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Part II: Karen Le Billon
Born in Montreal and based in Vancouver, Karen Le Billon is an author and teacher. Married to a Frenchman, she has two daughters, and her family divides its time between Vancouver and France.
French Kids Eat Everything (HarperCollins) is Karen’s newest book, a memoir about family and food, inspired by a year spent in her husband’s hometown–a small seaside village in Brittany.
Karen has a PhD from Oxford University, and is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Rhodes Scholarship, a Canada Research Chair, and Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 award. She currently teaches at the University of British Columbia.
She is one of the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation’s Real Food Advocates.
Caryn Hartglass: We’re back. I’m Caryn Hartglass, and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. And I’ve been having such a great time reading some really wonderful books this past week. And it’s gonna continue all during the next couple of months. I really selected a lot of wonderful things to read and talk about on this show, It’s All About Food, ‘cause I think food is really, very interesting. And it is all about food. I have here in the studio Karen Becker… Becker?
Karen Le Billon: Le Billon.
Caryn Hartglass: Le Billon. And she is a professor at the University of British Columbia and was named one of Canada’s Top Forty Under Forty in 2011. A Rhodes Scholar with a PhD from Oxford…I’m impressed. She has published three scholarly books, and for the past decade she and her family have divided their time between Canada and France. And we’re talking today about her book, French Kids Eat Everything. Welcome to It’s All About Food.
Karen Le Billon: Thank you for having me.
Caryn Hartglass: You’re welcome. I love talking about France and the French and all of their ways. I happened to live in the south of France in the early 90s for four years, and it was—I think you used love-hate at some point in the book—it was definitely a love-hate experience. I loved some of the things with a great passion and hated some other things with about the same amount of passion. But the one thing we know about French is they are very particular about their food, n’est-ce pas?
Karen Le Billon: Indeed.
Caryn Hartglass: We’re going to talk today about your experience in France—you spent about a year in France with your family—and everything you went through learning about the food and the culture and getting your children, specifically, to eat maybe a little better in a different way.
Karen Le Billon: Yeah. So the book tells the story of how our family discovered French food culture. I have to preface this by saying that I was not a foodie when we went to France. I didn’t own a single French cookbook. I was married to a Frenchman—we’re still married—and he had left France when he was nineteen and worked all over the world and is one of those rare Frenchman who is not that interested in food, which is why he could consider marrying a foreigner I suppose. So I arrived in France sort of being the anti-Julia Child—he had christened me “The Queen of Burned Pots” soon after we got married—and we had our two young daughters with us. They entered kindergarten and preschool. And very soon, we got a French food education. Much to my great shock and horror, I was not allowed to pack lunches for them to bring from home. They were expected to eat the meals provided at the preschool and the kindergarten, respectively, and those meals were pretty astounding. The French believe that it is as important to teach your kids to eat as is to teach them to read. So right from the early days, they’re giving kids lots of flavors and tastes and textures and colors, talking to them about food. They don’t believe that education stops when you go to the lunchroom. The lunchroom is a central place where you educate your kids. And so, for example, the meals they were getting were the typical three- or four-course hot lunches with beautiful food: beet salad—it’s always a vegetable course to start—beet salad, endive salad, carrot salad. Then, the main course, some kind of protein: fish, or meat, or legumes, with a vegetable side. And then the cheese course. They don’t get milk at their lunches, no flavored milk, just water. So cheese and baguette, sometimes stinky French cheese. And fresh fruit, four times a week and then of course, because eating well is all about moderation, not deprivation. They would get a sweet treat the last day. Now, my kids ate mostly pasta and Cheerios and crackers. They were not happy and I was not happy. And I tried to convince the teacher that I had to bring lunch from home—the kids had to pack a lunch. No way. They were going to educate my daughters in spite of their mother’s weird food habits. That was their job and they took it very seriously and they were very firm about it. So though I had this little love-hate thing going—just like you did—and, from my initial resistance, we began a sort of family food adventure. And that’s the story in the book.
