Excerpt: French Kids Eat Everything (And Yours Can Too)

Excerpt: French Kids Eat Everything (And Yours Can Too)

I know a lot of parents who say they’d do anything to get their kids to eat more vegetables. But would you spend a year in a foreign country, immerse yourself in a new culture and endure more than a few, ahem, suggestions that the way you’ve been feeding your kids is just plain wrong? That’s exactly what Karen Le Billon did  and she’s written a fantastic book about it, French Kids Eat Everything (And Your Can Too); How our family moved to France, cured picky eating, banned snacking and discovered 10 simple rules for raising happy, healthy eaters. So lucky you get to just read Karen’s book rather than making a move over seas yourself. I love this book – it’s full of smart ways you can make changes to your own kids’ eating habits but it’s also just a great story of a family’s adventure. We’re excited to be sharing a small sample of Karen’s book with you. This excerpt picks up with Karen and her husband as they first encounter her daughter’s school menu. Come back next week – we’ll be giving away a few copies of Karen’s book! – C.M. 


By the beginning of September, we were all looking forward to the start of the school year. No one had been awaiting la rentrée more eagerly than Sophie, who desperately wanted to meet kids her own age. So on the first day of school, we were there bright and early. Sophie walked clutching my hand, followed by my mother–in–law, while Philippe brought up the rear with Claire, dressed to match her sister (precious, but I couldn’t resist). Janine had drawn my attention to the fact that French schoolchildren, even in a little country village, were much better dressed than their American counterparts—-so Sophie had gotten a new outfit only days before. She looked adorable in a dusty rose shirt–dress with taupe leggings; I had judged earth tones—-a popular choice amongst French parents—-to be the safest bet for my kids (although lots of French children wear white, which mysteriously stays spotless).

Sophie and I had gone together in one of our first–ever mom and daughter clothes–shopping outings. On the drive home, I had reassured her that this year—-her first in full–time school—-would be just great. At the back of my mind was an image of eager village children being fascinated by l’Américaine, falling over themselves to befriend the new girl. But I had forgotten what kids could be like. And I had no idea what a small village could be like (having lived in big cities all my life). I soon learned: if you don’t know the rules, you’re the village idiot. As I was about to learn, my daughter didn’t know the rules. And neither, apparently, did I.

The first inkling I had of trouble was the small white sheet posted on the front door of the school. The contents of the piece of paper were impossible for me to decipher. It was marked with today’s date. It seemed like a list. It had lots of strange words that I couldn’t recognize. But I did recognize the days of the week. Maybe it was a list of after–school classes?

Mais non! My husband said, laughing. “This is a menu.”

I looked again and saw that he was right. Across the top of the paper, the days of the week were listed. Wednesday was missing, but that was normal, I reminded myself: French kids go to school only four days a week, with Wednesdays being devoted to sports and other extracurricular activities. Running down the left–hand side were the standard four parts of the French meal: entrée (first course), plat principal (main course), salade and fromage (cheese), and dessert. But I didn’t recognize much else.

This, my husband patiently explained, was the list of what the children were going to eat at lunch for that week in the school cantine. The meals were designed to be tasty, healthy, and varied. They were also inexpensive: on average $3, although children from lower–income families paid lower rates (the lowest fee at our school was less than a $1 per meal). The school posted the menu on each entrance door so that parents (and children) would know what was being served for lunch.

The cantine is a universal institution in France—-found not only in primary and high schools, but also in many government buildings and private companies. The word is difficult to translate. The closest word in English is “cafeteria,” but this incorrectly conjures up memories of the soggy pizza and overpriced French fries that were the norm at my high school. The best way to think about a school cantine in France is to imagine what your high school cafeteria would have been like if the food had been made by Cordon Bleu chefs–in–training, overseen by a nutritionist, and served to you at the table by maternal waiters (who were only too happy to cut up your meat if you couldn’t quite manage it). The official term “restaurant scolaire” (school restaurant) sums it up perfectly.

Philippe and Janine scanned the menu, clucking cheerfully at their favorites. But the list struck me as ludicrous. Beets? Fresh fish? This sounded like a meal in a Michelin–starred restaurant, not food for five–year–olds. And certainly not for my five–year–old.

“Um,” I said hesitantly, “something seems to be missing. There’s only one choice every day.” I was thinking of school cafeterias back home, where kids always had a choice, although one that was often admittedly dubious from a nutritional perspective: between strawberry and chocolate milk, for example, or between pizza and hot dogs.

“Everyone eats the same thing, bien sûr!” replied my husband. I had already learned that the phrase bien sûr (“of course”) usually implied I had unknowingly committed some kind of social blunder about something that seemed blindingly obvious to the French.

“But what if the kids don’t like what’s being served that day?” I asked. This question gave rise to odd looks from the parents shepherding their children through the school doors.

“They go hungry!” Janine replied, looking impatient.

A story from Tra la lire (France’s most popular magazine for preschoolers) popped into my head. In the story “La journée du NON!” (The Day of Saying NO!), cheeky little Michel is having a “NO” day. He says “NO” to getting dressed and goes to school in pajamas. He says “NO” to eating lunch at the cafeteria (radishes, sausages, mashed potatoes, and ice cream) and then goes hungry all afternoon. Michel feels sad, but his little friends (who ate all of their lunch) don’t feel sorry for him, and neither do his parents. When I had first read this story, I had dismissed it as cruel and unbelievable. But I now realized with a sinking feeling that the French didn’t see it that way.

