A Q&A with Karen Le Billon, author of French Kids Eat Everything–and a Book Giveaway!!!
|October 18, 2012||Posted by Stacy under How to feed kids|
I’m the first to admit that I’ve made some mistakes when it comes to my kids’ eating. Some big ones, actually. My 7-year-old likes to remind me of the time that I made him finish his peas before going out for ice cream. Did I really do that?!? Yes, sadly, I did. And now he refuses to eat peas or any vegetable, for that matter. And It. Is. Probably. All. My. Fault. (READ: Confessions of a Former Food Pusher).
Thankfully, I have since learned better and done things differently with my 4-year-old twins. While they don’t exactly nosh on foie gras, they tend to be much more open-minded about food. Both of them love fruit; they’ll eat salmon and steamed broccoli; they’ve been known to fight over roasted beets and are open to nibbling on asparagus. The situation with my oldest, however, continues to weigh on me. I’m working on teaching him to love good food by choosing recipes, shopping and cooking together (READ: A Food Re-Education Starts, a Cool Food App, and a Heavenly Recipe for Lemon Angel Food Cake). But sometimes it feels hopeless, and I kick myself for not doing a better job when he was little.
That’s just one reason why I adored the food memoir French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters (William Morrow, 2012). In her book, author Karen Le Billon is unabashedly honest about her own misguided notions when it comes to her feeding her two daughters. She confesses to catering to their picky palates, pacifying them with snacks, having a crumb-filled car, and rushing through meals. She comes off as human and fallible, far from a know it all. And she had me hooked from the very first page.
For those of you unfamiliar with her book, a quick synopsis: Karen and her French-born hubby, Philippe, decide to move from Vancouver, British Columbia, to his home town, a seaside village on the coast of northwestern France. A food culture clash ensues: Their oldest daughter, then age 4, struggles to adapt to the four-course school lunches consisting of fish, blue cheese and endive salad. Both girls seem woefully out of place in a country that feeds Roquefort cheese to infants and frowns upon processed food and between-meal snacking. Karen’s in-laws are decidedly unhappy with the girls’ fussy eating and limited diets. Determined to help her daughters fit in and eat as well as the French children, Karen comes up with 10 food rules to change their family’s eating habits.
After a year in France, during which they succeed in turning their girls into wonderful little eaters (their oldest growing to love everything from broccoli to beets, mackerel to mussels), they return to Vancouver only to be confronted once again with a food environment filled with a vast array of convenience foods and constant snacking. It’s suddenly much harder to stick to the family’s eating rules and steer clear of Oreos and Gummi bears. (If you want to find out how it all ends, you’ll have to read her book–just leave a comment down below for a chance to win a copy!).
I really learned a lot from French Kids Eat Everything. Since reading it, I have cut back on snacks (and yes, I’ve found that my kids do eat better at mealtime!). I am trying to challenge my children more with their eating and include more variety. I am focused on teaching them to taste–and love–new foods. I have made the dining room table a sacred space where we can relax and have fun (while still having good manners!). And perhaps most difficult, I am trying to slow it all down. No more eating in the car or jumping up from the dinner table to start washing dishes before everyone is finished eating.
After finishing the book, I longed to sit down and have a cup of tea with Karen. I wanted to find out more, pick her brain. But since she lives in Vancouver, I settled for asking her some questions via email. Whether or not you’ve read French Kids Eat Everything, I think you’ll find her answers as fascinating as I do.
A Q&A With Karen Le Billon
During your year in France, your daughters (now in kindergarten and 4th grade) were transformed into healthy and adventurous eaters (not without a lot of effort on your part!). Do you ever have any food struggles with them anymore?
KLB: Learning to eat is a gradual process, and my daughters are still learning (in fact, most adults are too!). My younger one learned to eat Roquefort this year (my older one still politely declines stinky cheese!). And they still need some coaching (particularly the older one) to try new things with an open mind; for example, she recently informed me that she was not interested in eating crab (she does eat fish, mussels, sushi, all sorts of fresh vegetables, legumes, and has never met a fruit she doesn’t like). My response? “Fine! It’s your choice. But you may change your mind when you grow up!”
I assume, like most kids, yours occasionally ask for junk food. How do you typically respond when they do?
KLB: We talk about the difference between “treats” and “food.” A treat is fun, and kids (and adults) love treats. So it’s normal they should enjoy them. But I gently remind them that bodies need healthy food to grow properly, to feel happy, and to do well at school. We also talk about knowing ‘when enough is enough’; for example, if portions are large, save the rest for later. Finally, we eat treats for dessert. This means: if they get a cupcake at an event (e.g. a bake sale to support one of their sports teams on a Saturday morning), they bring it home and eat it after dinner (or, on special occasions, after lunch).
Let’s discuss birthday parties and other all-you-can-eat junk food fests. Do you let your kids “go for it” and eat anything they want? Or do you teach them moderation? Any advice for navigating that slippery slope?
KLB: They are free to eat whatever they like at parties. Being overly controlling about children’s food choices isn’t a good long-term strategy; research shows it increases the likelihood of eating disorders. We talk about why we have “treats” at parties, and they understand it’s the (fun) exception to our normal routine.
You’ve said that you had to change before your kids would. What do you mean?
