Americans have a strange relationship with food. We’re equal parts over-indulgent and judicious, choosing to stuff our faces with heaps of non-fat products. In my Southern California perspective there’s a new diet that catches on every week with people around you consuming more and less amounts of fat, sugar, carbs, etc… It’s a muddled mindset where one begins to develop guilt for eating anything at all, whilst being surrounded by pictures of the most unhealthy foods in the world. Eating is a constant experiment in abstinence until it’s not and you’re going back for your third bowl of ice cream because you were “good today”.
Contrast this with the French view of eating, which I recently learned about while reading Karen Le Billon’s French Kids Eat Everything, her memoir/recipe book about moving her family to France for a year and how this helped to shape her views on eating. It’s a pleasurable read, she approaches her successes and failures with self-deprecation and wit while laying out the rules of French eating.
Le Billon tells of the way the French emphasize the importance of food from an early age. It starts at the very beginning and is integrated into children’s education, as they experience four-course school lunches hand-cooked by their school’s personal chef. Each kid learns to savor their food, try new things, and wait until the appropriate meal time before eating. Food for them is neither a functional tool to get them through the day nor a tool meant to comfort them in their time of need. It’s not a crutch or a sin. Food is something that should be enjoyed. It is something you wait for, something you appreciate, something worth putting time and effort into. The French don’t go on diets, they just choose to avoid excess and choose to eat healthy meals. When eating is based in a joyous and delectable sensory experience, one that uses healthy ingredients at its core, there’s no need for indulgence.
Vox.com has been on a tear to take down Big Diet over the last couple of years, releasing several articles and an episode of its Explained Netflix series about what the research behind dieting says. The research they pull from concludes that no diet — Paleo, Keto, Atkins, Whole 30, etc… — really works better than another. There is no magical solution when it comes to losing weight, no scientific hack. What really matters when eating healthy, is giving yourself the best opportunity to make sustainable, healthy choices.
Most diets actually can be effective in that they force you to change your habits in ways that are healthier for you. The problem is being able to sustain those choices over a long period of time. If you stick to a diet it will work, but being able to stick to that diet, particularly for any length of time, is where people struggle. A lot of this is personal preference, we all enjoy certain vices here and there, but as the Vox writers point out, we are set up terribly for success, inundated with messages of juicy and fatty burgers on our screens, passing colorful sugar infested cakes as we walk the grocery aisles, told that cereals featuring marshmallows are a part of our balanced breakfast. We are set up to fail.
Much of French Kids Eat Everything is focused on raising kids in this new food-obsessed environment. Le Billon tells of her struggles of placing her kids, who refused to eat anything but the most comforting foods, into an environment where they are expected to be adventurous and avoid using food as a comfort tool. There is an instant tension, but the French have been trained for this very thing, introducing kids to a wide swath of foods while they’re still young, teaching them how to enjoy it. For foods they don’t like, the response for them is not “eat it, it’s good for you“, but “that’s okay, you haven’t tried it enough times yet, maybe next time you’ll like it.” This is based in research that indicates that it can take 11-15 times introducing a new flavor/texture for someone to fully realize whether they like that food or not. That’s why we often come to enjoy foods as we grow older. Sometimes all it takes is that try, try again attitude.
In my own home, we’ve been adopting certain aspects of these lessons when introducing foods to our son, wanting to make sure he knows that food is something that is beautiful, complex, and worth savoring. We want him to be open to trying new things and come to experience culinary elegance because let’s face it, while American food culture is bad, American kid food culture is even worse.
Kids are bombarded with bright colored foods that tempt to overwhelm their pallet. And I’m not talking about the iridescence of Indian food or the splashy assortment of fruits and vegetables found at the farmer’s market, these are pre-packaged in cardboard, with colorful cartoon mascots calling out from the front cover.
Our kids are consistently told there’s a distinction between kid foods and adult foods. They are told to accept the most simple, bland, sugar and sodium soaked foods out there. And once they do they become insistent that they shouldn’t break those molds. Dino-shaped chicken nuggets, bites of hot dogs soaked in corn syrup (aka ketchup), and bright orange cheddar themed goldfish become the typical meals. They are taught foods should retain the shape of their favorite television and movie characters, as our largest companies work their brand loyalty from an early age. Even our healthy alternative puffs and cereal bars are really just marketing exercises in how far companies can push false claims without getting sued. It’s honestly an ethical tragedy that the children’s food industry exists and that it creates such garbage; limiting palates and ruining the dinner experience.
The French don’t have this divide. They adapt their practices for children, but they serve them the same foods that adults eat and expect them to partake. It’s important for their children to try new things and to participate at mealtime. And the kids do it. One of their main strategies is to never battle with their children. The minute it becomes a battle, they’ve already lost. Food, for them, is supposed to be something worth celebrating, not arguing over. It is a joy–a pleasure–to put a meal together and they let tastes linger as they, and their children, come together at meal times.
This approach to food is what leads them to healthier outcomes. Sure, the French may indulge in a chocolate mousse after dinner or have slices of baguette and cheese for breakfast, but as a whole, they tend to be healthier as a country. There are many reasons for this (less fast food and more walking integrated into their daily lives being among them), but part of the reason comes down to the mindset of eating, where food is meant to be enjoyed rather than indulged in. They don’t spend their young lives being taught that trashy foods are the foods they should like, then grow up suddenly making fruits or vegetables or low fat/low sugar/low whatever the staples of their diet. They don’t experience the culinary whiplash of alternating between abstinence and indulgence or pleasure and guilt as we so often do. They are not bombarded simultaneously by the messaging of the fast food and diet industries.
As stated previously, the research on diets indicates that simply making a change in your life is generally what leads to success when it comes to achieving health goals. You just have to find what works for you. But the way we’ve been taught to approach food from an early age is detrimental to how we come to eat. The French approach to food minimizes the need for diets. There’s little need to count calories or throw butter in their coffee to put their body into ketosis, they eat bread and drink their coffee butter free (!) because it’s good, not because they’re looking to absolve their sins.
This is the relationship to food I’ve been trying to have and that we’re trying to impart to our son. I want food to be something that’s worth putting an effort into. I want to fully enjoy it to a place of satisfaction. This means figuring out my body, listening to when it’s full and letting it wait a little when it desires food before a mealtime (le Billon emphasizes that the French view snacks as a near-immoral practice). This means going to the farmer’s market once a week to get the freshest, most delicious ingredients (there are a plethora of other reasons to go there as well). This means taking that extra time to peel, steam, and puree foods for my son so that food becomes something that is beautiful and ever-interesting to him.
These sorts of life changes don’t come easy and I haven’t broken many of my bad habits. My son hasn’t enjoyed everything we’ve given him, so there’s a lot of regrouping and trying again. But it’s been a rewarding time. He’s eaten eggplant and broccoli and quinoa and curry and it’s a joy to see his reactions and the enthusiasm he has even if his favorites are still bananas and baby cereal. I hope we can teach him to try new things and in that he comes to truly enjoy all things culinary, never having to fight through the parts of his brain that think all foods should be in the shape of dinosaurs.