Nonfiction November and Weekend Cooking: French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon

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So the French seem to be the best at feeding their kids, according to all these books that talk about raising children in France, like Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman.
(Perhaps someone ought to write something about Asian kids eating everything though, cos plenty of us grew up being made to eat all kinds of things! Here’s one example from another nonfiction book I’m reading, L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food by Roy Choi, who notes that there was no such thing as baby food when growing up in Korea:

“They’d feed us straight from the pan, straight off the griddle, always straight out of their fingers: try this, taste this, eat that. Chap chae, vermicelli noodles layered with julienned vegetables, egg, and marinated beef as complex and fly high as a J Dilla track. Daikon soup, abalone porridge, blended mung bean, soybean, and tofu soup mixed with rice, spinach, anchovy broth, and noodles. I slurped raw kimchi from stained Rubbermaid gloves. I was hand-fed bits of savory pancakes filled with pureed mung beans and scallions, sometimes studded with oysters. Flavor after flavor.”

 

But yes, the French, the author of this living in France book, French Kids Eat Everything is Canadian, married to a Frenchman. They decide to move to her husband’s hometown in Brittany for a year. They’ve got two young daughters who go to school and daycare.  And they learn to adjust to life in France, especially the eating.

For instance, French kids do not snack. They eat a teatime snack, usually a simple one of bread, at 430 or so, probably because dinnertime tends to be late-ish, about 730 or 8. In contrast, her kids snack several times a day. They even have a “bedtime snack”! Le Billon seems to stress out about eating and food quite a bit, coming up with excuses to not cut out snacking.

 

“Not snacking will mean that Sophie won’t do as well in school. Snacking stabilizes blood sugar levels. She needs to snack, or else she won’t be able to concentrate.” I finished, ominously, with “You know what I’m like when I get low blood sugar. Cutting out snacks will just mean more family fights and more bad behavior.” “She’s doing fine so far this year,” Philippe retorted, “and she hasn’t been allowed to snack at school at all.” This was true. I was actually not so secretly proud of how well Sophie had learned French, adapted to the classroom, and risen to the challenge of an eight-hour school day at such a young age. But I had one more argument up my sleeve. “Moving to France has been really stressful for the girls. Snacks are reassuring for them. The girls need their bedtime snacks—it’s a routine that has stayed the same while so much around them has changed. And they like their morning snacks on the weekends; it’s something they look forward to. Let’s just go easy on them,” I pleaded.

These kids of hers, well, I’m not North American although I do live in the US, but I’m wondering how typical her kids’ (and her own) diets are to North American kids. One of her daughters eats only pasta with Parmesan. And as Parmesan isn’t all that common in France, Le Billon has to carry a wedge around when they eat out.

But as I thought about it, I remembered a friend who was originally from Malaysia, but whose son, I think he might be seven now, was born and brought up in the US (they now live back in Malaysia), and he was the kind of kid who only ate white foods, like mac and cheese, and bread, and chicken. So maybe it’s not just an “American” thing? My kids too aren’t the best of eaters. We had so many struggles with Wee Reader when he was at that terrible twos age (which really starts at 18 months). He’s pretty good at eating most foods now though. And now that Wee-er Reader is 18 months old, he’s starting to have his own issues with eating. Just today, he refused to eat more than a few bites of the pasta for lunch, had two spoonfuls of the carrot soup, then decided he had enough. And because I was sure he hadn’t had enough, I offered him a sesame cracker. He ate that up. Then I resorted to corn and peas. Which he ate up too. And then had milk. This was how I dealt with it! And I think the French would not have approved. From what Le Billon writes, it seems that they don’t offer alternatives, it is eat it or wait for the next meal.

It was fun to read about what kids in France eat at school and daycare. And not just what they eat but how they eat it. Each kid in the daycare sits down one on one with a staff member to eat, taking turns to do so. And they happily eat things like beet, which even I don’t really know what to do with.

And how food is determined by the French Ministry of Education:

“Vegetables had to be served at every meal: raw one day, cooked the next. Fried food could be served no more than once per week. Real fish had to be served at least once per week. Fruit was served for dessert every second meal, at a minimum; sugary desserts were allowed- but only once per week.”

And when snack food ads run on TV, a large banner runs across the screen carrying a health warning like “For your health, avoid snacking in between meals”!!!

Then when the family returns to Vancouver, to learn that elementary school kids there get just ten minutes to eat lunch. And that their daycare isn’t allowed to warm up food. What? Ok that is so wrong.

It made me grateful for my childhood in Singapore where school canteens are run like food courts, that is, there are several stalls selling different foods. In my primary school there was a drinks stall that also sold simple sandwiches and yes even ice lollies, a noodle stall, one that sold rice and dishes, then another that catered to those who wanted halal food. Think there might have been one more stall but I can’t remember what that was. Most days my mum packed me sandwiches but I did have that option of buying myself something instead.

