I am not French, nor is my husband. As a result, our child is also not French. My husband and I do, however, have significant experience with French culture. In spite of that, when I was living there in college, I failed to realize how much calmer, healthier, and more standardized their national approach to food was than ours.
I noticed the lack of snacking, the late dinners, the lack of eating on the run, and the obvious differences in eating habits between French students and North Americans. I saw college kids cook meals together in the dorm kitchen and sit down together at a card table in the hallway. I felt crusty looks from severe baristas at cafes, if I asked to have my coffee in a go cup. Not only did they not have paper cups to offer, but they were disgusted by the idea of it. In France, delicious food and beverages are meant to be savored, shared and enjoyed. While seated. To the French, eating while traveling, walking or alone is unpleasant, messy and sad.
Aside from those observations, my main background knowledge of what to expect of France's food culture was gleaned from a useful book written by Polly Platt, called French or Faux. she wrote a lot about dinner parties, and filled my mind with tidbits like how you must not ask to use the bathroom at the home of a French person throwing a dinner party, because that person has likely used all of their time preparing food, and will probably not have cleaned the bathroom. They will feel embarrassed and it will be your fault. I think it was also from that book that I learned that we must take our time in restaurants and that if a waiter doesn't come right away, it's because they assume that you are there to enjoy your meal and your are not in a hurry.
But now, as a parent trying to figure out how to both model and foster healthy eating for my family, I was happy to get some tips from French Kids Eat Everything, by Karen Le Billon. I hoped to learn more about the big picture of French food that I missed when I was there, and to pick up some tricks from a culture whose relationship with food seems strong, calm and well-rounded. The book was a fun and informative read, and reinvigorated my daily culinary efforts.
What I did not learn while I was living in France, but which made perfect sense as I was reading French Kids Eat Everything, is that those little bits of observations and experiences gathered here and there were linked to a strong national attitude towards food; a set of habits, and even common mealtimes, around food adhered to by most members of French society, regardless of region or even social class.
When I was thinking about having kids, and then again as the mother of a new baby, I read the book Bringing Up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman, which also details some interesting material about the national food values of the French. Her book addresses a more broad selection of French parenting techniques, not limited to descriptions of French methods for introducing vegetables to babies, meal planning, and the development of the national day care menu, but also includes information about the French ways of shaping toddler behavior, parent and playground etiquette, and differences in schooling for children in France versus children in the United States. Bringing Up Bébé is an excellent read, and makes a great prequel to French Kids Eat Everything.
As Le Billon works to support her family in their French adventure, getting them settled into her husband's small Breton town in the northwest of France, she realizes that the way she feeds their family, with plain, bland food for the kids, and snacks shared on demand and on the go, is not only drawing the ire of her French in-laws, but is also making it more difficult for her to make friends and for her kids to get settled in their new schools.
French people eat meals slowly, mindfully, together, and every day, ever meal. No snacking, very little deviation from the routine. The day cares and schools have a menu that is planned by a national-level food committee, and is focused on variety, tastes, textures and introduction of foods to young children. By default it is healthy, and is shared with families, so that parents are not repeating too much at home at night. Dinner is late, eight o'clock or so, and there is no snacking, with the exception of kids, who have a little something, a "goûter", around four o'clock.
As Le Billon (and Druckerman) point out, snacking is woven into the fabric of North Amercian child-rearing, but I agree with them (and the French) that snacking has detrimental effects on nutrition and on enjoyment of meals. Snacking is definitely an area where my family has room for improvement. We are not continuous snackers, but I grew up with regular access to snacks and can still fall prey to their lure from time to time. We all eat better when we have not eaten filler food before the real meal, and I can see the difference when my toddler approaches lunch or dinner.
The way we eat our meals together was another aspect of food culture featured heavily in Le Billon's book, and reading about her experiences with her French family and friends helped me to fine-tune my own efforts with our son at the dinner table. I know that some adults feed young children, put them to bed, and then enjoy their adult dinner, but this approach just hasn't appealed to my family. Originally because we like to go to bed early, and there simply is not enough time in the evening to run two separate meals. But this thinking was fortified by Le Billon's book, which reminds me of some other perks of all of us eating together: our son eats what we eat, with few exceptions. If he doesn't see me eating foods of all colors and textures, why should he? Additionally, how can a young child learn table manners without being surrounded by them? It is a long process, and there is no reason to wait to begin. French Kids Eat Everything not only reminded me of this, but strengthened my resolve with regard to a few challenges we've been having lately at our family table.
Le Billon organizes her conclusions about French eating into a tidy set of rules that a family can use as guidelines, and having already engaged in some of the techniques similar to what she recommends, I can vouch for her recommendations. We have a long way to go, but books like this can help any parent find some method, and some joy, in feeding a family, even in North America.