Caryn Hartglass: Well what I like that you got out of this experience are the French food rules, and it’s on the back of the book, and we can quickly go over them, perhaps. Can I read them quickly?
Karen Le Billon: Yeah. Sure. But I want to say something first about the rules if I may. Those rules are the food rules that French adults live by. They teach them to their kids at a young age, but the interesting thing is that those are the… I would call them “happy, healthy eating routines” that guide adults, too. So that’s why it’s sort of of interest to anyone who cares about food.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s funny because you’re calling them rules. And in America, we’re so stuck on freedom about everything, and being able to do whatever we want. And I think we don’t know what we’re talking about when it comes to freedom because most Americans are brainwashed by the media and by corporations, and North Americans—Canada and the United States—have been so brainwashed that we’re really making really bad choices. And so it’s not really rules, it’s just knowledge that the French parents and other parents around the world instill in their children about, and it starts at a young age. And I think these are the things that are really important.
Karen Le Billon: And you can think of them as routines, or guidelines, rather than strict regulations. They’re not punitive, they’re healthy structure.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. I think—I get really frustrated now. I don’t have children, but I’ve seen a lot of different families raise children. I see what works, and I see what doesn’t work. And what frustrates me is that there seems to be this movement in this country where empowering children at a really early age to make decisions, and all I’m all for empowering. But children at two and three years old don’t know what to eat. And you need to just put out the food for them. They shouldn’t be making choices!
Karen Le Billon: Which is the French approach. The French don’t give their kids a choice. They lovingly and firmly say, “Here’s the beautiful meal I’ve prepared for you.” There are no substitutes. There is no short-order cooking. Kids eat what adults eat. When you go to a restaurant in France, there is no kid’s menu.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s not exactly true. There are in these, I guess, in the more cosmopolitan areas and some of the chains.
Karen Le Billon: Yes. But the traditional French restaurants don’t. We can have an interesting discussion about what the French have done to contend with—what I agree with you is a significant trend—what they call McDonaldization of eating in France. They have a lot of McDonalds in France, although they have actually shifted—they serve fresh fruit compotes and salads and the traditional baguette sandwiches. They’ve had to adapt to the French consumerist tastes.
Caryn Hartglass: Ah, tant pis.
Karen Le Billon: Yeah. So that’s an interesting story in itself because in the reaction to the McDonaldization of food, the French put in a whole series of measures in schools. No vending machines in any school in France, national ban. No fast food, no fast food. None. And they tightened their Ministry of Education regulations on nutritional quality in meals, but they also have regulations not only on what kids are eating, but how they’re eating. Minimum thirty minutes at the table so they can really properly eat, appreciate the food, but they also have the time for those fullness satiety signals to get from their stomachs to the brain.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, we talked before about how here in this country, ten minutes sometimes for kids. It’s crazy.
Karen Le Billon: Very important. That way… Ten minutes at my daughter’s school now in Vancouver: 12 o’clock to 12:10.
Caryn Hartglass: Who thinks of these things?
Karen Le Billon: One wonders. So it’s about how you eat and how you talk about food, appreciate food. They use a nice word, they say you “tame” the food, you become familiar with it over time. And that means, basically, kids grow up loving all food. They don’t learn this kind of interesting thing we teach our kids, that good-for-you food tastes bad. People here expect that kids think good-for-you, food that’s good for you, tastes bad. Broccoli does not taste bad. That’s why French kids eat broccoli, ‘cause it tastes good, just like beets taste good. So that is a very valuable thing that has happened in France: building on their traditional food culture as a reaction to the inevitable encroachment of McDonalds and fast food. They’re dealing with the same pressures we do. Two people working, two parents working outside the home, long commutes, all of those things.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. It’s true that men and women work in France—
Karen Le Billon: Same proportion as here.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. And they’re still managing to teach the kids about food.