I try to serve a variety of foods every day. For instance, this week i made a slow cooker pork ragu with pappardelle, then chicken rice with steamed chicken, roasted cauliflower and carrot soup. Another meal was Japanese rice with stirfried beef and broccoli, and roasted brussels sprouts. The kids mostly eat what we eat, except for Wee Reader’s preschool lunches where I usually pack finger foods, yes that includes things like chicken nuggets or begedel (a meat and potato cutlet) and a fruit or vegetable. Sometimes it’s leftovers like pasta or rice and meat and vegetables. But there are plenty of days where I shrug my shoulders and wish I didn’t have to cook, and serve up something like omelets or a hastily thrown together fried rice. Or serve once again the baked pasta. Or grab frozen dumplings and throw them in with some noodles. Then on weekends, I give up entirely and refuse to cook.

There were some ideas to take away from this book. Such as setting the table nicely, tablecloth and all, and making the meal feel special. And taking time during the meal, chatting about the food and each others’ day, and just relaxing and enjoying the company. I tend to try to hurry Wee Reader, who is a very slow eater, and get frustrated when he chews the same mouthful for the twentieth time. I will try my best to ease up on him and let him enjoy his food.

One thing that this book made me want to cook was soup. I had forgotten how easy it is to make soup and as it was getting to be soup weather, I made some carrot soup, inspired by this recipe from Smitten Kitchen.

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Simply sauté a diced shallot or onion, about four cloves of garlic and minced (or grated) ginger. Then add carrots. I used about one pound of carrots, roughly chopped. Sauté for about 15 minutes. Then some chicken stock. It’s the only stock I have, but vegetable stock would work well here. Then after the carrots have softened, blitz it with an immersion blender. I had to add a bit more water to thin it and then decided to add some milk and a dab of butter. Just before serving, I added a few spoons of miso. Then tasted and decided on a bit of pepper and olive oil.

Wee-er Reader loved the soup so much he refused to eat his rice and chicken and I had to sneak that into his soup…

How do you get your kids to try a new food? 

 

 

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Nonfiction November is an event hosted by Lost in BooksSophisticated DorkinessRegular Rumination, and Doing Dewey.

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Weekend Cooking at Beth Fish Reads is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, beer, wine, photographs

 

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12 thoughts on “Nonfiction November and Weekend Cooking: French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon

  1. I read Le Billon’s book a while back and was equally shocked by the short lunch break her children get. Twenty years ago, when I was in elementary school in Vancouver, we didn’t have European-style breaks but it was still much longer than 10 minutes! My European grandmother was very involved in raising my brother and I so we weren’t allowed to become picky eaters. If you didn’t like something, you didn’t eat. No carrying around a block of Parmesan! Just the idea of doing that embarrasses me.

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  2. My kids are growing up with the French cantine system and it certainly takes a lot of the pain out of ensuring they eat a balanced diet, not just the varied(published in advance) menus but the cantine supervisors who ensure they are eating correctly. My daughter is Type 1 diabetic and if she doesn’t eat enough carbohydrate her blood sugar will drop and cause problems, but the school were quickly onto that and those “alternative Mama’s” watch to ensure she eats sufficiently.

    When I was at school we had to take our own lunch to school, here in France that is never an option, either they eat in the supervised school cantine or they can come home for lunch (2 hours) if one of the parents is at home.

    One of my mature students (retired) told me this week that he used to work on an international project in England many years ago and the workers were from different countries. He said the French employees got together and complained to the management that they wanted a cantine, that they didn’t want to eat sandwiches from snack bars etc and so they set one up and the chefs were from Italy and India and he said once it got going, it wasn’t just the French who were enjoying getting away from their desk and having the sit down meal at lunchtime. It certainly is a tradition to eat a plated meal at lunchtime and never something on the run. Children carry the tradition into adulthood and beyond.

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  3. Ha ha my little one was such a slow eater she used to get her plate cleared away at parties before she’d finished! I have the total opposite problem and am always in such a rush.

    You are a really good cook, I don’t think you need to worry, your kids will just get into it when they are ready, all the background is there. I used to be skinny as a child and not eat, because school dinner was so revolting, and my mum was a terrible cook – hard rice and tough beef. Changed when I hit puberty though – and changed school.

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  4. I liked this book too. I’m American and was raised with the idea that if you don’t want what is offered for a meal then you are welcome to be hungry. My autistic stepdaughter gets violently angry if she doesn’t like the sound of what is being offered for dinner (and she doesn’t like anything) and this has caused some issues as you might imagine. I cook what I want and she is free either to eat it or to have some fruit. There will be no separate meals made for Her Highness as appears to be the case in the rest of her life.

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  5. When I read something like this: “And as Parmesan isn’t all that common in France, Le Billon has to carry a wedge around when they eat out,” I wonder what the parents are thinking. Isn’t it better to encourage your child to be adaptive and eat a wider variety of food? I wonder if this book would make me scream.

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    1. It might! It’s frustrating to read some of it, for me it was here initial reluctance to let her kids adapt to the French system. She attempts to get the principal to let her daughter bring snacks etc to school. That of course was meant with a quiet but forceful NON.

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  6. Picky eaters have always been around, I think, and I don’t know if parenting has much to do with it. We had three children, each with very different eating habits from a very young age. In those days, it was stressed not to make a big deal out of what kids ate or didn’t eat, but we always seemed to have to explain and talk about it whenever we ate with other people!

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