When my children were younger, I posted on social media that I was reading “French Kids Eat Everything” by Karen Le Billon. I immediately received desperate messages from moms begging to share any tips I learned from it. My kids were actually pretty good eaters, but I had let us settle into some naughty habits and thought this book would inspire me to do better. Plus, I am always eager to learn new perspectives that can totally shift our thinking when it comes to parenting. My particular parenting cross to bear was having bad sleepers, but I feel for parents of bad eaters, because it’s something you have to confront 3 times a day, and does not necessarily get better with age.
Karen Le Billon was raised in an American farming family that treated food in a vastly different way from her French husband’s family. The couple were living in Canada with their 2 young daughters when Karen, captivated by the idea of simple European country life, convinced her husband to move back to his hometown of Pleneuf Val Andre, a small village on the northwest coast of Brittany. While Karen had thought it was normal for children to be picky eaters, her year in France forced her to rethink this, and she embarked on the journey of turning her fusspots into French kids who eat everything.
Allow me to give you my editorialized explanation of French parenting, based not only on this book but also “Bringing up Bebe”, which I found to be a more entertaining read than FKEE, probably because it dealt with parenting as a whole rather than one facet (though food habits are a major discussion in the book as well):
French people are the coolest. They want to have their babies, but they want to continue being cool adults who wear chic clothes and high heels and luxuriate over 3 hour dinners with a steady flow of wine and intellectual conversation. When they take their kids to the park, they sit back and drink coffee while the kids play instead of playing with them and narrating everything they’re doing (“You’re on the slide! You’re jumping so high! You’re having so much fun with exploring body movement while soaking in Vitamin D and getting exposure to a healthy amount of bacteria and allergens!”)
They can take this attitude too far, like in their preference for formula feeding over breastfeeding, because they think it’s silly for women to be so tethered to their babies, and that boobs’ primary function is to retain their aesthetic value! But what I admire most is how they don’t view children’s eating habits as needing to be any different from adults’. The author came up with 10 rules that summarise this food philosophy, and I’m going to discuss three of them in the context of what we do here in India.
Rule: You are in charge of your children’s food education.
She elaborates by saying that an authoritative approach is best, rather than authoritarian or the other extreme, indulgent. But what I want to focus on is what she lists as the goals of this approach: they are to teach your children healthy eating habits, such as learning to prefer healthy food choices, eating the right portion sizes, and being responsive to their own hunger cues.
This is where the Indian approach differs, because whether firm or indulgent, the end goal for many seems to be entirely quantity-focused: there is a certain amount that the kid needs to eat for the parent to be happy, and they’ll wheedle and cajole and entertain until enough spoonfuls have gone in to satisfy that quota. Everyone in the household from the maid to the great-grandparent will treat “He’s hardly eaten anything!” as the worst possible scenario, without ever articulating why that’s actually such a bad thing. Yes, a child taking in a fraction of a healthy calorie intake for days in a row would be dangerous. But does that actually happen? Do kids let themselves starve? No, they don’t, but we focus on filling up that stomach way more than encouraging healthy habits or any type of self-regulation.
It’s so tempting to use the extra pairs of hands available to spoon-feed children who are very capable of feeding themselves, so that we can enjoy the good mood and deep sleep that come with a full stomach. But ultimately, depriving them of the agency to decide how much they want to eat and at what pace is going to make it difficult for them to follow intuitive eating in the long run.
Rule: Kids eat what adults eat — no substitutes and no short-order cooking.
This is a tough rule to enforce in Indian households. The cornerstone of Indian cooking is variety, plus having help in the kitchen tends to weaken the reasoning for limiting the menu. How many of you were in the middle of an earnest attempt to feed your kid a balanced dish, when the cook, or grandma, or the grandmotherly cook sees that it’s not going down easily, and immediately offers to pour a dosa, making your kid’s ears perk up and mouth clamp shut at the prospect of something more palatable?
On the other hand, one of my friends believes that each member of the family is entitled to eat whatever he wants, and if that means the cook is making 4 different entrees, so what? That’s what she hired him for, and it’s better than the kids satisfying their cravings by ordering in.
It also might be asking a lot for little kids to eat what adults eat when you consider the boldness of Indian food: spicy, strong masalas, the risk of biting into a chili or a cardamom. Then again, French toddlers consume beetroot puree and snails! So maybe I should stop letting it slide when my 5 year old studiously picks every curry leaf out of his plate…either way, it’s a slippery slope between enjoying the variety available and having a kid spoiled by the option to order whatever he wants out of the home kitchen.
Rule: Food is social. Eat family meals together at the table, with no distractions.
This is one thing Indians are great at! My favourite memories of visiting here as a child were of how a simple weekday lunch seemed like a mini party with different generations gathered around the table. The kids who most benefit from this rule are the ones who live with grandparents or in joint families. Observing how my grandfather sat at the head of the table with his special thali plate imbued mealtimes with a sense of ritual and decorum—the French achieve the same by dressing the table with a white tablecloth no matter how casual the gathering. And while we millennials think we know all with our kale smoothies and intermittent fasting, our elders’ food habits are the true example to follow, a hodgepodge of traditions/country cures/Ayurvedic principles that keeps them hale, hearty, and alive long enough to judge our errant ways. So what better food education for a child than to watch how their grandparents eat?
Overall, I urge parents of young children to look at the big picture instead of zoning in on one particular meal. If you’re worried that she hasn’t eaten enough at lunch, think about the whole day, week, and month–has she otherwise been eating fine? If so, then eating less at one meal is nothing to worry about. And demonstrating anxiety over how much she has eaten will only lead her to associate mealtime with anxiety, which is definitely not what you want. If you need further convincing, pick up a copy of “French Kids Eat Everything”, and see what lessons resonate with you.