Karen Le Billon: They only, actually they only spend eighteen more minutes cooking per day than we do. But they manage to eat a family meal. Nine out of ten.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s really just an attitude. And I really think it’s because we’ve been indoctrinated, thanks to the media, that we need convenience and we need speed. And everything needs to be quick. And…no. It can be efficient. It doesn’t have to be that time-consuming. It’s just this perspective that’s really gotten crazy.
Karen Le Billon: Yeah, it…well, again. It’s just a question of it being a healthy routine and a habit. So what I found was fascinating, keeping in mind I was not a big foodie when we moved to France, is that the way French people ate at home was not like fancy gourmet cuisine that we think of. It’s not these rich sauces, it’s not these time-consuming dishes. Simple, fresh ingredients, so the recipes in the book have on average four ingredients and take less than ten minutes to make. And that’s the art of French cooking at home, actually. ‘Cause what they’re doing is teaching their kids about all of these tastes, so they vary them. Just like you can’t repeat the same dish at the school more than once a month, that’s a rule. So they have to have variety. The French also have variety at home. But they don’t make it time-consuming or they don’t make it expensive. It’s easy, ‘cause they’re busy just like us, and they also want to spend more time at the table with their kids just like us.
Caryn Hartglass: And that’s all good. When I lived in France, I was a vegan—I’m a vegan now. And so people, their eyes pop out and go, “How did you do that? How did you live in France?” And I lived in the south of France, and it was really easy. And all the people that hosted dinners and knew I was coming, I would let them know ahead of time about my eating habits. They were all very welcoming, and they are so accustomed to preparing simple, fresh vegetable dishes that it was no problem. The salads are gorgeous, the vegetables are gorgeous, the fruit dishes—poached pears with raspberry coulis is such a popular dessert even in the gourmet restaurants in France that I really didn’t have a problem, which was great. We would have very lively discussions about food—
Karen Le Billon: I’m sure. The French… I have to say, so the book is not unequivocally positive about French, the French parenting or French approach to eating. They are not a country where vegetarianism is widely accepted; in fact, in my opinion they don’t offer enough vegetarian options in schools. So that’s one of the criticisms. There are many you could actually make of the French approach. But you’re right. Because they have a culture in which the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables daily and at every meal is the norm, they have more flexible eating habits than I would say, although you hate to make generalizations, than many people here.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes. That’s true. There’s a wide range of people in France, and they all have different habits.
Karen Le Billon: Just like here.
Caryn Hartglass: Just like here. But there are some lines that you could follow. The other thing about being a vegetarian in France is one of the things that’s kind of rigid is when you give a name to a food, it pretty much has to stick to a certain list of ingredients. Bread is flour, yeast, water, salt. And if you put eggs in it, it’s not bread anymore. It’s something else.
Karen Le Billon: Oh my gosh.
Caryn Hartglass: And so, for someone who’s concerned about what’s in bread, unless I went into the supermarket and got something disgusting in a plastic bag, I could pretty much be assured of what was in it, in a restaurant or in a bakery. And that’s good.
Karen Le Billon: That’s a very interesting observation. They are quite precise. Words are very important to the French, and that’s another important part of the book. They encourage children to talk about food and to experience food with all of their senses, so they do taste training in schools and at home. This is part of the curriculum; it’s not just in the lunchroom. So they’ll be teaching kids how to talk about food through, for example, giving them different foods and talking to them about—this is for young children—acidity. Or sweetness. Or what makes something sour or sweet. Let’s discuss and understand the taste, the smell, the touch, how foods sound actually. Then they’ll work on sensory appreciation of foods, the five senses for younger kids, and then the taste training gets more sophisticated as you get older. They might talk about, for example, food marketing, and dissect food marketing messages in a classroom setting. So they are training kids to be able to talk about food, and that helps them understand food better, which is one of the ways that they encourage kids to eat all kinds of food, especially vegetables, because they’re more familiar with them. Often when our kids say, “I don’t like it,” it just means they don’t know it. The French gradually teach kids to know all kinds of fruits and vegetables, which is a wonderful way to think about it. So when I said earlier that the French think it’s as important for kids to learn to eat as is to teach them how to read, they also know that it’s as time-consuming. It takes years to teach a kid to read. Alphabet. Phonemes. Spelling out the words. It takes a few years, actually, before they’re really reading on their own. They view taste training the same way. You’re working with children on taste, and that’s one of the food rules, actually: Food Rule Number Six. They say you don’t have to eat it, but you do have to taste it. The more you taste it, the more you’ll like it. And they’ve actually done research on this, and they’ve shown that a children needs to taste something, on average, seven times before they’ll accept to eat it, and more times before they’ll like it. Whereas I, at least in this culture, would give up as soon as my kids didn’t eat something, French parents would often say, “Oh, you just haven’t tried it enough times yet. Keep trying.” And that takes the pressure off. But also, it gives the relationship the space in which the parent can play the appropriate role of fostering support and encouraging the child to treat this as a learning experience in which they’ll eventually learn to like to eat these things.
