The science behind the French approach to kids food

Various bloggers have asked about the scientific basis for the French approach to kids’ food.

Good question!

The issue of children’s food–and children’s health more generally–became a scientific concern in the 19th century, when infant mortality rates in France were the highest in Europe (and high rates of maternal mortality during childbirth were also a serious issue). In response, the French developed the science of ‘puériculture‘ (literally – the science of infant and child health and hygiene); for example, they invented one of the first modern incubators (the ‘Lion’ incubator, named after Alexandre Lion, was the model first used in US hospitals). Historians generally point to the Hôpital des Enfants Malades (Hospital for Sick Children) in Paris as the world’s first paediatric hospital (opened in 1802, it still exists today, as part of the famous Necker hospital). This gradually became a worldwide trend; the first paediatric hospitals opened in the US in Philadelphia (1855) and Boston (1869).

From the outset, French scientists were particularly interested in children’s eating habits, given that good food is one of the core values of French culture. Their research–much of which I cite in my forthcoming book–is fascinating. Some of the best-known researchers are Dr. Claude Fischler (a sociologist with CNRS, who has worked with Dr Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania), Dr. Natalie Rigal (a specialist in developmental child psychology at the University of Paris/Nanterre), and  French oenologist and “taste philosopher” Dr. Jacques Puisais, who created the Institut du Goûtin 1976, and initially developed some of the “taste-training” ideas that are now used in French classrooms. There are many other researchers studying children’s food in France, notably those working at the Institut du Goût in Paris, and the Centre des Sciences du Goût et de l’Alimentation in Dijon.

A few years ago, these researchers did a comparative study of French and American parental feeding practices, and effects on children’s eating habits (de Lauzon-Guillain 2009, full reference below). They were motivated by the fact that no cross-cultural studies of children’s eating habits have been done between France and US (as opposed to cross-cultural studies of adults). They were also motivated by the fact that the differences in rates of obesity and overweight were striking: in 2000, 6.4% of 6–9 year old French children were obese (95th percentile for weight) and 20.6% were overweight (85th percentile), whereas 15.3% of 6–11 year old children in the United States were obese and 30.3% were overweight. (Obesity rates for French children have since stayed stable, or even declined slightly, whereas they have continued to increase in the US).

So, what did the researchers find? Here’s a quote: “US parents (mothers and fathers) reported higher levels of allowing children control over their own food intake, using food to regulate the child’s emotions, and using food as a reward for behavior than French parents. American mothers reported higher levels of teaching their child about nutrition and encouragement of balance and variety. In contrast, French mothers and fathers both reported higher monitoring and higher restriction of their child’s food intake for weight control than US parents, and French fathers reported greater modeling of healthy eating than US fathers.” French parents exerted more control over their children’s food choices (for example: only allowing one snack per day). More research is required to fully understand the links between culture, parenting practices, children’s eating behaviours, and outcomes like weight status–but this study is suggestive of some important issues, such as the use of food as a reward.

There are also many interesting studies on the French approach to fostering a love of variety and new foods in the children–even before they are a year old. Let’s look at the results of one study, published in 2007 in the peer-reviewed (and leading) journal ‘Appetite’ (Maier et al 2007; full reference below). It compared French and German mothers, and found that:

In the first month of weaning, French mothers typically gave their infants 6 different vegetables (the Germans gave 3).

More than 40% of French infants were exposed to between 7 and 12 vegetables, but none of the German infants were given more than six.

During the 28 day study, the French mothers made 18 or more changes in the vegetables they offered from day-to-day. Some made as many as 27 changes. But in Germany, more than 80% of the mothers made fewer than 7 vegetable changes during the course of the study. None made more than 13 changes.

When asked to explain why they choose their particular feeding strategy, the French mothers mentioned taste development (which is prioritized by French paediatricians and parenting books), whereas the German mothers talked about food allergies. But the prevalence of food allergies in infants in Germany and France (and indeed in the US) is the same: somewhere between 5 and 8%.

The take-home message? The French approach focuses on developing a love of a wide range of foods in children before they arrive at that near-universal ‘no’ stage at around the age of two. Their approach suggests that we should be thinking more about taste development and less about food allergies.

These studies illustrate a key point: the French approach children’s food is a set of codified common sense rules and routines that parents can easily follow, but it is based on over 200 years of scientific research–which governments have transmitted to French parents through extensive outreach (e.g. the first modern network of what would now be called ‘maternal and child health’ centres). We don’t need to accept everything they do unquestioningly, but it is an interesting example that we could learn from. And, the results of French research correspond with emerging American research–a topic I’ll blog about in a future post.

