Monday, September 21, 2015

Review: French Kids Eat Everything

I checked French Kids Eat Everything out of the library because it seemed entertaining in the way Bring Up Bebe seemed to be, rather than because I thought I might learn something from it. After, as a Chinese person who eats nearly everything, I never thought my heritage would allow my children to not eat everything. An observation of my wife's Chinese relatives indicated that my assumption is absolutely untrue: mainland Chinese are just as bad as Americans in being averse to trying new foods, and I predict that in the coming decades the obnoxious Chinese tourist will replace the obnoxious American tourist in reputation for being loud, mono-lingual --- especially in the assumption that every Asian-looking person speaks Chinese --- and unable to tolerate different cuisines.

French Kids Eat Everything's written by a Canadian from Vancouver. Also a non-engineer/non-scientist, the book's full of generalizations unpacked by studies, and an over-emphasis in comparing her/her family's bad American poor eating habits. Given the huge diversity in cultures in American backgrounds, it's poor practice to generalize. In particular, I've encountered a French person in Japan who was having a miserable time because she refused to learn to eat with chopsticks, and couldn't stand rice every day. Clearly, the culinary culture and education of the French does not extend to learning to eat Asian foods, and the French can be just as obnoxious about being unable to adapt as anyone else can be.

Nevertheless, the book has a few tips (she calls them "rules") for parents with kids who will only eat a few foods:
  1. Parents: You are in charge of your children's food education
  2. Avoid emotional eating: food is not a pacifier, a distraction, a toy, a bribe, a reward, or a substitute for discipline.
  3. Parents schedule meals and menus. Kids eat what adults eat: no substitutes and no short-order cooking.
  4. Food is social. Eat family meals together at the table, with no distractions.
  5. Eat vegetables of all colors of the rainbow. Don't eat the same main dish more than once per week.
  6. For picky eaters: You don't have to like it, but you do have to taste it. For fussy eaters: You don't have to like it, but you do have to eat it.
  7. Limit snacks, ideally one per day (two maximum), and not within one hour of meals. In between meals, it's ok to feel hungry. At meals eat until you're satisfied rather than full.
  8. Take your time, for both cooking and eating. Slow food is happy food.
  9. Eat mostly real, home made food, and save treats for special occasions.
  10. Eating is joyful, not stressful. Treat the food rules as habits or routines rather than strict regulations; it's fine to relax them once in a while.
If you've read up on recent nutritional literature, such as In Defense of Food, none of this should be a surprise.  In particular, #5 and #9 are very common advise. What's controversial is #3 and #7. As a Dad, I'm very OK with letting my son get hungry and denying him food. I definitely don't view hunger as a bad thing at all. But for most American and Asian mothers, this is a no-no. I suspect this comes from food being scarce during the Great Depression, and of course, Asian famines were part of the history. In any case, good luck convincing your significant other to go with #3 and #7. In particular, American schools with their snack times that seem to go on through all parts of the day probably make it impossible to stick to rule #7.

In any case, the book does do a good job explaining how the French social system supports a fairly healthy eating culture. On the other hand, it's clear to me that it's not perfect: having had French meals that took over 2+ hours to serve and that still leave me fairly hungry at the end of a long day of cycling, I think that there's a lot to be said for American-style flexibility and portioning if you're involved in a lot of heavy physical activity and would just like to go to bed after a long hard day. And I'm not sure the author herself has had enough experience with a wide variety of food cultures to understand that the Asian cultures themselves have reasonable food cultures without having insanely long meal-times and school-enforced rules about eating. In particular, I've seen enough French people balk at what they consider "foreign Asian food" to find it hard to believe that the French have a complete (or even adequate) answer to modern society's dining crisis.

Despite all this, I'd recommend this book to the typical parent. In particular, if it helps convince you that it's OK for your child to be hungry because he refused lunch, and that in the long run that'll make him healthier, I think it's well worth your time to read it.
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