Caryn Hartglass: We do know that it takes numerous times to get children and adults to try things before they understand what it is and determine if they like it or not, and unfortunately that’s used so often when different people are trying to introduce new foods into schools, healthier food options, because the foods are [15:24] they’ll say, “The kids didn’t like it. We’re not offering it again.” And it’s really unfair, and it’s not smart. The thing about the French and—I don’t want to say—I have to say this—I don’t love everything about the French, but there are some things that I really love, and I would like to think now we’re in this global community, that we can learn about all cultures and learn and take the good and leave behind the bad, and we can all evolve into this incredible species.
Karen Le Billon: That’s the spirit in which the book was written. Very much like, not that French parenting is better or the French way to eating is without its problems—the French approach to eating is without its problems—but actually we can learn from them about the way in which—they really have their cake and eat it too. They have a very modern, efficient, safe food system, yet they preserve local, artisanal, paysan, peasant producers in a way that would be the envy of a lot of small farmers here in terms of the support. The small farmers get based on subsidies in a regime that is not always positive, but they’ve kind of squared the circle that we often still have problems with because the argument still made here often is that local food, small farmers, too expensive, not efficient, the French don’t have those kind of debates. So that’s one thing we could learn in terms of a broader political economy of food. But I also think we could learn a lot from them in terms of how well their kids are eating. If you look at the statistics, their kids are getting their portions of fruits and vegetables a day and ours are not. And the contrast in terms of rates of overweight kids is pretty stark. So American kids are three times more likely to be overweight than French kids. And there’s a similar, although not quite as large, discrepancy for French and American adults, especially when it comes to obesity rates. So that suggests that they’ve got something right. In fact, they’re a real outlier. They’re one of the few industrialized countries in which rates of overweight have remained low for children even as they’ve started to climb in countries like England—
Caryn Hartglass: Rates of what over there?
Karen Le Billon: Rates of obesity and overweight have started to climb in Spain, Italy, England, Germany, Canada, they’re catching up with the U.S.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. France is holding.
Karen Le Billon: France is a brilliant outlier. And it has a lot to do with these healthy eating routines, which are the food rules that are explored in the book.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s a couple of things. It’s definitely the routine, and it’s so important to sit at a table with the family on a routine basis, and dress the table, and make every day a special moment around the table, it’s so important.