KLB: I had to overcome my belief that “kids only like kids’ food” and to understand that I had been shortchanging my kids: they are capable of eating all sorts of foods. I also had to change my eating habits and routines: a more structured approach to mealtimes, more variety, and a slower pace. Parents set the tone and model good eating habits. If we don’t, how can we expect our child to learn?
In your book, you say it’s better to start early when it comes to teaching good eating habits. But what if it’s too late for that? Is there any way to turn an older kid into a good eater?
KLB: It’s never too late, but I won’t lie to you: it is easier if you start earlier. Starting when your child is a baby and exposing them to as much variety as you can before the age of two, is key. But if you haven’t done this, don’t despair! Kids can learn to like new foods. Repeated exposure, combined with positive encouragement, are the two key factors. And older kids can also be encouraged through menu planning and cooking–allowing them input and involving them in the kitchen often works wonders.
The French emphasize the importance of eating a varied diet. Any suggestions on how to accomplish this with kids who don’t like branching out?
KLB: Take baby steps. If your child likes pasta with cheese, try a slightly different type of cheese as a “sampler” (not as the main dish); once they like it, incorporate it into your menus. Or, if they like carrots one way, try them another way. Build variety into what they already like, and keep expanding that variety until they are ready for new things. Some families may like a ‘starter soup’ approach: start with a simple vegetable broth and add one veggie that kids like, plus pasta (or rice or another grain that they like). Gradually add one more veggie at a time until they have a veggie-rich minestrone.
How can parents encourage their kids to taste new foods without it coming off as pressure or becoming a battle of wills?
KLB: Make it fun! I make “happy face plates” with veggies; the new one is usually the “nose.” The girls have a “surprise box” in their lunches–which sometimes has new and unfamiliar veggies, but sometimes has fruit or a square of dark chocolate (you bet they have positive associations with “surprise”!). Be inventive! Most importantly, try new things yourself, in front of your children — they will watch you learning to like new things, and likely follow suit–eventually. Until they do, calmly tell them: “You’re still learning to like this; I’m sure you’ll learn to do so when you’re a bit older.”
What would you suggest doing when a child refuses to take a bite of an unfamiliar food?
KLB: First, don’t use force; don’t make it into a power struggle. But don’t give up, either. This means trying different strategies. You could start by simply showing them the food another day, away from the table (to reduce the pressure). Next time, allow them to smell and touch it, before you ask them to taste it. Or ask them to lick it—but don’t oblige them to chew and swallow it. Serve it and taste it yourself–with visible enjoyment. With many kids, these strategies will work. But some reactive eaters need a lot of time to “get to know” a new food. So keep asking, but be patient.
What would you say to parents who worry that their kids aren’t eating their veggies?
KLB: Kids need two and a half cups per day of fruits and veggies. Few kids eat that much, and it is a cause of worry for many parents. The simple solution is: increase the supply, and reduce the other available options. We offer two fruit choices at breakfast, a fruit and a veggie at lunch, a fruit and a veggie at snack, and two veggies and a fruit at dinner. At dinner, a salad or veggie dish (veggie soup in winter) is served first, when kids are hungry. The result is that our kids do get their two and a half cups—but only because the options are there at each mealtime. Fruit/veggie smoothies are another great choice; kids love helping to make these, and it’s efficient. But don’t fall into the “liquid diet” trap: Keep introducing veggies in other forms. Younger kids may have fun with the Today I Ate a Rainbow charts, which allow them to keep track themselves.
Mealtimes can get stressful when you have young kids. Any tips for keeping it positive?
KLB: Take the focus off the food. Tell stories. Talk about your day. Create family routines: for example, ask each person about the high and low point of their days, or (our current family favorite) an example of how they helped someone else or someone helped them. Make mealtimes about the enjoyment of being together; not about food fights. This makes kids more eager to be at the table–and more willing to eat what’s in front of them. Laurie David’s book The Family Table has lots of fun suggestions, and there are even games you can play, like Crunch a Color.
If you could give one piece of advice to parents of picky eaters, what would it be?
KLB: Variety is key. Even if they only eat cucumbers, figure out as many different ways to serve cucumbers as you can. Build on this variety to start include more foods. It may take time, but don’t let them get “stuck” eating only a few things.
In France, you were in an environment that embraced and supported healthy eating. In North America, it sometimes feels like our efforts to be healthy are undermined at every pass. Is there any hope for us?
KLB: Yes! I think that we’re turning a corner with respect to kids’ food and eating habits. There are many wonderful community groups and businesses out there doing great things. Recent history shows that our society can change (think about how attitudes to smoking have evolved); we shouldn’t underestimate ourselves or our kids! I’ve posted resources and organizations on my website for those who’d like to get connected and find out more.
ENTER TO WIN A COPY OF FRENCH KIDS EAT EVERYTHING!! To enter the French Kids Eat Everything book giveaway, scroll down and leave a comment down below. Let me know why you’re interested in reading the book. Or, just say something. Anything! The winner will be chosen through Random.org’s number generator and then contacted via email. I’ll also announce the winner on Facebook. The giveaway ends Tuesday, October 23 at noon Eastern time. Good luck!
COMING SOON ON SCHOOL BITES: a crazy-good mousse au chocolat recipe from French Kids Eat Everything!