Finding balance with food, movement, and community for my (dairy-free) family.


Friday, July 6, 2012

French Kids Eat Everything: A Paradigm Shift for Parents of Picky Eaters

A Paradigm Shift for Parents of Picky Eaters

Karen Le Billon's recent 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,  offers so much more than the typical tips for dealing with a picky eater:  it offers a paradigm shift for creating a food  culture within the home that naturally overcomes picky eating in kids.

Available at
One of my favorite things about this book is that it is primarily written in memoir style, chronicling Le Billon's family's year in France.

The memoir-style allows the reader to experience the clash of cultures through the author's North American eyes, giving us time to digest the radically different paradigm embraced by the French when it comes to feeding children.  The memoir-style also makes for an entertaining and engaging story rather than a pedantic parenting book.

Typical American Picky Kids

At the outset, Le Billion paints a picture of herself as a fairly permissive, child-centered, attachment-type parent.  This philosophy has carried over into mealtime to the extent that each of her two daughters are picky eaters, eating a very limited and repetitive diet high in carbohydrates and processed foods.  (Hmmm . . . that might sound like someone I know . . .)

The French Kid Contrast

Upon moving to France to live near her husband's family for a year, she is confronted with the reality that French children eat a wildly diverse diet, enjoying all the foods that their adult counterparts do (including vegetables so varied most Americans have never heard of them and French stinky cheese in all its glory)--all without fuss or parental coercion and with apparent great enjoyment.

What She Discovered

Le Billon is skeptical that adjusting her meal-time parenting could produce the results she sees in French children, but immersed in their culture, she slowly comes to identify principles of eating that do in fact make it possible.  As an academic, she doesn't take anything at face value, but digs in to the research about childhood eating, and manages to weave casual references to this research into the book without disrupting the narrative. 

In the end, she arrives at 10 principles that underlie the French approach to food and unlock the secret to their cheerfully-vegetable-eating offspring.   


As I read, it became clear to me that the mealtime culture in my home has undoubtedly contributed to my kids' picky ways.  Here are some of the key contrasts I noticed:

French parents assume their kids will eat veggies,
while I just hoped mine would.
Photo by Alex E. Proimos

1.  French parents assume their kids will eat and enjoy a diverse diet of real, unprocessed foods, including vegetables and assume any resistance will be overcome with repeated exposure
.  I hoped my kids would love veggies and real food, but when they objected, I wasn't surprised.  I assumed it was normal for kids to be picky and to want to live on crackers and PBJ and, therefore, didn't feel comfortable pushing much.   Instead, I resigned myself to hoping they'd outgrow their picky ways someday . . .you know . . . in their 20s maybe . . . 

2.  French families make every meal an occasion.  Even in the school cafeteria there are table clothes, cloth napkins, and real dishes.  Meals are always eaten together and are a time of leisurely conversation and relationship building  At my house we're pushing aside crayons and Popsicle-stick creations, throwing forks down askew on the table, and wondering what the sticky stuff is on the chair on which I'm about to sit.
The French Make Every Meal an Occasion--We Don't.
 Photo by Channone

3.  French families eat slowly and savor their food.   Around here, by the time I've popped up and down a half dozen times to grab the last forgotten drink and suddenly-required extra napkin, the kids have woofed down their food in far less time than I spent preparing it  . . . or at least the elements they desire . . . while launching into whining about the parts they are rejecting.

4.  French kids eat the same foods as their parents.  We do well with this at dinner, but at breakfast and lunch I tend to cater to my kids' food fads and preferences, at times making 2-3 different hot breakfasts to accommodate all of our preferences, making myself insane.  

French kids eat at set meal times.
Photo by  stockerre
5.  French kids only eat at established meal times (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and an afternoon snack).  In an effort to honor my kids' hunger cues, I've found myself making lunch for one child at 11:00, for another at 12:00, for myself at 1:00, cleaning it all up just in time for the first child to want a snack . . . creating a crazy-making cycle that keeps me stuck in the kitchen doling out food to kids who sometimes don't even eat the food they've asked for--or, if they do--are no longer hungry for dinner.  

6.  French parents never use food to entertain, distract, reward, or bribe their kids.  We work hard not to bribe our kids with food, but I'm certainly guilty of using it as a distraction and occasional reward:

"Eat these pretzels while we shop."
"Munch on this banana while  you sit in the stroller."
"Please stop crying--would you like a cracker?"
"Yay! You went potty--have jelly bean."

Coming Soon:  My Family's French Food-Attitude Makeover

Following the journey of Le Billion's French-food-attitude makeover absolutely inspired me.  I made some immediate changes to the way I feed my family--with great results--and I have more changes planned.  As I work to implement more changes I do wonder:  how successful can this approach be for one isolated family in a culture awash with food dysfunction?

Le Billon's family's transformation happens embedded in a French culture where everyone from Grandparents to school teachers to the cashier at the grocery store are united around a set of eating principles.  Can these principles work in the absence of supportive surrounding culture?   Finding out is going to be a bit of an adventure.

Grab a copy of the book and join me as I experiment with my family to improve our family food culture.  


  1. This is such a lovely read! So true, and so important to learn to educate children on eating right! I'm not french, my mum's chinese but we learnt to eat all sorts fo food growign up and we love our veggies even fighting over it! Anyway, thought of a brilliant blog by a french mum that I've been reading, funny I'm not promoting my own blog instead but here you go:

  2. Thank you for recommending the frenchfoodiebaby blog. It looks interesting. It's sort of amazing how there seems to be some one blogging about everything imaginable!

    Your blog is lovely! I love your photos--and as an aside, I just recently rendered lard from my first happy pig. It's wonderful to have in the kitchen!

  3. Bethany, fantastic article! I've shared it around. I'm fortunate, I guess, to have accidentally done a lot of these with my kids, so right now they really DO eat a lot of variety in their food. They have also taught me that whenever possible I need to get them involved in selecting and preparing it and making occasions out of meals. OK, we don't do that as much as many families, but in our own way we try. :-)

    Interesting how Americans and the French have such different attitudes to food overall, which probably contributes a lot to how we introduce food to our children and use it in general.

  4. Thanks, Deb! It is fascinating to read about the French attitude toward meals. The relaxed time of savoring over food and connecting with each other sounds so idyllic--I really want to recreate that in my home.

    As a culture we value autonomy so much that it sets up to cater to individual food preferences, but at the expense of the shared experience--and often at the expense of nutrition.