Thursday, 21 February 2013

A Fussy Eater, and a Book Review

2ndSister, age 6 and three-quarters, has not had a great relationship with food for some time. Always less enthusiastic about food than 1stSister, who wolfs down olives, chorizo and korma without a second thought, over the past few years she has started to reject even the standard foods from her diet (egg sandwiches, meat, sliced cheese and various other things on what seems to be a whim) so that whenever I prepare a meal, I always have in the back of my mind whether she is getting enough protein, and whether there is something (even bread) she is prepared to eat.

Mmmm, so tasty Mama.....!

 I've never gone down the route of forcing the girls to eat what's on their plates, or bribing with dessert only when they have eaten everything ~ I have my concern about eating disorders, and don't feel I benefited from being raised in an authoritarian household. But lately I've felt things were getting a bit silly. Letting 2ndSister off the hook because she has a 'sensitive palate' or 'food phobia' (preferring plain foods, surely, but also ensuring she gets the upper hand at the dinner table) was driving me mad. I wanted to try new foods (I love creating in the kitchen, it soothes and strengthens me) without having to think about placating the children. At the same time, I knew that coming down harshly and being insistent was only likely to push her further away from a) good, nutritious foods and b) new foods. But I was kind of at an impasse.

But things can change, with a few new ideas.We went out for a meal last night at a local (not particularly brilliant) bar and restaurant. I watched 2ndSister help herself to garlic ciabatta bread and snaffle it. Then she tried a scampi bite and enjoyed it, and took another. Rather than ordering chicken nuggets from the children's menu, she asked for an omelette like 1stSister which was seriously not the nicest omelette in the world, but she still ate four pieces because she was told to eat some. And wolfed down a dessert including lots of whipped cream, which she's previously avoided. This is after our Pizza Express lunch on Monday, where 1st and 2ndSister both wolfed down ALL their dough balls and pizza declaring them delicious..

Added to this is the fact that when suggesting to me that they don't like something anymore (1st Sister - bread and jam, 2nd Sister - pasta/bread/insert basic foodstuff here) I just tell them that's what they are having and they go ahead and eat it. I think the main thing is they are eating because they are hungry, as I've cut down on snacks. We've also started re-encouraging tasting new things, on the premise that a) of course you won't enjoy the same things as an adult until you've tried them time and time again, and b) this is how French people do it, and it will good preparation for our eventual return visit to Paris. I've been setting the table properly and trying to insist we are seated there for meals, waiting patiently until everyone else is finished. But it's not been a magic formula, although it feels like it.

And this is where the mini book review comes in. Although we don't really eat like a typical US/Canadian family, and not exactly like your usual UK one either, we certainly didn't used to eat like a French one. Apart from my Normandy-born friend Alexandra telling me how she existed all morning on a bowl of fresh cow's milk before school, and her moaning about the dearth of good yogurt in the UK, I didn't know much about French eating habits. I've always had an interest in French culture, however, and I studied social anthropology because I wanted to see the world from other people's points of view, so when one of the blogs I read recommended Karen Le Billon's "French Kids Eat Everything", I was literally just curious and invested in it then and there.

I didn't anticipate at the time that it would be a magic cure-all (indeed I still don't), but the other thing I didn't anticipate is what an amazing and interesting read it would be, even on a basic level as a sort of memoir about a Canadian's foray into French culture, and French food culture in particular (I'm no longer sure, after reading the book, whether it's possible to separate out the two.) I was absorbed by this book, not wanting to put it down, fascinated both by the human stories within and the conflict between different approaches to food and nourishment. By the middle of the book, I confess I couldn't wait to find out what Le Billon confesses she did WRONG in an effort to get her kids to eat more like the French, so I could avoid similar pitfalls, and work out what would work well, instead.

In summary, 'French Kids Eat Everything' is a review of a family's year in France, their adaptation to French life and, in particular, eating habits, and their eventual return to Canada. It does contain a few recipes (which at the moment I can't see my girls trying even yet!), it doesn't contain a prescriptive method for adjusting children's attitude to food, but it is packed full of interesting observations about cross-cultural attitudes to food, presented in a fairly humbling way. Le Billon doesn't think she has all the answers, or that the French way is the only way. She merely suggests that the year in France was a fantastic education in terms of their family attitude to food, and details the ways in which they adapted French rules into their way of life. She is honest and descriptive, and an account which could have descended into navel-gazing does include her own feelings on the many adjustments their new life takes, but contains just the right amount of self-reflection.

I've read a few of the Amazon reviews of this book, which are largely positive. I don't find any particular fault with it, especially as I found it so inspiring although I understand the criticism someone made that on the family's return to Vancouver, the family's habits altered back somewhat and they found this to be a problem with the book. I think this is a bit harsh, but I understand where they are coming from - tips as to how to integrate a more French attitude to food into cultures which are increasingly about fast food , snacking and eating on the go, is the only thing missing from the book. But once you have embraced the book's mindset, be challenged to find your own ideas. I can't see us doing the vegetable soups Le Billon used as her re-introduction to new foods, for example, but will instead try a puree or dip. At the moment I'm finding certain good habits difficult, but the art of compromise works wonders - no we may not go to the bakery for a snack when we are hungry and it is only an hour until our lunch in the city, but let's go and find a piece of fruit somewhere before we expire completely.

Some people may not find this book revolutionary - in fact many of the eating habits contained within are things our family already do, although many of our contemporaries don't. We already get weekly fresh fruit, veg, meat and fish delivered from an independent supplier, I try to menu plan a variety of healthy and international meals, I insist on a pretty healthy lunchbox, and restrict the type of snacks we have. The other side of the coin is that I love to bake, so we do indulge in regular sweet treats, but we're not over-indulging (a few years earlier I had read 'French Women Don't Get Fat', which I would also recommend as a companion piece). So for us to switch to habits practised by our nearest cultural neighbour isn't too much of a switch, whereas for some it might be. I would still say give it a go, though, even if you only appreciate the ideas and story within, without taking them on. The contrast between French and UK school lunches in themselves is fascinating (my girls regularly leave at least one item, even if it's a treat, in their lunchbox because they 'don't have time' to eat it in their short lunchtime). And in an age where many parents feel disempowered about taking charge of their kids' eating habits, it gives a mother the courage and confidence to implement tried and tested ideas about food.

So a wholehearted recommendation for Le Billon's book! And I'd be interested to know how other people deal with their fussy eaters and how stressful it can be. Obviously taking them to France for a year is hardly an option but I needed some fresh ideas in addition to those old chestnuts 'get them involved in cooking' (2ndSister loves making and baking everything but still wouldn't eat stuff) and 'just keep offering it them over and over again' which just didn't work with us.

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