Before we had children, I was inspired by the success other good cooks had met with instilling good eating habits in their children. I read of four year olds enjoying salmon sashimi with their foodie parents out at restaurants, a result allegedly produced with little effort other than creating a home in which good food was ubiquitous and valued. I couldn’t wait for my own turn.

But it wasn’t as easy as I’d been led to believe, and things didn’t go well. Although our eldest son Peter spent time with Daddy at the stove while still in his Bjorn baby carrier and has always loved helping in the kitchen, this interest in cooking has never translated into an interest in eating the way we assumed it would. Instead, Peter, now five years old, insists on plain pasta, won’t touch a “sauce” of any kind, and loves buttered toast (but only with the butter soaked in) and boxed mac and cheese (put a knife in me now, please). Our two year old, James, has always been a little bit better, but as he’s gotten older he’s taken to following his brother’s bad example more and more.  We’ve always found this situation discouraging, but we’ve never had the energy or wisdom to fight such a seemingly insurmountable battle. We’d become resolved to tolerating mediocrity and conventionality in our children’s eating habits.

And so, when I happened upon Karen Le Billon’s French Kids Eat Everything last week, I was intrigued. Le Billon’s scholarly works include works on global water politics, but French Kids Eat Everything is a deeply personal work detailing her family’s struggles with their childrens’ diet and how a year-long sabbatical in France helped push them to make changes in how the family was eating. It was comforting to read about how similar her family’s struggle was to our own, from plain pasta and buttered toast to her kids’ predilection for goldfish crackers and other processed snack foods.  In fact, one of the themes of the book – thatAmerican kids tend to consume more calories snacking than eating meals – was an indictment of our own bad habits.

The elusive goal

But a year in France slowly – and painfully, at times – changed everything. At first stupefied by French children’s eating habits – eating all types of food from the youngest ages, sitting patiently at table without complaints, thriving on three solid meals a day without constant snacking – Le Billon slowly was brought to the conclusion that her assumptions about children’s eating habits were deeply wrong and that the French model was both healthier and possible for any child. This required a deep reorientation for her family: from a child-centric to an adult-centric focus for their family’s eating and from a “dining as chore” to a “dining as pleasure” mindset. After a fair bit of humiliation and distress, Le Billon realized that training children to eat well was in fact possible for every family, but that few American families (and notably her own) simply didn’t place the energy and resources into that training that were truly needed, as all French families did. After months of frustration and despair, the Le Billon family slowly began to make progress and eventually obtained a revolution in their family’s eating habits and understanding of food.

Of course, French culture isn’t perfect, and Le Billon doesn’t sugarcoat the negative aspects of her time in France. While schools in France take teaching students to eat well very seriously, they also leave little room for diversity and individuality. Nonconformists are shunned, and Le Billon never feels truly at home, despite her French husband’s roots in the village where they live. In the end, Le Billon craves the comfort of greater freedom back home in America than the healthier but more rigid way of life in France.

Reading French Children Eat Everything has been just the motivation we need to tackle our own children’s eating habits. We’ve got some great tools and ideas and can’t wait to get to work. In the end, we hope to reach the lofty goal of raising boys who have been given the gift of loving food and enjoying all types of food. It’s hard to think of a gift more important to pass on than that. – Justin

Peter stirring risotto with zucchini.