My cousin Angélique often complains about her daughter being an extreme fussy eater. I wish I could help, but working with family is a no-go zone. Anyway I am telling you this so you know that in France kids are just as likely to be difficult to feed. However, as I told Penny Johnston from Babytalk here, France has a system that helps parents establish good eating habits in their children. Does it make French children better, healthier eaters? Let’s be clear, French people, like Aussies, do not follow nutrition guidelines very well. France also has to deal with an array of diseases linked to lifestyle. Yet the French rate of obesity is about half what it is in Australia.
What if being a healthy eater is not just about obtaining certain nutrients? What if a childhood of shared family and school canteen meals produces healthier eaters? What if family-friendly cooking increases willingness to eat a great variety of foods?
Eating together opens a world of food to children
In France, from childcare to high school, most children eat lunch made by professionals. The aim is to provide a yummy variety using local and seasonal produce. At the canteen kids learn to sit down together and eat in conviviality. Staff plate foods if children indicate they want a serve. Kids are totally in charge of what and how much they eat. They can help themselves to as much bread as they wish. Bread is on offer at the table. Seemingly like magic, without pressure or judgement, their peers’ eating influences them to be more accepting of a greater variety of foods (Birch, 1980). Most kids then go on to have dinner with their parents who offer different home-cooked foods.
Snacks at 4pm
In France, children get about 40% of their calorie needs at lunchtime. They are offered a snack at about 4pm, then nothing further until dinner which is usually served around 7pm. Having structure and decent gaps between meals and snacks helps kids to learn to eat with appetite and stop when they have had enough. This may sound trivial, but it is not. Learning to eat in tune with one’s body is essential to manage weight throughout life. French kids are exposed to eating with patience, presence, hunger, anticipation and satisfaction.
Parents are not under stress to “feed right”, so the family can relax to learn to eat
I hear so many French mums say “I don’t have to worry much about dinner because the kids have lunch at the canteen”. Indeed, the canteen provides balanced meals and the kids are hungry and eat well so there is less pressure for parents to be too concerned about nutrition. At home, parents tend to focus on teaching some values, such as sitting together, being polite about foods and enjoying moments of conviviality. Children do learn to eat better in a relaxed environment. Stress wipes out appetite, and is not conducive to expanding the range of a child’s accepted foods.
French parenting is often praised. However French parents benefit from tremendous support to help their children develop a healthy relationship with eating. In Australia, parents are responsible for every meal and are under enormous pressure to “feed right”. Give yourself permission to resist the pointing finger of judgement and support yourself with kindness:
- Choose a childcare centre that provides quality meals
- Plan meals and snacks
Elect to take some sit down meals with your children a few times a week where, once the food is on the table your only job is to enjoy spending time together.
As a French mum with Aussie kids, I know how hard it is to provide healthy, nutritious meals the kids will eat!
If you need some help to STOP all the FUSSING about food, please get in touch.
 Effect of Peer Models Food Choices and Eating, behaviors on preschoolers’ food preferences, Leann Lipps Birch
Child Development, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Jun., 1980), pp. 489-496
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