Podcast: Karen LeBillon on French Kids and Food

Last week I shared a French school lunch menu that I got from Karen LeBillon, author of French Kids Eat Everything. It featured beef tongue for preschoolers. If your kids are anything like mine (as in, they prefer an all cracker diet), you find it kind of hard to believe that four-year-olds are happily eating beef tongue. But Karen insists they really, really are. So how do the French pull this off? I admit, I was at least a little bit intrigued.

Strocel.com Podcast Karen Le Billon French Kids Eat EverythingKaren is a Canadian, and when she moved to France with her two children and her French husband, she was also the parent of two very picky eaters. Like many North American parents, she was doing all she could to keep the makers of Goldfish crackers – or Cheddar Bunnies, for the hippies in the room – in business. But then she witnessed French children happily eating salad and seafood, and she wondered why they happily came to the table and stayed seated, while she had always experienced dinner as a battleground. She put her researching skills to work, and uncovered some French food rules. Her book is part personal memoir and part how-to manual, and the food rules figure prominently.

Before I spoke with Karen, I was more than a little skeptical that five-year-olds would happily eat fish and beets and the like. I also had my doubts about what kind of parenting styles spawned these children. Were they holding their kids down and force-feeding them spinach? After speaking with Karen, though, I’m sold.

Strocel.com Podcast Karen Le Billon French Kids Eat EverythingBased on what Karen has to say, the French are actually not force-feeding their children. In fact, they eat slowly, avoid snacking and pause often to consider whether they’re full. One of the rules that Karen lists in her book is that you don’t have to like a food, but you have to try it. If a child doesn’t enjoy something, their parents simply say, “That’s okay, you just haven’t learned to enjoy it yet.” They view teaching their children about food as a process, and mealtime is relaxed and lighthearted, so everyone is enjoying themselves.

Looking back at my own experiences with kids and food, and I can see that in many ways I’ve sold my children short. I’ve expected them to dislike anything spicy or with a strong flavour, and so I have tended not to offer it to them. There are things I’ve never bought or prepared for my kids, simply because I suspect they wouldn’t like it. Maybe they wouldn’t – but it seems like it would be more fair to actually let them try, than to just not offer it and then label them as picky eaters. I’ve certainly had experiences where my kids enjoyed something and it surprised me, and I’m sure there are many foods they would like that I’ve discounted out-of-hand.

During our interview, Karen shared some French food rules. She also talked at length about school lunches, and how the French approach differs from the North American approach. If you want some simple ideas you can use to expand your own kids’ culinary repertoire, you want to hear how the French approach school lunch as an exercise in culinary education, or you’re curious about how to make mealtime more fun for everyone, you’ll want to listen to what Karen had to say:

Next week on the podcast I’ll be sharing an interview with Dionna Ford of Code Name: Mama. She’ll be talking about her new mother’s journal For my Children, the Natural Parents Network, and how she informs and advocates without alienating. It’s a good one. Subscribe to the Strocel.com podcast in iTunes, and you won’t miss a minute!

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  1. I usually try to be open-minded, especially with things that you endorse, but this time I’m not buying it – in an almost gleeful, I-refuse-to-hear-any-further-arguments-about-it kind of way. Sure, my kids eat some stuff that is spicy or strong (they love anything curried), and some stuff they keep trying and still don’t like. I don’t agree with avoiding snacking either – both my kids are grazers, especially Angus, who usually plays some kind of sport at both recesses at school and plays baseball every single day in the summer – he needs several small meals just to get enough calories into him. The only reason I can see to avoid snacking is if you want your kids to be really hungry when you get to the nice restaurant so they’ll eat the beef tongue or whatever – which, to be fair, might work (not for beef tongue for my kids, not EVER, I don’t care what you or her or any French Person says, and I gag every time I try to eat liver so no thanks to the organ meats for me too). Oh, it’s been a long day and I shouldn’t have Commented While Cranky. Oh well.

    • I would have said the same thing before I spoke to Karen. After, my opinion has changed. I think about it this way: for the longest time, my picky eater wouldn’t touch mashed potatoes, but adored octopus sushi. I thought that was odd. In retrospect, she’d been eating sushi since she was still in diapers, and we rarely ate mashed potatoes. So, the truth was that she preferred familiar foods, not “kid” foods. Had I introduced a wider variety of foods when she was still little, I think it’s totally possible there would be fewer things she views with suspicion, just because it was ever thus.

      On the other hand, I wouldn’t eat beef tongue myself, if I’m being totally honest. I suspect that part of it is that here in North America many adults view a lot of food with suspicion, as well. We’re passing that on, but I’m not about to eat kidney just to set a good example. So there’s only so far I see myself going on this one.

  2. It makes sense to me that if children are just fed beef tongue or whatever from the get-go & not expected to have ‘delicate sensibilities’ or something, they’d be a bit less picky. It’s similar to part of the reasoning behind Baby Led Weaning–offering six-month-olds chunks of food & letting them self-feed, rather than spoon-feeding purees lets them experience texture & flavour better & theoretically makes them more adventurous eaters.

    I’m constantly surprised by what Sprout will eat & drink. Raw onions, anything garlicky, sashimi, curry, spicy snack food, brie & blue cheese, unsweetened herbal tea of all kinds. He’ll eat a lot of things that I don’t like now or didn’t as a child. He’s only been picky about temperature (cold food like ice cream gets a Mr. Yuck face, though he’ll still eat it) & leafy stuff, which I assume is because he still remembers gagging on fruit skins & leaves before he had enough teeth to deal with them.

    Of course, I do realize that he’s only two & he could get more particular about his diet in a year or two. But I still think our expectations of what children will & won’t do/eat/become have a huge impact on them.
    Lisa C’s last post … (Almost) Wordless WednesdayMy Profile

    • I agree – but I also know from experience that most 4-year-olds are extremely picky. Actually, Karen even discussed this during our podcast. It’s a universal phenomenon that crosses cultures. While I think that the French handle it better than we do in many ways, the truth is that I’m often too lazy to deal with food battles in the moment. 😉

  3. I’m going to listen to this, even though I suspect it will depress me.
    Betsy (Eco-novice)’s last post … The Best Potties for Early Potty TrainingMy Profile

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