Parents of picky eaters needn’t resign themselves to cooking different meals for each family member, or letting kids subsist on macaroni-n-cheese and cookies until they grow out of it.
French food rules — and French cooking — can help families spend less money and eat better, says Karen Le Billon, author of the new book, “French Kids Eat Everything.”
The subtitle is even more telling: How our family moved to France, cured picky eating, banned snacking, and discovered 10 simple rules for raising happy, healthy eaters. “Buying fewer highly processed foods, less snack food, and less junk food will save most families money,” she says. “French family cooking is simple, easy, fast, and inexpensive.”
Frugal Foodie chatted online with Le Billon, who’s currently in France, about how adopting French habits can cut food waste and improve kids’ nutrition.
An Early Education
Frugal Foodie: Moving to France sounds like a big adjustment to begin with. Were you surprised to encounter so many issues with food?
Le Billon: I was not at all a foodie when we moved to France — I didn’t own a single French cookbook! So I was surprised to find out how important food education is for children. The French believe that teaching your child to eat is as important as teaching them to read.
And this starts young — as soon as they begin eating solids. My two young daughters (a toddler and kindergarten-age) were very picky eaters and soon started being taught the “French Food Rules,” the common sense eating routines that French kids and adults follow.
Ditch the Snacking
Frugal Foodie: What are the biggest differences you’ve noticed in how French kids eat, versus North American kids?
Le Billon: One big difference is that French children don’t snack. They don’t think to ask for food at other times because it’s really not part of their culture. Mealtimes are scheduled: breakfast, lunch, after-school snack, and dinner. Other than that, kids don’t snack. There are no vending machines in schools for example — there’s a national ban. This is a schedule followed by everyone. Even adults don’t snack.
Frugal Foodie: If you could convince people to make just one change to benefit their kids’ eating habits, what would it be?
Le Billon: The “no snacking” rule is a good one to teach to your children, in order to help them avoid emotional eating (e.g. eating because they are bored, tired, need a distraction, etc.). It also helps ensure they get most of their food intake at mealtimes, when foods are likely to be healthier.
You Don’t Have to Like It, Only Taste It
Frugal Foodie: Which of the kids’ habits were hardest to change?
Le Billon: Trying new foods. My two daughters were very picky (think: the “beige food diet”). At first, it was hard to get them to try new things. But then I read about scientific research that studied taste preferences in children: it turns out children need to taste new foods between 7 and 12 times, on average, before they’ll accept them.
This is another French Food Rule: “You don’t have to like it, but you do have to taste it.” If my children don’t like a specific food, I just calmly say,“That’s OK. You just haven’t tasted it enough times yet. You’ll learn to like it soon.” This works! My older daughter recently learned to like cauliflower, for example.
Frugal Foodie: Which food habits were the easiest to break?
Le Billon: Eliminating our bedtime snack. I thought it would be incredibly difficult but after a couple of days, they didn’t even miss it!
Prioritize Family Meals
Frugal Foodie: It sounds like a lot of the French way comes from how parents think and act when it comes to food. How about your own habits — which were the hardest to shift?
Le Billon: I was a typical eat-on-the-go person. I work full-time, and we don’t have any help at home, so I do all of the groceries and cooking, which tended to be minimalist, to say the least. Learning about the French approach to food education convinced me of the benefits of slowing down, of eating at least one proper sit-down meal a day, and of prioritizing family meal times.
Frugal Foodie: How does eating together as a family help?
Le Billon: Nine out of 10 French families have a sit-down meal (at a table, with no distractions) every day. Why? Because they enjoy it. Food is fun! The French love food, and sharing a meal is one of the highlights of the day. Because of this approach, parents are at their most relaxed and kids get undivided attention– and so they want to be at the table.
Give Picky Eaters a Chance
Frugal Foodie: What, if anything, are North American parents already doing right that they can build on to revise kids’ habits?
Le Billon: Introducing them to lots of ethnic variety in cuisines. It’s a wonderful benefit of our multicultural society. The more different tastes and food cultures kids are exposed to, the better! My kids love sushi, for example — it’s our “fast food.”
Frugal Foodie: What kind of benefits can parents see for themselves, and their kids, by following the French way of thinking?
Le Billon: One benefit is that families can avoid creating picky eaters, or can help children get over picky eating if it does develop. This requires not only changing what we eat, but also how we eat — and how we talk about our children’s food habits.
For example, don’t label your child a picky eater. Rather, describe them as someone who is still learning to eat a wide variety of foods. This encourages them to think of themselves as a person who can and eventually will learn to eat well — with loving parental support. Avoiding “food fights” and force with picky eaters, another French parenting principle, is key here as well.
School Lunches — The French Foodie Way
Frugal Foodie: There seems to be a big difference in school lunch options here, and in France. What should parents take away from that? Is it better to pack lunches?
Le Billon: The French believe that learning doesn’t stop in the lunchroom and that schools are an important place for food education. In fact, children are offered ‘taste training’ lessons (complete with certificates) in school! The freshly prepared three- or four-course hot lunches served in French schools are designed to teach children about eating well.
Dishes like beet salad, roast endive, baked fish, all sorts of cheese, and much more appear regularly on these menus. And because vending machines and fast food are banned in all schools and children don’t bring packed lunches from home, French children eat a great variety of foods at lunch, which, for them, is the most important meal of the day.
Reforming school lunches should be a national priority here at home. It’s one of the reasons I wrote the book, and started my blog — to raise awareness about how well we could be feeding our children. Packed lunches are fine for families that can afford high-quality foods and for children that are given enough time to eat them properly, but we really need a collective effort to provide better school lunches for everyone.
French Foodie Habits for a Happier Family
Le Billon: Healthy eating habits are a happy byproduct of this way of life. If you’re all at the table together and you follow the “kids eat what adults eat” rule, then children will be exposed to lots of variety early on. They’ll come to see themselves as adventurous eaters. Teaching children about food happens best if everyone is enjoying the family meal. Ultimately, learning to eat the French way brought us closer together as a family.
Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.