As a teacher (and hopefully future parent) and someone who is completely obsessed with food, I have a vested interest in two topics: children and food. Being around children in the school cafeteria, my own nephews, and the children of friends and acquaintances, I am continually amazed at the volume of “picky” eaters. Of course, not every child is picky, and many will eat a great variety. My youngest nephew, who is five, loves salad. When we went to a casual-dining restaurant with a kid’s menu last week, he told my sister he wanted broccoli. He chose a cheeseburger to go with his broccoli. He ate every bite of broccoli and barely touched his cheeseburger. He takes carrots every day in his lunch. His brother, age seven, wouldn’t touch carrots or broccoli with a ten-foot pole and thinks that a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with cheese balls is a balanced meal. These children share the same parents. Fascinating.
I recently read the book French Kids Eat Everything by Karen le Billon, a North American (from Canada) who decided that she wanted to move her family to France (her husband is French) as a social experiment. Her greatest surprise was the difference between her own two picky eaters and seemingly all of the children in France, who happily ate stinky cheeses, all sorts of vegetables, and fish, which her own children wouldn’t even consider putting in their mouths. She began a mission to turn her picky eaters into good eaters, and turned out to be quite successful…but not without struggles.
As le Billon’s experiment unfolded, she noticed many differences in the way that the French approach food overall. First, food is not viewed as something that is solely for nutrition. In our diet-obsessed culture, this is the notion that we have been encouraged to embrace, but, if we really viewed food as only nutritive, would every party and event revolve around it? So, even though this is not the way that we live, this is the way that we think. The French see food as something to be embraced, revered, cared for, talked about, and shared. They rarely eat on the run, standing up, alone, or in a car.
Given this notion that North Americans view (or try to view) food merely as fuel, the second difference is interesting. The French frown upon snacking. Children do eat one snack per day, known as the goûter, in the afternoon. Adults, however, do not usually eat a snack, choosing instead to focus on the three main meals. U.S. diet experts tend to disagree on whether the “grazing” method is beneficial or not, and I can’t say that I never snack-quite to the contrary-but I think that our snacking culture tends to send the wrong message to children. When I was a child, I don’t remember constant snacking but rather-like the French-having a snack after school (although not as formally as theirs-they sit at the table to eat). When le Billon recounted her parenting experiences living in North America, she was struck by the constant snacking. Snacks in the car. Snacks at the playground. Snacks between breakfast and lunch, between lunch and dinner. Snacks before bed. Snacks, snacks, snacks. Fish crackers are practically their own food group. One of the things that le Billon had difficulty with was the idea that her children would be hungry. She expressed this concern to her husband, who pointed out the difference between feeling hungry and being hungry. Being hungry denotes lack of access to adequate calories and nutrition on a regular, frequent basis. Feeling hungry means having eaten at some point in the recent past, having some hunger pangs, but knowing that a meal is coming at some point in the near(ish) future. I think we tend to eat so many snacks that we are beginning to have difficulty discriminating amongst feelings of fullness, satiation, and hunger. Aside from that, le Billon’s husband pointed out to her that French children usually eat so well at their regularly scheduled meal that they were rarely all that hungry between meals.
To the opposite end, a third difference is the growing sector of our culture that insists that children never be allowed to eat anything that’s “bad for you”. Le Billon touches on this, but Pamela Druckerman expounds on it in her book Bringing Up Bébé, in which she compares the differences between the French and North American approaches to child-rearing (I am seriously becoming obsessed with French parenting practices and child culture!). Druckerman recounts a Halloween party, arranged with some other “Anglophone (North American, British, Australian)” parents in Paris, where her daughter began gorging on candy. Druckerman had been so strict on her daughter’s sugar intake, the child had never even had a gummy bear. One taste and she was done for. Later, at a celebration at her twin sons’ nursery school, she was gently “redirected” after trying to discourage them from eating too many sweets; the teacher reminded her that it was a special occasion and they should be able to eat as they pleased. The assumption was that they eat well on a daily basis and generally avoid too much junk food, so some candy and cake would not be a big deal. French adults tend to view food in this way too…rather than viewing foods as “good” and “bad” as we do, they view foods (much like Cookie Monster does) as “rare”, “sometimes”, and “frequent” foods. Special occasions and weekends allow the opportunity to eat a little less, er, thoughtfully.