Finally, I should note that no approach to kids’ food is perfect. There is a lot of conflicting information out there, from different sources. And even scientists take different approaches; sociologists and psychologists study children’s eating habits from a different perspective than medical researchers, for example. The key is to inform yourself about a variety of perspectives, and then to make an informed choice.

The studies referenced above are:
Blandine de Lauzon-Guillain PhD, Dara Musher-Eizenman PhD, Emeline Leporc MSc, Shayla Holub PhD and Marie Aline Charles MD. (2009) Parental Feeding Practices in the United States and in France: Relationships with Child’s Characteristics and Parent’s Eating Behavior. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 109(6), 1064-1066; and Maier, A., C. Chabanet, B. Schaal, P. Leathwood, and S. Issanchou. 2007. “Food-Related Sensory Experience From Birth Through Weaning: Contrasted Patterns in Two Nearby European Regions.” Appetite 49: 429-40.

For a cross-cultural study in English, see:

  • Dara R. Musher-Eizenman, Blandine de Lauzon-Guillain, Shayla Holub, et al., “Child and Parent Characteristics Related to Parental Feeding Practices: A Cross-Cultural Examination in the US and France,” Appetite 52 (2009): 89–95.

Some references to scientific studies by French researchers (mostly in French, unfortunately!):

  • Official historical website of French paediatric hospitals: http://www.aphp.fr/site/histoire/1901_hopitaux_pediatriques.htm
  • Claude FISCHLER L’Homnivore. Le goût, la cuisine et le corps, Paris, Odile Jacob, 1990.
  • Claude FISCHLER Manger. Français, Européens et Américains face à l’alimentation, with Estelle Masson, Paris, Odile Jacob, 2008.
  • Lyon MURARD et Patrick ZYLBERMAN, L’Hygiène dans la République, 1870-1918, Paris, Fayard, 1996.
  • Jacques PUISAIS Le goût chez les enfants (Paris: Flammarion, 2000
  • Natalie RIGAL La naissance du goût: comment donner aux enfants le plaisir de manger Paris: Agnès Viénot, 2000.
  • Gaston VARIOT, Projet d’un Institut de Puériculture aux Enfants-Assistés, Paris, Imprimerie A. Davy, 1908.
  • Paul STRAUSS, Dépopulation et puériculture, Paris, Bibliothèque Charpentier, Eugène Fasquelle éditeur, 1901.

For those of you interested in more discussions about the science of food, visit Dr Dina Rose’s blog: It’s Not About Nutrition. Lots of great information and resources here!

Should kids be allowed to randomly snack? The French would say definitely not! Here's why…

I wrote this post to explain why I don’t allow my kids to randomly snack or graze throughout the day. They eat three meals a day, and one afternoon snack. If they say they are hungry, I tell them:
“That’s great, you’ll really appreciate your next meal. It’s in (X) hours.”
 I know this might sound cruel! But read on for my explanation of why I think the ‘no snacking’ approach is positive — both for what children eat, and how they eat.

We’ve heard a lot lately about the dangers of snacking–and it is a hotly debated topic.

Some argue that regular snacking means that kids aren’t hungry enough to eat the nutritious foods served at mealtimes. Others argue that snacking has benefits (balancing out blood glucose levels, for example).

I only let my kids have one snack a day. But before we moved to France, I let my kids snack several times a day. Whenever they said they were hungry, they got a snack (except in that half hour before mealtimes, and even then I sometimes gave in). However, I learned some things during our year in France that convinced me to change our family’s snacking habits.

The first thing I learned is that most French kids don’t snack randomly at home. They just never think of doing it. Astounding but true. I’ve been going back and forth between France and Vancouver for 10 years, staying for long periods with extended family and friends, and I have never once seen a child open the fridge or cupboard and dig around for a snack, or demand a snack from their parents in between mealtimes. Not once. I kid you not.

The second thing I learned is that scheduling snacks is OK. If it’s a habit, and if everyone follows the same routine, it’s not a problem. French kids never complain about it, because it would never occur to them to eat at the ‘wrong’ time. Life goes on, and even without snacking their kids are just as well-behaved (or even more well-behaved) than ours. And they do just fine at school (even with much longer school days).

There is one exception to the snacking rule, which is called the goûter. French kids DO eat after school. But it’s a mini-meal rather than a snack, eaten sitting at the table, with real foods – like bread and butter, fruit, yogurt. Then, French kids don’t eat anything until the evening meal at 7:30 or 8 pm. No bedtime snack.

