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April 13, 2012, 10:22 AM

Why French Parents Are Superior (in One Way)


Consider this: Our children are three times more likely to be overweight than French children. In fact, we lead the world in producing overweight children, but the French have one of the lowest rates of overweight children in the developed world.

The causes of obesity are complex (lifestyle, physical activity, poverty, food insecurity, genetics and obesogenic chemicals all play a role). But what we eat is undoubtedly a factor. Because of poor eating habits, the current generation of American children will suffer far more health problems — and perhaps have a shorter life expectancy — than their parents. We may be teaching our kids to eat themselves into an early grave.

The reason lies in how we teach our kids to eat. I say this from personal experience: together with our two daughters we’ve divided our time between France and North America for the better part of two decades. Our daughters been in school and daycare — and I’ve taught in universities — in both places. So I’ve seen French children in action from cradle to college.

Now, despite this, I don’t parent like the French. In fact, I think they could learn from us about creativity, empathy and individual initiative — traits that are not fostered by traditional French parenting (or schooling). I think North American parenting at its best is, largely, better for kids. But there is one exception: food.

French parents teach their children to eat like we teach our kids to read: with love, patience and firm persistence they expose their children to a wide variety of tastes, flavors and textures that are the building blocks of a varied, healthy diet. Pediatrician-recommended first foods for French babies are leek soup, endive, spinach and beets. (Not bland rice cereal — have you ever tasted that stuff?) They teach their children that “good for you foods” taste good (broccoli – yum!), whereas we often do the opposite.

The result is a nation of healthy eaters: 6 million French children sit down every day to school lunches featuring dishes like cauliflower casserole, baked endive, beet salad and broccoli. Vending machines and fast food are banned, and flavored milk is not an option. To introduce kids to a wide variety of foods, no dish can be repeated more than once per month. Food for thought.

French children are also trained to think about how to eat. The French won’t ask a child, for example, “Are you full,” but rather “Are you still hungry” — a very different feeling. This is one example of French Food Rules (as I call them): codified common sense based in a rich food culture, backed up by a century of science.

Another example: French kids snack only once a day. France’s official food guide emphatically recommends no snacking, and TV snack food ads carry a banner (much like cigarettes) warning that snacking between meals is bad for your health. Snacking, the French feel, creates unregulated eating habits that are difficult to change later in life. Given that our increased calorie consumption over the past 20 years has come largely from snacking, they may have a point.

Just in case you were wondering, diets for French children are relatively rare; few of them need it. Nor are they deprived of treats: “food is fun” is the Golden Rule of French eating. 
Moderation, not deprivation — along with viewing food as a source of pleasure, a fun family adventure — is the core of French food culture. The French worry less about nutrients and calories, and instead concentrate on teaching their children to love food; c’est normal!, given that food is one of life’s great shared pleasures.

We saw the results in our own family during the year we lived in France. Our children went from being absurdly picky eaters (we counted goldfish crackers as a separate food group) to loving many vegetables, from beets and broccoli to creamed spinach. They, in turn, inspired me to change the way I ate. When we’re not living in France, we continue (and adapt) the French approach to eating. This doesn’t mean we need to eat French food; why would we, when we have so many diverse, wonderful cuisines (and even terroirs) here at home? Rather, we’ve learned some useful life lessons about how and why to eat.

So we don’t need to parent like the French. But we should be asking ourselves what we could learn from them about children and food. It’s a conversation worth having, because a lot is at stake.

Karen Le Billon is the author of “French Children Eat Everything.”


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