I just finished reading the book French Kids Eat Everything , thanks to a recommendation from my friend Heather, and I can't stop talking about it. In fact, I think everyone who spends time with me must be so sick of hearing about it, and I don't blame them.
It was just the kind of book I needed to read, though. The author, a Canadian who married a Frenchman and has two young daughters, spent a year living in a village in northern France, where her kids (and, as it turned out, she herself), learned how to eat like French kids do. It wasn't easy because her kids were used to frequent snacking and were picky eaters, both big no-nos in France. According to her, French kids don't eat between meals (no snacking!) and learn to eat - and enjoy eating - what's in front of them. If you don't like what's served, the logic goes, you don't have to eat it, but you'll be plenty hungry for the next meal and will thus be less finicky about the food in front of you.
My kids aren't as bad as they used to be, but they really put me through the wringer with picky eating. I still maintain that it's not entirely my fault, despite the judgmental comments I endured from everyone around me during that long, awful phase. (It's also my fault they were terrible sleepers.)
After reading that book, though, I now believe that while I'm doing a lot of things right, there are a few things I could have done differently, and there are a few rules I'll be implementing now. Starting yesterday, actually. One big rule for the French, evidently, is NO SNACKS. See, snacks are an essential part of a kid's life in North America. Kids snack all the time! They get snacks at school, after school, at the park, sometimes even at night. They get snacks as rewards, as distraction when they're bored, to shut them up when they're whining, to tide them over until dinner is ready, to comfort in times of anxiety. Notice that none of these reasons have anything to do with actual hunger. Also, since snacks are often unhealthy processed foods, kids end up with bellies too full for regular meals, and the cycle continues.
No wonder we have an obesity problem.
Lord knows I have been guilty of this over and over again. When my kids were little, I was so anxious about how little they ate at meals, I made sure snacks were available other times of the day -healthy ones, mostly, but there were more graham crackers and goldfish consumed than I would have liked. Now that they are in school during the year, they barely have time to eat lunch and then come home starving in the afternoon. But also, I notice that when they have a big snack or two in the afternoon, they pick at dinner and whine they're hungry later. Duh.
It's the whole "follow the child" approach taken a little too far, where the kids have too much say about what they eat and when. Preparing food and cleaning up afterwards takes up so many waking hours, it feels in itself like a full-time job. And now, guess what? It's within my power to reign that in. So, while I can't convert us totally to the French way of eating (nor am I sure I want to), I am resolved to at least do better with the whole snack situation.
It feels almost silly to write that down in the first place. It feels like admitting I've had no control over their eating habits up to this point. And that makes me feel like I've failed somewhere, that somehow I allowed my kids to be picky. Maybe that's even true, to a point, but starting now, some things are going to change.
I don't think we can do away with snacks entirely. In fact, even French children are accustomed to a late afternoon gôuter (substantial snack that tides them over to the late dinner hour), so I want to model their afternoon snack after that. I just need to make sure it's something more nutritious than crackers or cereal. I also usually have something for my kids to eat mid-morning and while it might be best to do away with that eventually, I'm not sure how. We eat breakfast pretty early, and have lots going on before lunch, so even I need a little something to eat around 10:00; a handful of trail mix and a piece of fruit usually does the trick.
When it comes to the bigger picture, I really wish there was something to be done about the food served at school. The snacks they get in the classroom are almost always processed carbs out of a box - easy to serve and approved for those concerned about hygiene. The hot lunches aren't terrible, but they aren't good, either, and the kids certainly don't have enough time to eat unless they gobble everything down before heading out to recess. That this occurs on a daily basis 180 days out of the year sets children up for questionable eating habits down the road. Also, too often kids get treats like pizza or popsicles as rewards. I know for a fact I'm not the only parent who is concerned about these things, but I don't know how we can change these realities without changing our food culture and that would be a Sisyphean effort.
Still, indulge me for a moment and imagine what it would be like if kids in public schools had really, truly good food to eat and enough time to eat it. Imagine school lunches prepared fresh on site and served hot (not re-heated in a packaged disposable tray). Imagine kids having an entire half hour at lunchtime so they could eat without being rushed, and experience the tastes and textures of that food that has been so carefully prepared.
Do you think that maybe if kids had the opportunity for a truly satisfying food experience in the middle of a long school day that maybe we would see a ripple effect in behavior and academic performance? I'm not saying this is a silver bullet, but it would surely be a good start.
Karen Le Billon says in her book that the French believe good food is the most egalitarian experience of their culture. No matter your socioeconomic status or your family background, if you are French, you learn to eat well. I think we could benefit from some of that attitude here.