The result? You guessed it: French kids eat much better at mealtimes, because they feel hungry. And the foods at meals tend to be more nutritious. So their diets are healthier.

My kids (one in primary school, one in preschool) follow the French approach on weekends. It works really well for us. They are used to the pattern, eat well at mealtimes, and I don’t have to worry about spoiling their dinner by giving them a snack. It was definitely a big adjustment at first. But the French have a lot of routines and great tips they use for teaching kids how to eat. (When we applied them, the results were so successful, and I was so inspired…that I wrote a whole book about it (French Kids Eat Everything), which will be published in April with HarperCollins!)

The French approach at school is also interesting. French kids can’t snack at school, even if they wanted to. They are not allowed to bring food from home, and there are no vending machines (they’re completely banned in all schools). Most French kids don’t even want to snack, because the lunchtime meal they’re offered is so tasty. As the menus on my French Kids School Lunch Project blog suggest, French kids’ school lunches are tasty, nutritious, and highly filling. They eat a lot of foods high on the ‘satiety index’ at lunch, because the expectation is that lunch is the biggest meal of the day.

No snacks!? This might seem shocking to some parents. In some American schools, snacks are served to all children (on the theory that they need good nutrition, so that hunger doesn’t interfere with learning — which is true, particularly for lower-income kids, but perhaps not necessarily needed for all children).

Not snacking is also a difficult concept if you don’t like the idea of your child being hungry. What if my child is hungry? I used to think. Should you really deny you child a snack, even if they say they’re hungry? That’s controversial, to say the least.

Here’s the French view: there is a difference between feeling hungry and being hungry. No one wants a child to BE hungry. But the French think it’s OK to FEEL hungry. What does that mean? It means being comfortable if your stomach is empty, and being able to wait until your next mealtime–even if you do feel hungry. Otherwise, the French believe, you create a culture of ‘unregulated eating’….with all of the health problems that arise from that. To prove their point, they might refer to the statistics which show that American children snack, on average, three times per day (and one in five snack up to five times per day). Although I didn’t agree with their view when we first moved to France, I’m now convinced. That’s why I no longer let my kids snack more than once per day.

No culture is perfect, and there are lots of things I wouldn’t want to adopt from France, but I do think the French have a good approach to snacking. What do you think?

Should kids be allowed to randomly snack? The French would say definitely not! Here’s why…

We’ve heard a lot lately about the dangers of snacking–but is it really such a bad idea?

Some argue that regular snacking means that kids aren’t hungry enough to eat the nutritious foods served at mealtimes. Others argue that snacking has benefits (balancing out blood glucose levels, for example).

I only let my kids have one snack a day. But before we moved, I let my kids snack several times a day. Whenever they said they were hungry, they got a snack (except in that half hour before mealtimes, and even then I sometimes gave in). However, I learned some things during our year in France that convinced me to change our family’s snacking habits.

The first thing I learned is that French kids don’t snack randomly at home. They just never think of doing it. Astounding but true. I’ve been going back and forth between France and Vancouver for 10 years, staying for long periods with extended family and friends, and I have never once seen a child open the fridge or cupboard and dig around for a snack, or demand a snack from their parents in between mealtimes. Not once. I kid you not.

The second thing I learned is that banning snacks is OK. If it’s a habit, and if everyone follows the same routine, it’s not a problem. French kids never complain about it, because it would never occur to them to eat at the ‘wrong’ time. Life goes on, and even without snacking their kids are just as well-behaved (or even more well-behaved) than ours. And they do just fine at school (even with much longer school days).

There is one exception to the snacking rule, which is called the goûter. French kids DO eat after school. But it’s a mini-meal rather than a snack, eaten sitting at the table, with real foods – like bread and butter, fruit, yogurt. Then, French kids don’t eat anything until the evening meal at 7:30 or 8 pm. No bedtime snack.

The result? You guessed it: French kids eat much better at mealtimes, because they feel hungry. And the foods at meals tend to be more nutritious. So their diets are healthier.

My kids (4 and 8) follow the French approach on weekends. It works really well for us. They are used to the pattern, eat well at mealtimes, and I don’t have to worry about spoiling their dinner by giving them a snack. It was definitely a big adjustment at first. But the French have a lot of routines and great tips they use for teaching kids how to eat. (When we applied them, the results were so successful, and I was so inspired…that I wrote a whole book about it (French Kids Eat Everything), which will be published in April with HarperCollins!)

