Serious Reads: French Kids Eat Everything, by Karen Le Billon

Serious Reads

Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

While I have zero first-hand experience, I am well-versed enough in child rearing to know that doling out advice to fellow parents is a tricky matter—and that telling another parent that they are doing something wrong or unhealthy for their child is even touchier. Food is one of the most oft-discussed and least-resolved issues of raising kids. When to introduce solid foods? Vegetables? What to pack for lunch? There are so many questions and they are loaded with cultural and social implications. It is just this tricky terrain that Karen Le Billon attempts to navigate in her new book, 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. (Phew!)

The book chronicles Le Billon's family's move from Vancouver to her husband's hometown, a small village in rural France. While many things about the move proved arduous—lack of steady work, an unfamiliar language, few close friends—the food culture shocked Le Billon the most. Her two young daughters, aged seven and three when they moved, were picky, fussy eaters, and Le Billon largely catered to their desires rather than fight with them over eating their peas. But she would soon learn that French culture has little patience for an unhappy eater.

As her husband's family reminded her often, French children are fed at very specific mealtimes throughout the day: breakfast, lunch, one snack, and dinner. Each meal is meant to be satisfying enough to prevent snacking before the next, and should include a variety of vegetables and fruits. Processed or fast food is frowned upon. And heaven forbid a child complain about or refuse food that has been prepared lovingly for them. These cultural mandates were unsettling for Le Billon, who was accustomed to granting her children the freedom to choose their meals and snacks.

But after months of resistance, she began to see some sense in these rules. French children ate a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, meats, starches, and sweets—including many items her daughters would never touch. They also seemed healthier and happier than many American children—childhood obesity is a faint problem in France compared to in North America. So she began conducting month-long trials in changing her family's eating habits to accommodate a healthier, more French lifestyle.

This process was far from easy. Le Billon saves herself from the high horse by confiding tales of terrible tantrums, moments when she nearly gave up, and real struggle with the cultural divide she was attempting to cross. But at the end of the year, her children really were eating more like well-behaved, uncomplaining French children. Motivated by her success, Le Billon condensed the lessons she learned into 10 key "food rules," including: "avoid emotional eating," "no snacking," "kids what adults eat," and "you don't have to like it, but you do have to taste it."

Some of the claims in this book seem like questionable generalizations, like the many characteristics ascribed to all French children, or the lumped-together (and poor) food culture of all of North America. But Le Billon's notes indicate that she truly did her research, grounding her own analysis in a larger academic conversation on culture. I will admit that it was hard for me to read this book neutrally. Even as an eater who is uncommonly aware of the importance of eating locally, seasonally, and healthily, I still felt resistance to the way the "North American" diet was criticized throughout the book. It's amazing how powerful cultural heritage can be. But that is exactly Le Billon's point: cultural heritage is an incredible force in shaping our food habits. She does us the favor of harnessing the habits of the French, and reducing them to just a few quick and dirty tips. If you're looking for a dietary overhaul for your family, this book will get you well on your way to better eating.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work has also been featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.