How come French kids eat everything including their vegetables asks Kate Peterson as she considers the difference between attitudes to food in France and Australia with a unique insight – she married a Frenchman in France and now lives in Australia...
On a sunny market day in the Alsatian town of Riedisheim in France’s vine-covered north east corner, you might see a gaggle of two-year olds from the local crèche enthusiastically engaged in smelling and squeezing. Not each other, (although they are French), but vegetables. Another day finds them staring starry-eyed as a chef in a tall toque sizzles local mushrooms.
When we lived in France, this is the crèche my kids went to. And I used to wonder if all this gastronomic training wasn’t starting a little early? Can two year-olds really appreciate the provenance of produce, cherishing the cherry tomato more if it’s organic?
At the same time I was stunned to hear what my 18 month-old daughter Chloé ate each day. I kid you not, those one year-olds got three course cooked meals delivered by a traiteur every lunchtime. Just as at school, children in France are served three course hot meals at their school canteens. Not a jam sandwich or a doughnut or a can of Coke to be seen from one end of ‘l’hexagone’ to the other (my French husband is horrified that I send the kids to school with sandwiches in Australia. I can see him averting his eyes each morning and shaking his head as I pack their lunchboxes). At the French crèche, Chloé would eat things like cuisse de canard with carottes aux herbes served with salad and followed by flan. One evening when I arrived at the crèche, the manager told me that ‘Chloé loved the choucroute at lunch.’ What? Chloé ate fermented cabbage? I could imagine her nibbling a bit of duck leg, but sour cabbage? I was seriously impressed. I certainly would never have dreamed of giving her anything like that myself. What’s wrong with nice, safe baby mush?
The thing is, in France, babies begin to eat like adults practically from their first gummy bite. According to J’Elève Mon Enfant (I Raise My Child) by Laurence Pernoud, the reference book for French parents, this is normal – children crave gustative adventures from babyhood. Food served to kids must not be boring, ‘fade’: ‘poached fish will appear boring to them’ the book says of two year-olds. ‘They will love gherkins, prawns and smoked sausage … and vary their cheeses.’ Not just brie – Roquefort and port-salut you are advised to feed them at 18 months.
Then the author provides what was for me a real revelation: ‘the best thing for capricious appetites is varied menus: ‘propose them a slice of sausage and a gherkin.’ So if your two year-old is flinging food at the walls, it’s because they secretly want gherkins? The last thing most of us would think to do with a food-chucking child is to become more experimental!
Sandrine Jobard, a friend who teaches future restaurateurs at the Lycée Hotelier in Guebwiller explained it to me: “It’s essential to explain the concept of taste, of flavours and even colours of foods to children” she said. It’s true that kids find the taste of some foods stronger than adults do, but apparently this is nothing to be afraid of. As Sandrine put it, “kids are much more sensitive to the richness of foods and can better appreciate them.” We risk denying them the chance to enjoy haute cuisine when our children’s eating powers are at their peak! I have seen 18 month-old Chloé try the entire stinky array of cheeses at the market in Vichy, and wolf down foie gras, so I’m not in a position to argue.
According to Sandrine, we should train our kids: “Once the child has the habit of appreciating taste and finesse at home and in restaurants, there are good chances that they will become more discerning in what they choose to eat for themselves; they will become, quite simply, a gastronome, who takes pleasure in each meal.” Hmm. Personally, I’m not sure how much finesse the kids are going to see in my home cooking. And restaurants? Kids in restaurants are not so common in Anglo-Saxon culture – in England, children under 12 are barred from some establishments. You’re supposed to take them to ‘family restaurants’ where they can develop an appreciation for fries. We often took the kids to restaurants in France, however – with the slightly embarrassing result that Chloé now has a more adult palate than I do.
So, how do you get your kids to eat their veggies? The answer seems to be to start them early. That or make sure they’re born in France!