The fourth difference that I noted is perhaps the most striking: French parents do not fancy themselves short-order cooks. Children eat what the adults eat. But what happens if they don’t eat it? They just don’t eat it. Parents don’t make a big deal about it (do you have any idea how much power making a big deal about it gives both the food and the child? Trust me on this. Most behaviors don’t have power until we give them power. But I’ll get off my behavior analyst soap box…). Rather, they take the approach of “you don’t have to like it, you just have to try it” and if they don’t like it, they just move on. No substitutes are given. The food will be presented again at a later date. Studies show that food presented repeatedly will eventually be accepted, so this is actually a pretty scientific approach. I realize that on the surface, this seems a little bit cruel….what if they don’t get enough to eat? However, if you are introducing a new or non-preferred food that you are concerned about your child not eating, I could say the best approach would probably be to serve it alongside other foods that your child will eat. Don’t like the broccoli? Oh well. Eat your chicken and potatoes. No, I will not make you mac and cheese to replace the broccoli. I think perhaps we give up to easily here in the States. My friend Tiffany also pointed out that sometimes when you cook something in a different way or present it differently the child may see it in a different light (her son hated broccoli until she served it to him roasted), and involving your children in cooking and/or menu selection can also be an enlightening experience.
The fifth and last difference I’m going to point out (there are many more, but I’m not rewriting her book here) is school food. It’s a hotly debated issue in the U.S., with one side arguing that school food should be more nutritious and the other side arguing that it costs to much to provide that type of food. By the way, I am on Side A; I understand that we must be cost-effective, but nutrition plays such a key role in the ability to concentrate and learn that it seems like serving food that is not nutrient-dense in order to cut costs is throwing the baby out with the bath water. In France, children are not allowed to bring their lunches from home….but it’s difficult to discern why they would want to anyway. A four-course meal worthy of a fancy bistro menu is served daily. Salad, entrée, cheese course (I am not kidding!), and dessert, with water to drink. Always water. These meals are provided at a relatively low cost, with the government subsidizing based on income (just as the U.S. government does). Le Billon provides French school lunch menus on her website if you would like to read more. So, instead of pandering to the fast food culture, the French school lunch system further expounds on the importance of good, slow food (although in France children have at least 30 minutes to eat-unheard of in the U.S.-followed immediately by recess. So their educational culture factors in as well….). Some school systems in the U.S. have made health-wise changes without sacrificing cost-effectiveness, so it can be done…but much thought and care must be exercised.
Look, I realize it’s not easy coercing picky eaters to try new things, especially given the pervasive food culture and attitudes all around us. It’s hard to change our children’s habits when we haven’t changed our own, and it’s so difficult to change habits we’ve had for our entire lives. However, I am immersed every day in child culture. I also know a lot of scientific “stuff” about how behaviors are shaped and changed, and of course I know a lot about U.S. food culture-I’ve lived here for 33 years, after all, and I’ve been a deeply engrossed student of our food system for the past five or so of those years. I also know that some children are more difficult to shape than others, especially food-wise (remember, I work with children with disabilities, and I have worked with many children who wouldn’t have tried certain foods under any circumstances), and I have no idea how to explain the contrast between my own nephews that I mentioned in the first paragraph. I just wonder how things might change if we took a different approach to food and how we “market it” (in our own homes) and offer it to our children. Someday I’d love to do a research study using behavioral principles to apply these ideas to children with and without disabilities. Right now, though….food for thought.