s book, French Kids Eat Everything at the library that fateful day, I was ready to adopt whatever food rules or guidelines necessary to make my family’s food experience right again. I knew my son’s bad habits were born of my ignorance and his good habits would come from my education and confidence. I received more than I could ever have hoped for in positive guidance from this read.

Ms. Le Billon’s book is a memoir of her family’s move from Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada and the food journey she made with her two daughters’ and her husband while relocated to his hometown of Brittany, France. There she discovered she too was in need of a better plan.

The 10 French Food Rules she then devised are more like guidelines to help her and her family re-establish a better relationship with their food. And each of these “rules” holds an important and respectful key for a lifetime of healthy happy eating. Moreover Ms. Le Billon points out, “Healthy eating is about how, when, and why you eat as much as what you eat”.

Rule #’s 1, 2, 3, and 7 are for the parent to embrace. As parents, you are responsible for the food education of your children. You schedule their meals, there’s no snacking, and children eat what you eat without short order cooking for them. There are two very important lessons within these four rules.

The first concerns the goal of honoring your body and its nutritional needs. Compulsive eating, snacking, and food rewards are products of emotional eating. We disrespect our bodies and dissociate from them when we mindlessly stuff and snack.

The second point shows how the rules are helpful to the mental well-being of the family. Establishing our parental boundaries and creating routines for our children are concepts we’d give lip service to. But when it comes to food habits, I think American parents fall straight on their faces. Many parents are shortsighted reactionaries.

I am willing and able to admit that, if I had been a more confident and less anxious parent to my kid, it wouldn’t have gone so very awry. But my fears of being a lousy parent, coupled with the instinct to keep my child alive at all costs, made me a fear feeder. So these rules feel familiar, logical, and simultaneously scary to me. They were to the author as well. And she had to cope with her mother-in-law’s watchful eye too.

I always made sure I had snacks when traveling with my toddler. At any moment, I may have needed to assuage the savage hungry beast. Later, I’d ask him what he wanted to eat. I’d fill his belly to avoid conflict and then wonder why he was fussy at dinner. Mine, mine, and mine.

Yet by establishing boundaries and routines, everybody knows what to expect and when. Karen Le Billon points out that not only are the meals consistently set as breakfast, lunch, a pre-dinner snack, and a late dinner, but these meals contain more nutritionally satisfying items that are eaten slowly with the family when physically possible (rule #s 8 and 4). There is no negotiating, impulsiveness, or tantrums when the rules are known and followed because the child is confident their needs will be met in a timely and satisfying fashion. The feeling of confidence and entitlement to be in charge is a trickier act to pull of for an anxious new parent like I was.

As I read and said “Aha’ again and again, I began to comprehend the error of my ways. I endeavored to adopt a new way of thinking and planning meals for our family that supported healthy eating and my being in charge as the family food director. I liked   rule #6 very much. You don’t have to like it but you do have to taste it. It felt like a realistic baby step. As my kid’s food neophobia (fear of new food) had gotten the best of all of us, this rule allowed for the opportunity for us to praise him. And for him to build bravery. He still waivers a bit but it’s sooo much better.

Lastly, rule # 5 and #9 have to do with the nutritional value of the food and your body’s digestion: Offer a variety of vegetables over and over, eat food that is real and not processed, and eat more slowly. I thought I offered veggies and variety lots of the time but admittedly, as Karen confessed as well, there are times when I realize I haven’t planned well and fall back on the perennial carbohydrate-laden favorite.

I now have a habit of posting my upcoming meals on the fridge so I can see what my cooking choices are. We always eat together and make it special with candles and some sort of gratitude exert at the beginning. This feels respectful to both our family and all the people whose efforts have made the food on our table a reality.

At no time throughout Karen Le Billon’s charming memoir does she sound preachy. She weathers the cultural bruises and commendably applies the knowledge she gains step by step to her refrigerator, herself and her girls. I had great admiration for her courage to move and change. And for her diplomacy as she dealt with the judgments of  the community she would eventually move away from to return to Vancouver.

Simultaneously, I also learned about the country of France whose values of family, nutrition, and their farmers are practiced instead of talked to death. I have surmised that the American parenting model is in serious trouble as is the health of our children. There were many other fascinating facts like “high satiety” foods, appetite is what you feel like eating, and the French government that supports locavore-ism.  It was hard to choose to leave them out but they are future food for thought.

I highly suggest you check out Karen Le Billon’s book at the library as I did. Or just ask for a copy for Christmas. Here’s a sneak peak on Amazon. Additionally, if feeding and cooking for your children is something you are interested in, Hana at A Happy Adventure posted a nice list of child related cookbooks on her blog here. She was kind enough to offer me more titles if I wanted them. Maybe I’ll take her up on it someday as my second chance at parenting is due to arrive at the end of February, 2013.

Poisson purée anybody?

If you have any thoughts, please drop a word below in the comments. Or

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  1. You got me interested. I’m pretty bad about the snacking, I will admit. I’ll have to check out this book. The Europeans seem to know better, don’t they? Great review, Shalagh.

  2. My kid now insists. I always say, what you do for your husbands, sons, and bosses, they’ll expect. This one turned out the positive way. Thanks Lisa.

  3. Glad you found this book. The same information can also be found in Ellen Satter’s books, Child of Mine – Feeding with Love and Good Sense and How to Feed Children. These are all the rules we use at WIC to help our parents know how to feed their kids. I often say it’s not just people who qualify for WIC that could use our program. …and our program isn’t just about “free food”. WIC is about learning how to feed your child both healthy foods and in a healthy environment. One point I disagree with in Le Billon’s book… Snacking is not inherently bad (keep in mind that I define snacking as food eaten between meals – NOT “snack food”.) We want to teach our children to listen to their bodies – eat when your body tells you you’re hungry, stop when you’re full. If a child is genuinely hungry, a small bit of food to hold them over until mealtime is appropriate. So says your friendly Registered Dietitian. 🙂

    1. Thanks Nancy. And I also think we’ve taught our children that being hungry is scary and bad. I can personally tell you that at one point in my life, I was “on the dole”. This creates a scary feeling of lack of abundance for a child. My husband exhibits similar fears for not having enough food when he grew up. Like the stray cat who now finds himself able to gorge constantly, our fears can train us to comprehend our bodies incorrectly. Ergo, a set schedule every day as for meal times can take away the fear of not enough and make us tolerate our hunger for another 15 minutes until dinner time. There are underlying psychological factors that can go deep within families and societies that influence our behaviors. And unfortunately, defined by the majority, “snacks” aren’t usually nutritious. Thank you for being on the front line educating the public. It is very important work.

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