Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Lunch with Bèbè

Did you read this?

 I did.  The author, Pamela Druckerman, an American raising three small children in Paris, has some good ideas, especially on how the French systematically teach their babies to eat healthy food and behave while they’re doing it. (In England the book is called French Kids Don't Throw Food.) Hint: parents start very early, offer lots of different tastes and don’t sit around waiting for their kids to grow out of bland food or into good food. Unfortunately, by contrasting the thin, well-behaved and omnivorous French enfants with the chubby, plain pasta (ONLY) and goldfish chomping hellions of the States, Druckerman set herself up for righteous indignation and got put into the same crazy mother memoirist box as last year’s Tiger Mom, Amy Chua, It’s a pity.  With our obesity rate (one in three U.S. kids is overweight or obese) we need help wherever we can get it. And while not everyone will go to Harvard or play Carnegie Hall, everyone eats.

Druckerman covers other child-rearing topics,  but for me, her dissection of the French approach to feeding kids was the most interesting. It's a hot topic: another North American, Canadian professor Karen Le Billon (she is married to a Frenchie and splits her time between Canada and France) has written a whole book about it, called French Kids Eat Everything. 

 In excerpts and on her blog,  Le Billon comes across as more measured though slightly less amusing than the kooky Druckerman (who once wrote an article about arranging a threesome for her husband’s 40th and appeared in all her American TV interviews wearing a dopey beret.)  Just like Druckerman, Le Billon experiences the culture shock of bringing (in her case two) picky North American children to France. She was blown away by the polite garçons et filles eating the exact same meals as their parents without complaining. Her book offers instructions on how to stage your own Gallic makeover without leaving home. Here is Le Billon in The New York Times.

One part of the equation - totally inapplicable to us - is the government's support provided by France in the form of healthy, delicious school meals made for children from the time they enter state-sponsored day care-nursery school school all the way through high school. Le Billon has a blog dedicated to school menus from around France.  Druckerman absolutely rhapsodizes about her children’s crèche and brings readers on a visit to the Commission Menus in Paris, where the crèche menus are meticulously planned.  The chefs there fret over repeating items or tastes and brag of triumphs like getting the kids to eat things like sardine mousse.

Eating is an integral part of French education, not an afterthought stuffed with pink slime. Depending on your political bent, you are either unbelievably envious of this or think it is socialism at its worst. I’m in the envy camp. My son was a notoriously picky eater, with food allergies to boot. Any kind of support would have been heavenly.

What truly puzzles me is how people in our country got so far way from healthy eating.
No, we don’t have the gastronomical lineage of France, but we were not always fat people who snacked throughout the day. My mother was a plain, but reliable cook. My parents come from Irish- Germanic stock in the Midwest. Pork roast figured large, but it was cooked from scratch and our portions modest.  Hamburgers, fresh sliced tomatoes and celery spread with peanut butter were the staples of my childhood table. My two brothers and I passed through the usual swim and ballet lessons, hockey and baseball games, yet snacks happened only once a day: after school. The only activity which routinely included a snack was Brownies and only because it occurred  right after school when we all marched over to Mrs. Evan's house and she gave us Kool-Aid and graham crackers.  Candy was dispensed on Valentine’s Day and Halloween, not for getting an A on a spelling test.

Contrast this to my kids’ experience: no sporting event, school ritual or happy moment passes without an accompanying snack and often the most horrid available: really gross supermarket cookies or cupcakes.  I rarely hear parents uttering the familiar refrain of our youth: ‘don’t eat that now! You’ll spoil your dinner.”

The French, who prize variety,  would never approve: every school day, since preschool, my 14-year-old son has had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. (The coffee is mine.)

While the debate rages over the cause of our overweight nation (Suburbs! Big agriculture! Sedentary lifestyles!) it seems to me that one under-analyzed part of the equation is that our country is totally schitzo about food. We are divided between  people who cook and care - on the extreme you have home canners and Mark Zuckerberg butchering his own meat - and people who could care less,  eat pretty much everything and consider the kitchen a foreign country.  "I think cooking is a total waste of time," an educated, well-heeled former colleague, admitted recently. Until we give the growing, preparing and eating of nutritious food its due, we're left with the consequences. And they're not pretty.

Here is the completed American lunch and a snack for my 14-year-old. His school day includes a two-hour swim practice and not nearly enough vegetables. Terrible? No. Room for improvement? Yes.  My kids attend public school in Los Angeles. They do not have much love for Cafe L.A. - the school food service.

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