I have twins in 2nd grade. They are pretty good eaters, and I’ve never really worried about their nutrition. They have been studying food groups at school, and lately both have become obsessed with a balanced diet. It seems weird to complain about this, but I’m afraid that harping on nutritional values is making them become weird about food. For instance, last week my daughter turned down a brownie, citing “empty calories” as a reason. She’s 7! I wondered what a French parent might think?
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I’m pretty certain that most French parents would think we are crazy in the way we educate children about food here in the United States. And after speaking with enough of them, I can see why.
It hit home last year when a French friend came by after a trip back to Paris. Somehow, he’d managed to spirit a can of cassoulet across the Atlantic Ocean and into my Brooklyn apartment. Good Lord it was delicious—and from a can! One of my kids almost never found this out, however. She didn’t want to try the slow-cooked French casserole after I explained the use of duck fat in its prep. This child also won’t eat bacon or doughnuts (among other things).
When an 8-year-old refuses to eat doughnuts for no other reason than they are unhealthy, I feel like something is off balance in the world. This immediately came to mind when I read the brownie anecdote in your letter. Our daughters are correct, of course—doughnuts and brownies aren’t good for you. But it somehow makes me sad that our kids are preoccupied with such thoughts before they even hit puberty.
Would our kids be better off if we stopped deconstructing everything they eat?
But back to that infamous cassoulet night. My French friend sat dumbfounded next to me as I tried to convince my daughter to try the dish, playing up the benefits of potassium and fiber that she’d receive from the white beans that are also in there. This tactic finally prevailed and she did eat some, but not without a dose of anxiety.
Later, my friend and I discussed the irony that my efforts to get my children to eat varied, interesting, exciting foods—like French children do—get derailed by the very American obsession with diet. Would our kids be better off if we stopped deconstructing everything they eat?
“It’s food, not medicine.” That’s what another Frenchie once said to me on the topic.
I understand that America needs a real education in healthy eating. Problems with diabetes and obesity cannot be ignored. However, we should be careful not to simultaneously squelch a passion for food in the process. Eating is something we must do, multiple times a day, to survive. The French are living proof that, with moderation, it can be can very often be an exquisite experience, and not just an exercise in balancing carbs, proteins and vitamins. Piling too much of that on our kids, I fear, will lead to another kind of disorder.
I’m not suggesting that we let our kids eat nothing but BLTs and ice cream shakes, and I’m happy that my girls are well-versed in food facts, but I’m with the French in fostering a love, and not fear, of food.
It’s so complicated!
Good luck to us both,
Have a French (or any nationality) parenting question for Catherine? Email her at email@example.com.