You can teach kids to eat just like you teach them to read

school-lunch-in-france

So says Karen Le Billon, in her book “French Kids Eat Everything.” She goes on to say, “The French believe—and have done scientific research—to prove you can teach your kids to eat just like you teach them to read,” she told Quartz. “Pediatricians give new parents detailed lists of what kids should be trying. Young children are expected to try pickled pig snouts. It’s soft, and healthy,” she said. “Taste training is part of the national curriculum and kids get tested in year four; they learn that science shows you need to try a new food many times before you like it. By the time kids get to school, stinky cheese is not going to scare anyone.”

Why am I talking about school lunches and eating habits in France, when this is America? Because popular opinion of late would have it, that kids in other countries, particularly France, are superior to American ones in many ways. I don’t buy that. There is no disputing that France and other countries have dramatically lower obesity rates than the United States, which they seem to accomplish by feeding their children Boeuf bourguignon and brie with a snack of bread and chocolate at 4pm every day.

The austere differences in school lunches provide some answers: French kids are given time to eat hot, four-course meals that include a wide range of cheeses and artisanal breads while New York City public schools kids race through versions of starch with cheese with an “eat your colors” campaign to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption. If France faces restrictions on how much ketchup can be served weekly, the US government has at various times tried to pass ketchup off as a vegetable.

In my opinion, no country’s children are superior over another’s. As for how they eat, that is a cultural issue. Europeans tend toward making eating a celebration of sorts. They take time to enjoy a meal with family or friends and to enjoy the fresh grown products of their local areas. Most products for these gatherings or dinners are home cooked with fresh products. The French have a word for food and company: “Commensality (la commensalité), which literally means ‘eating together in a group,” Le Billon writes. Americans have always viewed eating as a way to fuel the body to continue working. They never have taken the time to truly enjoy a meal. This trend dates back as far as America’s beginnings. Home cooking did prevail until the “Fast Food Boom” in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, when Americans could eat out quickly and affordably. Following on the heels of fast food came processed foods. Not quite as healthy for you, but good enough to fill you up quickly and cheaply. The obesity epidemic had begun in America.

As early as the mid 1960’s articles were appearing in magazines regarding the obesity epidemic in America. Less and less Americans were eating at home and those who were, were using pre-prepared canned or frozen products of less healthy qualities (processed foods). American life was becoming more sedentary, but we were still rushing through meals and overeating because of the rush. Some Americans were eating healthy, but this group came, as in today’s society, from upper-middle income and above. Every child wasn’t entitled to at least two healthy, government regulated meals at school, so this became America’s dining culture.

Children emulate their role models, so the fast food culture spread to our children. We literally taught them to eat just like we teach them to read. They eat and read what they are readily exposed to on a daily basis. American or French, or Asian, or any other child for that matter identifies and prefers the foods they have become accustomed to eating on a regular basis. Unlike the French, we do not start nutrition education with our children from birth. We now wait until they start school, have developed food preferences, and then depend on our schools to rectify an almost unsolvable situation. This, as we are starting to see is causing hardships on school food programs. Just because we try to force them to eat healthier doesn’t means they will. Comparisons of a weekly school menu in France with one in New York City, show that most American kids wouldn’t identify with or even try the French fare.

Here’s what French kids in Paris 17th arrondissement (link in French) ate this week, compared to kids in New York City:
 Day  Paris  New York City 
Monday Artisanal baguette, pork rib in dijon sauce, turkey ham, mashed potatoes, emmental cheese, apple Stuffed cheesy bread, marinara sauce, spinach
Tuesday Artisanal baguette, green salad, salmon spaghetti, yogurt with fruit, apple compote Mac & Cheese, toasted garlic dinner roll, Brooklyn baked beans
Wednesday Fresh bread, cucumber salad with cream fraiche, veal sauteed in olives and broccoli, goat cheese, gâteau de semoule fait maison au caramel Avi’s Burger-ito, baked french fries, kale salad
Thursday Artisanal baguette, tomato, onion and coriander salad, organic beef sauteed in its juice with delicate green beans in parsley, fromage à pâte molle, pear Chicken & broccoli, veggie fried rice, crispy egg roll with duck sauce, fresh apple
Friday Artisanal baguette, omelette with potatoes, salad of carrots, tomatoes and corn, fromage à pâte fraiche, apple crumble Pizza (garden veggie), Jamaican Patty, fresh tomato salad

Some American kids would identify with the French cuisine as they already eat some of these items at home, but they are in the minority. If our nation, like the French, started influencing the eating habits of children from birth and in the home, instead of after the fact in school, we may start to see a distinct change in the eating culture of Americans over time. After all, it took a long time for this culture to develop, it will take time to change it again.

This may appear to be a drastic and prescriptive approach, but no more than the HHFKA guidelines are in school dining. If we truly want to make a difference then we need to be all in, not just for 1/16th of a child’s daily food experience. Until we take major steps to change the culture, alas, the American version of “Commensality (la commensalité) will continue to be “Miller Time.”

Milt Miller is the Principal and Chief Innovator at Milton Miller Consulting. Throughout his 32 years in the food service industry he has managed, operated and assisted food service programs to become successful. For more information on this and other topics, contact Milt at; www.miltonmillerconsultant.com

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