“But this is ridiculous,” I snapped. “Sophie only likes pasta for lunch. She’ll be starving!” This was true. Despite my best efforts, Sophie refused to eat anything but pasta at lunchtime. And it had to be made in precisely the same way: with olive oil (definitely not butter) and liberally sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. The fact that the local grocery store did not carry Parmesan had not deterred me from continuing to make Sophie’s favorite dish once we arrived in France. I was proud of my small triumph in charming the initially gruff grocer into placing a special order for “Sophie’s cheese.”

“School is about learning lots of things, including how to eat what is put in front of you,” replied Janine. (Note to self: Next time, don’t invite mother–in–law along for first day of school.) I was cornered. The problem was that my husband and I had agreed that Sophie should eat lunch at school. This idea had originated with Janine. “Eating is central to French culture,” she declared soon after we arrived. “And Sophie will not make friends unless she stays to eat at the cantine.” So we had signed her up to eat meals there every day. At the time, it had sounded like a good idea. We had talked to Sophie about the cantine, and played it up: think of all the fun you’ll have with your new friends! Now I was having second thoughts. But it was too late to back down.

We walked down the hallway to Sophie’s classroom, where her teacher stood at the door welcoming the students. There was a long line, which moved slowly. As we got closer to the front of the line, I found out why. We watched as each child eagerly approached the teacher to be kissed on each cheek. Some of the parents kissed the teacher as well, whereas others shook her hand. This was accompanied by pleasantries about the summer holidays. After a few minutes, the child moved into the classroom and the parents gracefully retreated.

This was not an unusual scene in France. Se faire la bise translates as “to give a kiss,” but a bise is really more of a delicate brushing of cheeks with a vague kissing action made in the air close (but not too close) to the other person’s ear. I had a hard time with this, as I was brought up in a culture where your face was as private as your rear end: only a few very close family members have the right to touch it. But since everyone gives les bises every time they meet in France, I realized I had to start getting used to it.

Les bises made me nervous for another reason: they are unpredictable. When -people meet one another in France, they may shake hands instead of exchanging les bises. Sometimes men kiss men, but sometimes they don’t. On some occasions, I was expected to kiss -people I was meeting for the first time (mostly family), but with other -people (even those I saw frequently) I never got past shaking hands. In some parts of France, -people exchange only one or two kisses, but in other parts of the country, -people kiss three or even four times. Sometimes, -people start with the left cheek, but sometimes with the right. All of these decisions have to be made in an instant, based on a complex calculation about the relationship you have with the person, the location of the encounter, their gender, who else is with you, how much of a rush you’re both in, and some strange sixth sense about the social pecking order. I never quite figured out the logic.

All I knew was that you could get les bises really wrong. I had seen this with my husband. Soon after we met, we flew back home so that he could meet my relatives. My uncle John came to the airport to pick us up. In the arrivals hall, surrounded by -people, Philippe did what comes naturally to French men: he gave Uncle John a big kiss on each cheek. John’s stunned look was promptly misinterpreted by Philippe. “Oh,” said my husband–to–be, smiling, “you must be giving three kisses in Canada!” As Philippe dove in to give another kiss, Uncle John ducked, and the two ended up in a locked–lip embrace.

Their relationship eventually recovered enough for Uncle John to give me away at our wedding. But bises still made me nervous. And they made Sophie nervous too; even with our relatives, she would balk, although she knew that refusing to give a bise is the gravest of insults. As her turn to meet the teacher approached, Sophie began to fidget. “Bonjour!” said Madame, smiling. Sure enough, Sophie hung her head, let go of my hand and slunk into the classroom. Madame frowned. Now was clearly not the time to mention my worries about food. But I worried all day. And it was a long day. French kids go to school from 8:30 to 4:30 (and many stay in after–school “study time” (études) until 6:30 or 7:00). Sophie’s classmates would be used to this, as it was their third year in school (French kids start formal schooling part–time at two and a half, and full–time at three). They were cantine veterans, but Sophie was definitely not.

Sophie’s face told me everything as she left the classroom. She bolted into my arms, wailing. When she calmed down, I heard the story. She had eaten nothing all day. Lunch was inedible (according to her). Unlike her day care, there was no morning or afternoon snack. And no one had allowed her to get a drink of water, even when she raised her hand.

Fuming, I put her to bed early and decided to show up at school early the next day with a packed lunch, water bottle, and some strong words for the teacher. I planned my comments carefully: “Sophie is having enough trouble adjusting to a new culture. At home, children can drink when they want to, even during class. Could she please bring her lunch from home until she settles in?”

Leaving Philippe to get Sophie ready for school, I rushed over half an hour early in order to get a chance to speak with Madame. But Madame was not impressed. Eyeing Sophie’s lunch bag with suspicion, she sniffed, “I have to think of the entire class. We can’t have special treats being sent from home, or special allowances made for anyone.” Before I could stop myself, I blurted out my concerns. Would Sophie be stigmatized because she ate differently than the other children? Or wasn’t as adventurous an eater? What would that do to her socially? And how would she ever learn anything if she was hungry and thirsty all the time? Seeing my worried face, Madame softened. “Come to see the cantine on your way out,” she invited.

Excerpt from: French Kids Eat Everything (And Yours Can Too) by Karen Le Billon. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright by Karen Bakker le Billon. All rights reserved.

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