Ten Rules of French Food Education

Being a daughter of my Great Depression-era parents, I grew up learning not to waste food. Some people call it “The Clean Your Plate Club”. My husband had a similar experience with food with his family . It’s not a club you want to belong to, and I have apologized to my children for initially, in my mothering, to insist they eat everything that was on their plates. Through the years of raising my children, I have learned to honor their stomachs and not insist they eat everything put before them.

In my last post, I talked about the French cultural emphasis–meaning the whole country is in on it– on high quality food, table manners, no snacking, eating together for every meal and limiting treats. These are practices that the French carefully cultivate in their homes. Author Karen Le  Billion, who wrote French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters,  said the average French household spends one-quarter of its food budget on vegetables.  How would our tables and health  look different if we made this change? She outlines  ten things French parents do to educate their children about food. Here are the ten simple rules she learned when she lived in France:

1. Parents: You are in charge of your children’s food education.

2.  Food is not a pacifier, a distraction, a toy, a bribe, a reward, or a substitute for discipline.

3. Parents schedule meals and menus. Kids eat what adults eat: no substitutes and no short-order cooking.

4. Food is social. Eat family meals together at the table with no distractions.

5. Eat vegetables of all colors of the rainbow. Don’t eat the same main dish more than once a week.

6a. For Picky eaters: you don’t have to like it, but you do have to taste it.

6b. For fussy eaters: you don’t have to like it, but you do have to eat it. (Meaning, “special food will not be made for you. and only you.”)

7. Limit snacks, ideally one per day (two maximum and not within one hour of meals.)

8. Take your time, for both cooking and eating. Slow food is happy food.

9. Eat mostly real, homemade food, and save treats for special occasions. ( Hint: Anything processed is not real food.)

10. Eating is joyful, not stressful. Treat the food rules as habits or routines rather than strict regulations; it’s fine to relax them once in a while.

I loved reading the reviews of this book, how much readers were able to adopt these principles and change their family and their food practices for a better outcome. This doesn’t happen without a lot of mindfulness and hard work. This book takes us  through how initially, the author, because she is American,   thought children should eat what they want, when they want–very democratic. In her move to France she was in for a shock, a lot of stares and a whole mindset change because she was living in a place that made food–its presentation, its wonderfulness, and its importance to health—the center of its culture. This book is now my favorite gift to give new mothers because it shows how and why  to have peaceful, healthy meals together.

Here are some more insights from the book:

Page 93: “More than 90 percent of French kids eat their evening meal at home everyday, with all their family members. In contrast , only 40 percent of American adolescents and 55 percent of kids under 11 eat dinner with their families every day. One in three eat with their families less than three times a week.’

Page 144: “Another thing Celine said intrigued me. “Americans have no self-control! “she kept repeating. This again reflects French views: people should show self-restraint when it comes to eating. This means treats are rare, should only be eaten occasionally, and it should be savored. Moreover, it means food should only be eaten at mealtimes, and only at the table. In breaking all French food rules, Americans were guilty of demonstrating lack of self-control. For all of these reasons, the American approach to snacking seems both slightly bizarre and vaguely repellent to the French—particularly the constant sucking and slurping of drinks…”

page 145: “Philippe’s comment reminded me of my mother-in-law’s sayings: “The stomach is a muscle. And just like any other muscle it should be allowed to rest. This doesn’t happen without a lot of mindfulness and hard work.” 

The parenting principle coming out of the French way of eating is that we can’t control our children’s thoughts and behaviors but we have a huge amount of influence over their circumstances.  This peek into how the French modify the circumstances so their children will do what they want, is so instructive. The drama disappears over food–no punishment, no rewards, or  shame.  One requirement is to taste, not finish. Another is food only at  mealtimes and only at the table. The French invite their children into pleasure  and connection by  carefully educating their  palates  from infancy,  and making it a priority to connect and eat the majority of their meals together.  The reward for all of this mindful eating is a peaceful, enjoyable meal where children eat what the adults are eating.

I was at a neighborhood bbq last summer, and I noticed that one of the children, instead of piling her plate high with food, had ten or so little, different bites ready to eat on her plate–1 spoon of everything. I was struck by how she was willing to try everything, and taste it first before she would commit to more on her plate. I thought, “That’s the French way of eating–honoring the palate, not eating too much, but being adventuresome!” I am trying to do this with my own taste buds, only eating high-quality food and not too much of it. It’s hard in America to avoid processed food and eating all the time, because that’s what our cultural practices are, but we can try and influence our families for the better. It’s a whole new mindset on how to fuel our bodies with the best food and taking the time to enjoy it and each other!

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