Like a typical American gal, I dislike a lot of food. Remember how a former President reminded us how he didn't need to eat broccoli anymore? And half of America nodded in agreement, be it privately, because we, too, had at least one vegetable we wanted to avoid like a plague.
And then I read French Kids Eat Everything and discovered a mind-blowing concept: the French believe that every person, beginning in childhood, will come to like the taste of every real food, with rare exception. This belief depends on three things, namely, that the food will be offered repeatedly and explained/examined as it is offered, that it will be prepared in a delicious and appropriate manner (so no carrot-brownies to get kids to eat carrots), and that it can be prepared numerous different ways, in different dishes, or as a stand alone. This method forms the foundation of their food education.
Yes, food education. Not food introduction, but full-blown education.
Compare this to the mindset common in the US: at my peditricians, all over baby websites, and on the backs of baby cereal boxes, I read that it may take a baby/child 17-20 different taste sessions before the person determines whether or not they like it. What's problematic here? It is presumed that the taster may dislike the food, and there is little or no encouragement to prepare it fresh and with a delicious method that brings out the flavor rather than hides it.
I've presumed most of my life that there are one or two ways of preparing a food and if I don't like how it tastes in that method, then I don't like the food. So green beans? I started eating fresh, slightly boiled or baked green beans just this past year. Asparagus? You may have seen my little escapade here. Fish? Ever since I knelt on and crushed the kindergarten class goldfish, I could catch, clean, and cook it but never eat it without gagging. Until now.* My experience had been that the foods I didn't like were often prepared again and again the same way. And often, these foods weren't prepared with respect to their natural flavor.
Enter Karen Le Billon. She explains the concept of food education throughout the book. Here's an excerpt to get us started:
French researcher Claude Fischler, who spent thirty earys studying eating habits and food preferences...Together with American researcher Paul Rozin (92).
By the time they were school-age, French kids liked eatin a variety of foods, and their love of variety made them more interested in vegetables. . . .French children had a very good understanding of which foods were healthy (and unhealthy) and why (92).
Americans tend to be anxious about food and to identify health, nutrition, and dieting as the key issues they associate with eating. The French, on the other hand, almost never mention any of these topics when asked for their thoughts on food. Rather, they talk about pleasure, tasty food, socializing, culture, identity, and fun.How do French kids learn these ideas?
Part of the explanation is the amount of time they spend at the table with their parents , where (naturally) the conversation focuses on food (93).
French adults love variety and will eat varied diets as a matter of course. Naturally, their children grow up to do the same. This was evident in the comments people made in passing about food choices. "I had an apple yesterday, so I'll have a peach today," my mother-in-law would say. . . .Or when discussing at breakfast what we should eat later that day, "We already had chicken this week, so we shouldn't eat that again" (94).Ms. Le Billon offers a plethora of education and application via her own failed and successful attempts so after concluding my read, I was able to get our family started. I began to try new recipes, mainly from this cookbook and that and then from an allrecipes.com search of specific foods like sweet potato, fish, etc. The French Women Don't Get Fat cookbook is an excellent way to begin to cook fresh food in a simple, tasty way for someone like me who is just learning how to cook.
What I found was that as I took the time to introduce the foods to my son (starting at his age of 15 months), I expanded my own taste! Here's a quick recap of what I did:
- I chose recipes I could handle making. I looked at the time, ingredients, and equipment required and I often paired a new dish with something easy like Near East rice pilaf (boxed).
- I served everything one dish at a time in the French order. This was HUGE for my son. If you have young children you may observe that having everything on the plate at once results in the child picking at the food. By serving the vegetable first, clearing that plate and serving the meat/grain, clearing that plate and serving the cheese & fruit, I found he and I ate a full meal.
- Thus, we were able to examine, taste, and savor each new flavor. We both smelled each plate as I served it. I let him touch the food for the first minute, and then I helped him eat with utensils (the French don't even let the kids feed themselves for the first 18 months!) which helped him slow down and take time with the food. (More on slow eating this week!)
- We both had to take 3 bites of everything, even small bites, and we talked about the specific flavors, textures, and smells of each food. There were definitely some I didn't taste more than 3 times, like an anchovy dish from Jamie Oliver, but I know I'm going to make that dish again and give my taste buds a chance to adjust.
- We only make enough for one meal so that we don't have leftovers. Since variety is key (again, more on that later) and taste is a priority, I try to make just enough for that meal. You'd think it would result in a decreased desire to cook but I've found just the opposite. And the few nights that I can't handle cooking or our schedule is crazy (we do have 2 under 2 after all), we toss in a frozen pizza or spaghetti & meatballs.
It's remarkable how much my own experience of food has changed. I now presume that if I don't like the taste (which applies to almost all seafood), I will eventually. I don't feel guilty about turning it down after the required taste because I know I'll approach it again. I'm having more fun creating weekly menus because I know I'll try something new!
What do you think? Are these new concepts for you, too, or are you old pros? I'd love to hear!
Read why French Kids Eat Everything is a book about pleasure here.
*I did come to love salmon in Alaska, in 2000. I spent the summer living in an old cabin and working at the SwissAlaska with the owner's daughter, a college friend. We fished for silver salmon when we could. Eating salmon 3 hours after catching it is quite the different taste from what we're used to days later in the midwest.