Confession #1: I once wrote a review about Paula Druckerman’s much-maligned parenting book Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting (aff) after having skimmed it in a hour.
I was on a super tight deadline and because of some snow storm my overnight-ed copy didn’t come overnight and… oh, enough excuses. While I gave it a favorable review I’ve always felt a little bad that I didn’t, you know, read-read it. Like, pay attention read it. So the other day when I came across it again I picked it up. And couldn’t put it down until I finished it. I looooved it! Since this isn’t a parenting blog – and you’re about to get an overload of pics of my kids anyhow – I’ll skip the nitty gritty and just say that Druckerman’s parenting philosophy a la française is totally how I parent, the only difference being that I’ve always felt guilty about it. (Oh and I’ve spent exactly one day in France.)
This was especially true when I got to the section on how the French (according to Druckerman, an American living in France) teach their children how to eat. Basically they expect them to eat everything, eat it politely and eat it at appropriate times of the day. Most French cafes don’t even have children’s menus because it’s just assumed that the kids will eat what the adults eat – and apparently they do. French moms also don’t bring snacks to every single activity and most food is cooked from fresh ingredients that day. While they limit sweets they don’t forbid them and instead of teaching kids to feel guilty about eating them they teach them to eat them and enjoy them. (I should note that Druckerman lives in the heart of Paris and I’ve heard that the cultural traditions differ by region so I’m not sure if this is true everywhere? Like I said, I was in France for one day.)
But the one part that really stood out to me was how every meal – even those served to toddlers in the Creche (the state-run daycare) – is served in three or four courses. They start with a cold vegetable appetizer, then move on to the main dish, followed by a cheese course and fruit for dessert. This isn’t done just to be pretentious but to teach children to respect and enjoy their food and the process of eating. The break between courses helps kids (and adults) to pay attention to their satiety cues and the group setting gives families time to be together and talk. Family dinner time is hugely important to me and I make it a priority at my house – not only do I enjoy it but lots of research has shown that family dinners have benefits including less incidence of eating disorders in teens, less incidence of depression, and better school outcomes.
At the very least it gets kids to eat more vegetables by feeding it to them when they’re most hungry.
Confession #2: I like to try things full bore. Why do little changes when I can massively overhaul my family’s entire meal system??
Last week I told my kids we were going to do a fun cultural experiment and try eating like the French children. This was their reaction:
Son #2 is giving me the thumbs up (he eats anything and everything and eats it in massive quantities), Son #1 is chill – he’s basically up for whatever, my husband is… amused (He loves it when I do stuff like this. I’m sure that’s why he married me.), Son #3 is full-on hating and Jelly Bean is making the classic kid-sign for ICK.
But I persisted and started them with little bowls of cucumber slices I’d marinated in olive oil, basalmic vinegar and smoked salt. The older two and my husband immediately polished off theirs and asked for more. Jelly Bean was hesitant until we told her they were basically pickles and then…
Son #3 however could not be persuaded. He’s my picky one – which I’m still not sure how that happened as I raised him eating everything just like I did my other kids (I don’t do “baby food” with my babies – we started all our kids on smooshed versions of whatever we were eating). A lot of this happened:
But we waited and when he finally figured out I was serious that the next course wasn’t coming until he’d at least eaten three bites he relented. I won’t say he loved them. But he ate them. So then we moved on to the main course of roasted chicken and root veggies (butternut squash, purple fingerlings, yams, parsnips, turnips, rutabagas, carrots and onions). I did a lot a lot a lot of chopping for this meal – this is what happens when it’s sleeting misery outside: I can’t stop cooking.
Man, no amount of photoshop can save you guys from my horrible food photography skills. I’m sorry! It tasted better than it looks!
The chicken was a hit and the kids even gobbled up the veggies (Son #3 had to be persuaded with ketchup but whatever).
Jelly Bean’s not in this snap because she’s doing her daily ritual of Doing Mom’s Hair:
And not that anyone cares but I didn’t spend all day in my sweats. This was me all set for church in the a.m.:
Pin curls! And a vintage dress with an adorable peplum that you can’t see because my paparrazo is 10 and can’t take a non-blurry shot to save his sweet little life.
Mostly in the interest of dishwashing, I decided to combine the cheese and fruit/dessert courses. I was a little worried how this would go over, especially once I pulled out the baked apples. I swear I followed a recipe! I cored each apple, stuffed them full of cranberries and blackberries and baked them in their own juices. And they still came out looking like, well, this:
Look kids, Ma made cow eyeballs! I wasn’t even going to post this picture at first due to how Zoology Dissection Lab they looked but then I figured that’s 90% of the fun of eating at my house – what weird crap will I pull out of the oven next??
I tried to dress them up a bit with some whipped cream and cinnamon in a pretty bowl:
Shockingly the kids thought they were freaking amazing and sucked them down. (It probably helped that they loved the idea of eating cow eyeballs. Boys are gross.) I forgot to put out the cheese but that was probably for the best as everyone was getting stuffed.
Thus far I’ve managed to do the whole 3-course shebang every day and I have to say it’s been a raving success. While it does take a few more dishes, it really doesn’t take any additional cooking time. I’m not cooking French food, just our regular fare with the only difference being that instead of serving it family style and ending up with each kid eating a ton of the one thing he/she likes, I’ve been plating it individually which makes everyone at least try everything. And I daresay they’re enjoying this! My oldest son said he loves the new method since it means he gets dessert every night which made me giggle: if I’d served fruit at the beginning of the meal it would be nothing special and they’d only eat a few slices but calling it “dessert” and putting it on its own plate makes it special! Whatever works, right?
In the end I think this has been a success: a little more work for me but a lot more fruits and veggies (and entertainment) for them!
All of this got me thinking about how different cultures treat meal timing, prep and serving. Setting aside the different cuisines – which is normally what we talk about when we talk about a cultural food experience – it seems like every society has some interesting nuances in how they eat and I’d love to explore more of them.
Do you have a certain way of serving, eating or timing food that’s a tradition in your culture or family? Got any other ideas I should try? Is a daily family meal important to you?