Monday, April 08, 2013

book talk: french kids eat everything by Karen Le Billon

When I bought Karen Le Billon's book recently, my first thought was "how could she fill 235 pages on curing picky eaters?!"

I enjoyed every page. So much I actually slowed my reading towards the end because I didn't want the book to finish.

Aside from the tips and rules for encouraging children to eat well, it was Karen's humorous anecdotes of what it was like to be a North American living in France with a young family that had me hanging on her every word.

Karen convinced her French husband, Philippe, that it would be a good idea to move their young family from their Canadian home to live for one year in the small village in northern France where Philippe grew up. Her idea was met with resistance from Philippe and her in-laws who impressed upon her that living in France was not like holidaying in France.

Undeterred, Karen was thrilled when the time came to pack up with Sophie age four and Claire a toddler and immerse themselves in the French way of life.

One of my favorite moments in the book is when they arrive in France and attend an information afternoon at the early learning centre that Claire would attend. Karen describes in detail the trays of amuse-bouches "(a term used for cocktail nibbles that literally means "entertain the mouth")", she dived in and as she was enjoying each bite looked around to see the French parents watching her quizzically. The impeccably prepared food, featuring a selection of vegetable purees atop delicate puff pastry, was in fact...for the children. This was to be the first of many cultural learning curves Karen was to slide down.

I admired Karen's resolve to take every opportunity to embrace the French way of life even when her daughters were upset and it would have been momentarily easier to give in and hand them a North American style snack.

The book contains 10 rules for raising happy, healthy eaters but Karen also takes us into her interior world when she has many times throughout the year that she wishes she was back in Canada. The focus of the book is on children and food but it is also Karen's story of being a mother and wife and trying to find her way in France with her in-laws and socially.

Aside from the 10 rules, there were two considerations that stood out to me in the book. In France, the approach to food centres around appetite and pleasure, they go together. Without appetite, there is no pleasure in eating and one of the biggest appetite suppressants is snacking. As Karen learned, French mothers do not carry around snack packs for their children because the French don't snack and their children are taught that from a young age "it is ok to be hungry between meals". The only exception to this is the gouter which roughly translates as "snack" and is served to children in the afternoon at around 4.30pm. This may sound like a rigid approach but in reality what happens is that because there is no snacking children have great appetite for their meals and eat well at meal times.

Pleasure is a major consideration in the French approach to eating. The pleasure of thinking up the menu, of shopping at the market, selecting the produce, preparing the food, the pleasure of sitting together to share food and conversation and finally the pleasure of actually eating. As Karen learned, this sits in stark contrast to the associations of guilt and stress that accompany food for many North Americans (and may I add many others eating outside European traditions). Karen shows us that because the French diet is varied and balanced and sweet indulgences are kept in perspective there is no need to feel guilty about enjoying chocolate mousse or lemon tart on occasion. And the stress that Karen had felt about meal preparation when she lived in Canada soon melted when she changed her attitude and decided to focus on enjoying each aspect of menu planning, cooking and eating with her family.

These are the 10 rules that Karen wrote out and stuck to their fridge in France:

1. Parents you are in charge of food education
2. Avoid emotional eating - no food rewards or bribes
3. Parents schedule meals and menus. Kids eat what adults eat. No short order cooking
4. Eat family meals together. No distractions (television, computers, mobile phones)
5. Eat your veggies. Key: think variety
6. You don't have to LIKE it but you do have to TASTE it. Say this at every meal
7. No snacking. It's ok to feel hungry between meals
8. Slow food is happy food, as in - eat slow
9. Eat mostly real food. treats and special occasions ok
10. Remember eating is joyful - relax

At the end of the book you will find a selection of family friendly French inspired recipes to start your family on the way to ending fussiness and embracing the pleasure of eating real food including vegetables!

When I have chatted to friends about this book a couple of them (who haven't read it) have had the same response, "Oh the French they think they are so superior and it is all well and fine to have French rules in France but I doubt they will work outside of France." That my friends, is where you are wrong. There is much to be learned from this book and Karen writes about how she adapts what she has learnt in France when they return home to Vancouver where short lunch breaks, snacking and fast food dominate.

To read more about Karen and her book go to her website.  Bon appetit!


  1. Thanks Nikki. I have always done number 6 (always try) and more often than not, it has surprised my eldest and he's carried on eating. I'm proud that I am wise enough to appreciate and embrace most of the points on here actually, but there's one that's glaring at me: it's OK to be hungry. Somehow, I seem to have adopted the view that it isn't. Some time after breakfast, they might have a little dried fruit and I very rarely go out without some rice crackers and a pot of chickpeas. It doesn't make any difference to how Luca eats; he eats at every meal. But Kian is another story. Trouble is, I keep reading that children need to graze (didn't Jude Blereau say something like this recently?) and that it's unreasonable for us to expect little tummies to be happy with three meals a day. Still, the advice above makes sense too. I wonder if it has to do with different children and different appetites/make-ups. I have two very different children when it comes to food, and yet my approach didn't change when Kian came along. Something to ponder... What do you say Nikki? x

    1. Thanks for your interesting comment Vanessa. My two boys are like yours in their different appetites, Sol prefers to eat breakfast mid morning rather than first thing. The snack I have become more strict with is the afternoon snack otherwise without doubt dinner appetite is spoiled. River went to a Steiner kinder and the approach we were taught there was to offer breakfast, lunch, dinner plus morning and afternoon tea and to stick to these eating times. The thinking behind this approach was similar to the French rules in that it is actually important for children to complete digestion between meals, I think the problem with snacking comes when it is continuous, on demand and not about real hunger. In my memory bank I think Jude Blereau is not actually a big fan of the snacking/grazing approach for the reason above...we'll have to ask her! I think you can't really go wrong with B L D morning and afternoon tea, eating 5 times a day sounds plenty to me. Thoughts? x

  2. The French seem to get a lot of things right when it comes to food. Their dishes includes wholesome ingredients like butter, cream and stock, some of which can be lavishly decadent. The impression I have is they eat smaller portions but are deeply satisfied because they don't deprive themselves of anything. I must track this book down - it sounds like a great read. Fortunately I have kids that will pretty much eat anything...but I have a VERY fussy nephew and my sister is nearly pulling her hair out.
    Au revoir xx

    1. Great to hear Michelle that your children are happy eaters, I feel sorry for your sister though. do you think there are any key differences in how you and your sister have approached feeding your children? I am always interested in why some children are happy eaters and others are fussy. Do track the book down it is worth a read. Thanks for your comment x

  3. I think this book sounds amazing & like they've got it all worked out! Thanks for the informative review, this is definitely one for my "books to read" list!

  4. Great Shell I am glad you like the sound of this book. Let me know what you think once you track down a copy. Thanks for stopping by x


Thanks for your comments. I read every one!

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