Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Á manger comme les Français (To eat like the French)

As you've probably heard, today would have been Julia Child's 100th birthday. I'll be honest, I don't know much about Julia Child beyond what I learned watching Julie & Julia. But since she is credited with bringing French cooking to average families, I thought today I would write about bringing French eating to my average family.

A couple of months ago, my mom showed me a newspaper clipping about a book called “French Kids Eat Everything” by Karen Le Billon. I was mostly intrigued by the ideas that even toddlers don’t need to be snacking between meals and that families really can get through a meal without bribes or power-struggles. So, after returning home, I went to borrow the book from the library.

(It turns out, it’s a popular book. I had to wait almost a month for a copy to come available. And because there were so many holds on it, I couldn’t renew it, so I had to read fast to finish it before it was due. That part wasn’t hard though.)

It’s a great book. In fact, I’m considering purchasing my own copy.

So, what’s the book about? After moving to her husband’s hometown in Northern France, a mom of 2 young girls learns and eventually embraces the “‘food rules’ that help the French foster healthy eating habits and good manners”. Although the book is mostly about a ‘family food revolution’, it also got me thinking about how my role as a parent is more than just raising happy, healthy kids, but also about challenging them so they can become happy, healthy, and thoughtful adults.

In addition to the 10 Food Rules which the author devised for her family, some of the messages that really resonated for me were the following.

“It’s okay to be hungry between meals.”  
This might be life-changing. Really. I’ve always relied on the tactic of feeding my children snacks (albeit usually healthy ones), in order to avoid the inconvenience of an ill-timed tantrum, or the nuisance of nagging, needy whining, or the frustration of attention-seeking mischief-making. After all, they say that hunger can be a trigger for misbehaviour, right? And the quiet that comes when they’re all sitting at the table having a snack can be a sanity saver. Apparently, however, kids can learn to behave properly even when they’re hungry. And being hungry just means they’ll eat more of their next meal. Incredible concept. And not that hard to implement, either. I’m amazed.  I’m applying it to my life too. Along with:

Eat a bigger lunch and you won't need to snack.;
The stomach is a muscle, and must be allowed time to rest.; and
The French don’t eat in their cars, at their desks, in children’s strollers, or on the run.
The personal weigh management tactics I’ve (not very successfully) employed over the years have included eating small meals every 2-3 hours. That might work if you’re eating carrots all day, but it’s certainly not satisfying. If I were to eat just three decent nourishing meals, with maybe a healthy afternoon snack, I’d probably consume just as many calories as smaller meals more often. I’m trying. It helps to internalise the French attitude towards snacking in general: it just isn’t done.

I mean, just think of it. If I could really embrace the no snacking rule, it would abolish absent-minded noshing on sweets and treats while driving and working, and late night ‘rewards’ for surviving the day. Snacking could be a thing of my past. Maybe I could finally get a sensible handle on enjoying treats when appropriate. Maybe I could finally put an end to the year after year weight gain…

(I also want to read “French Women Don’t Get Fat”. I’ll let you know how it turns out.)

Desserts, sweets and treats are acceptable. Just not all the time, and not in large quantities. If you eat them less often, you might just enjoy them more!
I like the idea of adopting the lunch menu criteria set out by the education ministry in France. It’s guidelines are pretty specific, not just about how often fish must be served, or the ratio of raw to cooked vegetables during the week, but also that sweet desserts must be served only once or twice per week. There’s still dessert on the other days, but dessert also includes yogurt and fruit. Dessert doesn’t need to mean cake, chocolate and ice cream. We can totally do that. I mean a treat is supposed to be special, right? So, if we eat it on a regular basis, how special is it, really?

Teaching your children healthy eating habits and good manners is as important as your teaching your children to read, and more important than over-participating in extracurricular activities. 
I sometimes worry about when the kids are bigger and we’ll be super-scheduled with dance classes, gymnastic meets, soccer practice, and swimming lessons. (x3!) Since this seems to be the North American norm, it’s no wonder that families don’t eat dinner together, or when they do, they’re wolfing down fast food in the car. As Karen Le Billon points out, traditionally, the French would never consider sacrificing the family dinner for recreational activities. It’s more important to impart the lessons of what to eat, how to eat properly, and how to socialise at mealtimes.

We should value our food, so it’s okay if it costs more.
After all, our bodies should be nourished with healthy, wholesome food. Granted, we all like (and often need) to save money, but we should appreciate our health enough to choose healthy, real food over processed food products, even if it is more expensive.

Child care centres and schools should also be involved in food education. 
If you accept that food education is as important as any other education, it makes sense to me that it should be taught in schools.  And not just in theory, but in practice. Thankfully, our child care centre has a wonderful food provider, and the school has a breakfast and hot-lunch program. I was appalled to read about some schools who allow children just 10 minutes for eating lunch! My oldest hasn’t even started in the lunch program at school yet, and already I’m ready to launch into action if she isn’t given the chance to sit down and properly eat her meal.

“Children are grown-ups in training.”
I’m not sure why this one hit-home for me so much. I must have recognised it at some level, but reading it in such simple language really emphasised for me that my role as a parent is not just about dressing, feeding, bathing and disciplining. Maybe it’s because my children are starting to be little humans and not so much dependent-babes. But in reading this, I consciously recognised that my role as a parent is most importantly to help my children become healthy, happy, responsible adults. It kind of helps give perspective too.

So, although eating like the French is about more than just baguettes, croissants, fancy cheese, chocolate and wine, that’s okay. Our family is going to be happier and healthier for it!

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