Karen Le Billon: It’s so true. And that’s another of the food rules, but it is not extra work. So the funny thing is—of course, when I moved there I thought this was all extra work, I’m busy, like people are demanding me to do more work at home, no, can’t do it. But in fact, because the table is the place where the French family relaxes, connects with one another, and because the kids are so eager to come to the table and happy to eat—and also help with setting the table, things like that—it actually becomes a source of family togetherness, and actually felt like less work when we started this approach. So having a family dinner every evening actually felt joyful and fun, and connected us with our kids in a way that hadn’t necessarily been happening in the past because there was so much fighting about picky eating. Once we managed to get over the picky eating challenge and my kids moved from eating only pasta and Cheerios and crackers to eating things like beets and spinach and broccoli and fish and mussel, that meant that we could really enjoy one another and it became—I like to say that the dining room table, the kitchen table, is one of the happiest places in the French household, it’s where parents relax, the best stories are told, the kids are really connecting with their parents… So, that doesn’t take a lot more work in terms of making a fancy meal. But it does take, as you said, this commitment to slowing down, even putting a simple tablecloth on the table, making it the simple ritual that says, for a moment in our busy lives we all stop, slow down, we all spend this time with one another connecting through food. And that, that is something we could learn from them. And it sounds so simple that it almost sounds banal, but I think it changed our family’s life, anyway.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. I use several tablecloths on my table. They all have Provençal patterns on them. They may not all be from France, but they all look French. It’s just something that I like to do. But I think something happened, maybe in the fifties or so, where—fifties or sixties—where we used to eat around the table, and then more and more women started to go work, and somehow we dropped this routine because everybody was working and nobody had time for anything, and then TV dinners and fast food kind of took over, and… We need to rethink the way we feel and act and do things with food. And it’s definitely possible. It’s the healthier way to go, it’s the happier way to go.
Karen Le Billon: And it’s actually, in schools and at home, a cheaper way to go. Kate Adamick works here in New York with Cooks of America, former corporate lawyer then went to chef’s school, works with schools all over the United States, helping them to convert to scratch cooking, they save hundreds of thousands of dollars per school per year. And that’s the thing—we’ve created a system that’s more expensive, not as good for our kids’ health, and frankly, stresses everyone out. And the French approach is one we could learn from because, as you said, it’s healthier, happier, and, I would add, probably cheaper. You have to be smart and organized—
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely.
Karen Le Billon: —but once you get into that new routine, it’s not a lot more time, it’s not a lot more effort. And so the book really lays out how our family transformed our eating habits in hopes that it will inspire people with these simple examples—people who might, as I did when I first went to France, think, “That’s way too much work. I don’t have the time. It’s too expensive. It’s too complicated.” And our story sort of proves the contrary.
Caryn Hartglass: I think a lot of working moms will relate to your story. You’re really quite exposed about your feelings and your experiences in this story. And so, I think a lot of people can learn because they can see all the sides and really feel—they probably have felt the frustration that you felt, even not going to France, but just in their own personal way and their own lives. A lot of people are lost in the kitchen, and I keep saying, “Find your kitchen and learn how to use it. It’s a great place.” And there are so many… Everybody knows that when there are get-togethers, people flock towards the kitchen. We like talking and hanging out in the kitchen, and it’s not hard to cook. People need to find their kitchen.
Karen Le Billon: And that’s why the book is called French Kids Eat Everything (And Yours Can, Too), because the message is that, basically, “I could do it, you could do it.” And so, that’s why the recipes are there and the tips and the resources and on the blog, frenchkidseateverything.com, there are more resources. There are recipes and menu ideas. I blog weekly about school lunch menus in France, which has become a little…has a little following in and of itself because those menus are fascinating. I mean, roast guinea fowl and beet salad and cabbage salad for preschoolers. Endives, I mean, the things…
Caryn Hartglass: What, you’re feeding your children what?
Karen Le Billon: And it’s only costing on average three dollars a day per kid. This is not astronomically out of reach for most schools here.
Caryn Hartglass: There are pockets here, on our side, of schools changing their food, and offering a lot more healthy options. Now, I know that you tried and had a not very positive experience, unfortunately.
Karen Le Billon: Yeah. When we came back, I was so gung ho and my kids hadn’t been in school here yet so I thought, “Oh, I’ll just tell everyone about this great example,” and I just naively assumed people would see the light and want to support a healthier way of eating for kids. As the book explains, I became a kind of accidental and failed food activist and had people tell me, despite lots of work doing surveys and organizing parents, that kids only eat fast food and fishy crackers. Why would you want to be doing this, giving them all this food? They’d just throw it out. Or, a kind of disbelief that kids could eat well, that kids could like, for example, beet salad. And that gave me the idea for writing this book, actually, and doing the blog, where I blog about all the great things kids are eating, because I think if people really get over the notion that kids don’t like good-for-you food or they believe that good-for-you food tastes bad, if they can get over that notion, which requires families and communities and schools to work together, then we’ve solved a lot of our problem. Because the other problems in terms of logistics or affordability have been shown to be manageable. This approach is cheaper, the logistics are manageable. But it’s that mental block, the assumption that kids only like kid’s food, whatever that is—
Caryn Hartglass: Pasta. Pasta and cheese.
