Food is a Cultural Experience

I am picking up this series of posts on our Health Learning Packet, that I started on December 10th last year. I felt compelled to write about the holidays but now I will start back on this topic.

The definition of  “cultural” is” relating to the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a society.” In America some of our cultural traits which have influenced  our eating practices are:

  1. We prize efficiency–meaning “fast food”. 
  2. If nutrients are added–meaning if a highly processed food says “Organic” on the label, we feel we are eating healthy.
  3.  We want our food to be inexpensive.

France is the epicenter of a culture that reverences food and the benefits that cascade from it. The French way  with food is  slow eating, using a knife and a fork, and savoring deliciousness. They  honor their palates with the best food they can afford, cooking at home with the freshest ingredients, and  connecting with other people during the meal. (Eating alone is seen as subpar.  Food should be enjoyed with someone!)

It is a belief  that sees value in the intersection  of those four  crucial points relating to what the French eat everyday:

  1. Food preparation is important enough to spend time on.
  2. They spend money on the freshest, highest quality ingredients.
  3. All this effort is for the  family’s physical and mental health.
  4. Focusing on these elements invites family bonding time and very delicious food. Dialing in on the children’s day and well-being is the biggest benefit.

My first experience with this way of eating was when we  lived in the French part of  Belgium in the late nineties with 5 of our 6 children—our youngest son wasn’t born yet.  It was a huge change for me in many ways. I learned so much about food there and the reverence the French Belgians had for their food. 

My children went to a Belgium school and so we felt completely immersed from the beginning. For a meet-the-teacher night, we were asked to bring cheese that started with the first initial of our last name, to ensure variety. I was floored to see such  a beautiful  display of cheese and bread  for this usually ordinary night.   I had never experienced such deliciousness at an elementary school event from where we had moved from–Provo, Utah.  The school lunches were spectacular. There was no counting ketchup as the vegetable here. The children were encouraged to use forks and knives as well, as those were included with the meal so there could be careful cutting and smaller bites. I am pretty sure there are no knives in most American school cafeterias.

One thing I noticed was how thin everyone was.  I finally asked our French tutor, Madame Ducoe, with all of the amazing pastries sold at the French bakeries, the butter, cheese, creamy sauces and bread at every meal, how was everyone so thin? She told me that  her countrymen would eat a large meal and then be careful the next few days. She said fast food wasn’t part of most people’s diets because it was seen as an inferior choice. Quality was always preferred. Buying fresh food and vegetables  every few days was a regular habit, she said, and  added to the excellence of their meals. What I also learned later is sugar and other unhealthy ingredients weren’t  being added to their  food by food companies to the degree it happens in America.

I came from the land  of Twinkies (which have a shelf life of 25 days), Big Gulps (32 teaspoons of sugar, while a Super Big Gulp has a shocking 40 teaspoons)   and fast food. In Provo,  I typically went to Costco twice a month buying in bulk, and my Belgian neighbors were going two or three times a week for the freshest ingredients. As an American, I was  spending much  less time on my food, buying  frozen pizzas and large bags of chicken nuggets for my children, which were inexpensive and easy to make. I was looking for convenience and a cheap price.  In my time in Belgium, after spying an unrecognizable vegetable in everyone’s carts, I learned how to make leek soup. I enjoyed the creamy sauces and butter on artisan bread. I was surprised when coming back home for Christmas a friend said I had lost weight. Maybe it was the lack of fast food and more fruits and vegetables. That was my first experience with the French way of eating.

Years later I  read Bringing up Bebe` about an American woman bringing up her two children in France. She noticed that French children weren’t out of control in public places and restaurants and  the French children happily ate what was put in front of them.  She writes a whole chapter on how the French  introduce fruits and vegetables to their child’s palate. They talk about the size and the smell and the taste, and try them in many different ways. Their thought is if a certain vegetable doesn’t appeal at first, if it’s pureed or cooked maybe it would appeal more to their child. I didn’t realize this early conditioning was happening when we lived in Belgium. I wish I had known so I could have done this  with my own children.  

When you carefully educate a child’s taste  in this way from infancy to discern quality and deliciousness, they are trained to  eat what is put before them without a fuss.  There is no drama and children relish their meals. Eating is seen as a desirable adventure because French children are given a lot of attention for trying new tastes.  Snacking is seen as competing with meals so it is frowned on. With this method there isn’t constant eating and there is no pushing children to eat at dinner,  because they are hungry and they eat what is put before them.

Expanding my base of mental models I continued with another book  called French Children Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules. 

Karen Le Billon, the author, is an American married to a Frenchman. They moved from America to France with two young daughters.  She chronicles their transition from eating  the typical American diet  to the French way of eating. Her hardest switch was not letting her children eat all the time. She also says,

 “This book is a very personal story about our family. But it also addresses issues that affect all of our children. Because of poor eating habits, the current generation of North American children will suffer far more health problems—and perhaps have a shorter life expectancy —than their parents. We may be training our kids to eat themselves into an early grave.”

The French are mystified by the way we snack through the day instead of sitting down for meals and being together with other people to enjoy each other and the food.  Karen Le Billon says:

 “The adults’ job is to help children grow out of juvenile tastes and to help their taste’s mature. The French believe if you cater to limited food preferences the children get stuck developmentally.’

 “American kids, in contrast, get used to super-sized portions at an early age. They live in a culture of overeating, of food as fuel, of eating on the go, which creates a vicious cycle in which impulsive eating of calorie rich, but unsatisfying foods propels people into further eating in order to satisfy their cravings. Nutritionists warn that children’s “physiological basis for eating is becoming deregulated” in many countries.“

Next post: Karen Le Billon’s ten rules.

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