Karen Le Billon: —and that’s hopefully a message that people will take home from the book. Kids can like this food, here are the tactics and strategies and tips and tricks to teach them, not get them, teach them to like this food.
Caryn Hartglass: With joy and fun.
Karen Le Billon: Yes, absolutely.
Caryn Hartglass: If you look at what people eat around the world and what children eat around the world—I spent some time in Korea when I was working as an engineer in the early 2000s, and the kids, from a very young age, eat kimchi! Okay? Spicy, salty kimchi, it’s like their bread!
Karen Le Billon: Yes. Or like hot sauce in Mexico or curry in India.
Caryn Hartglass: You can teach kids to eat anything.
Karen Le Billon: Yes.
Caryn Hartglass: And it’s not necessarily healthy, but you can teach them to eat anything.
Karen Le Billon: This is true. And so, the question is then, knowing that, what do we do about that? And I think we’re at a real cultural moment around this. Ten or fifteen years ago, this conversation was not mainstream. But now we’ve had Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution—whatever you think of that show, there are valid critiques to make of it—and then Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign and the Obama Foodorama. And many of the voices that were coming from the organic farming movement have now crossed over into school foods. So, for example, Slow Food USA had their Time For Lunch campaign, which was about reform to national legislation around healthy nutrition for children. So that there a lot of the pieces in place now, I think, for the necessary reforms to happen in legislation and regulations, ‘cause some of those are stumbling blocks, as well as parents and kids changing for the better how they eat at home. Those two things have to happen. It’s about what goes on at schools and at home.
Caryn Hartglass: I could talk for like another few hours and we only have a minute or so, and I just want to stick in my little vegan moment here. I think some of the rules, or the culture that the French have can be good for them, but it’s unfortunately not so good for them, because they don’t see what parts of their culture are really not healthy. And I’m a big believer that dairy products…I don’t think people should be eating dairy. No mammal naturally eats its own milk as an adult, certainly not from another species, and it’s very ingrained in their culture. And we see a lot of disease in France, they have a higher life expectancy than we do, but they’re still dying—
Karen Le Billon: Yes.
Caryn Hartglass: —I can show you some data, of heart disease and cancer, and they’re not necessarily eating all the best foods. They’re doing better than we are, and they’re certainly shunning the junk food and they’ve got a great schedule. But I personally promote green foods and less dairy and less meat, and…
Karen Le Billon: And the French government has not been a big supporter of organic agriculture, although now they’ve passed a decree that twenty percent of foods served in schools has to be organic in the next year or two.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, that’s good. We just have like a few seconds.
Karen Le Billon: And you’re right, they’re not open to arguments about reducing meat and dairy consumption. In fact, their regulations are moving the other way. In addition, they are not very good at serving halal and kosher foods in schools.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah.
Karen Le Billon: And so their approach is not perfect, far from it. And the book makes that very clear. You’ve read it, you know I’m very critical of the French approach of French parenting.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. But you really filtered down the rules to the right things to focus on.
Karen Le Billon: But. The things that we could draw from their culture are what I summed up in the rules, and I hope it sparks a conversation and debate about where we take kid’s food in this country.
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely. Well, you’re not a tiger mom, but you’ve got some really good suggestions here. Thank you Karen Le Billon for talking to me today about French Kids Eat Everything, and have a delicious week.
Karen Le Billon: Thank you so much for having me. You too.
Caryn Hartglass: You’re welcome. I’m Caryn Hartglass, you’ve been listening to It’s All About Food. Next week: urban farming.