The French approach at school is also interesting. French kids can’t snack at school, even if they wanted to. They are not allowed to bring food from home, and there are no vending machines (they’re completely banned in all schools). Most French kids don’t even want to snack, because the lunchtime meal they’re offered is so tasty. As the menus on my French Kids School Lunch Project blog suggest, French kids’ school lunches are tasty, nutritious, and highly filling. They eat a lot of foods high on the ‘satiety index’ at lunch, because the expectation is that lunch is the biggest meal of the day.

No snacks!? This might seem shocking to North American parents. What if my child is hungry? I used to think. Should you really deny you child a snack, even if they say they’re hungry? That’s so controversial, to say the least.

Here’s my view, based on what I learned in France–but also based on commonsense. There is a difference between feeling hungry and being hungry. No one wants a child to BE hungry. But the French think it’s OK to FEEL hungry. What does that mean? It means being comfortable if your stomach is empty, and being able to wait until your next mealtime–even if you do feel hungry. Otherwise, the French believe, you create a culture of ‘unregulated eating’….with all of the health problems that arise from that. And I think that we see the signs of this all around us here in North America.

No culture is perfect, and there are lots of things I wouldn’t want to adopt from France, but I do think they have some great ideas about how to feed children–ideas we could definitely learn from.

Connecting with your kids at the family table: Social eaters are better eaters

One of my favorite books on kid’s food is Laurie David’s The Family Dinner: Great ways to connect with your kids, one meal at a time. Full of simple strategies for making mealtimes more enjoyable, Laurie makes a key point that is often overlooked in the kid’s food debate: how we eat is as important as what we eat.

As I realized after our family moved to France, Americans spend the least time of any country in the developed world on cooking (30 minutes per day, whereas the French spend, on average, 48 minutes). But the real difference is in how much time we spend eating: less than an hour per day for Americans (and well over two hours per day for the French).

What’s the point of spending all of that time at the table, you’re probably wondering? Well, research shows that people who eat alone tend to eat more overall, and also tend to eat poorer quality food. Research also shows that children are more likely to try new foods if their parents are sitting with them, and try them too (the ‘do as I do, not as I say’ effect!). So we know that children will eat better if they eat with other people.

But Laurie David’s book captures another important issue, that is more rarely discussed. Children’s emotional relationship to food (which is so central to healthy eating when they become adults) is fostered at the table in interaction with other adults. If the family table is a serene haven in a busy day, then a positive relationship is fostered.

Admittedly, with two very busy children (3 and 7), the table doesn’t feel very peaceful all of the time. But I’ve found that conversation is absolutely critical to capturing my daughters’ interest, and keeping them at the table. One of my earlier tactics was to make up stories, but I soon ran out of repertoire. Here’s where Laurie’s book was helpful: it has lots of great suggestions for conversation starters, games, and other tips and tricks for keeping children interested and happy at the table. Many of these ideas are commonly used by French families, by the way.

Is it hard to make time in our busy lives for eating together? Definitely! Both my husband and I work full time, and we don’t have any help at home. Cooking when we get home from work is always a scramble.

But despite this I’ve taken Laurie David’s message to heart, and we’ve cut back on kid’s after-school activities, in order to make sure we eat together as a family most nights of the week.

So thanks, Laurie, for an inspirational book!

Connecting with your kids (and the planet) at the family table

This week several family food blogs are collaborating to celebrate Food Day by hosting a virtual progressive dinner party (see my post from yesterday).

Today, we’re in New York: Grace at eatdinner.org and Kathleen at dinnertogether.blogspot.com are providing the side dishes: flavorful wok broccoli (ingenious recipe), and sweet potato souffle. By coincidence (or perhaps not?) these are two of our family’s favorite vegetables (kale, which Bettina served yesterday) being a close third. Yum! Can’t wait to try them!

Now, why stretch out Food Day to an entire week? As Laurie David (author of The Family Dinner: Great way to connect with your kids, one meal at a time)) points out in her guest post on Blog4familydinner.org recently, eating family dinners together is an integral part of the broader food movement (she titles her post ‘Family Dinners and the Food Revolution’).

How do family dinners connect to the food revolution? Laurie argues that there are two reasons.

First, family dinners create stronger families. As Laurie writes, “Family dinner is one of those rituals that connects us, enriches us, nourishes our minds and our bodies. It’s where we learned how to listen and debate and discuss. It is our first participation in a community. We should be holding on to it for dear life, not tossing it away and replacing it with one-minute meals cooked by a microwave or eating on the run, next to our kitchen counter or in our car.”
The kitchen table is an important place for children to learn life’s lessons, and to bond with their families.

Second, what we eat is directly linked to broader issues of social and environmental justice. We may feel (and, as a mother of two young daughters, I often feel) too busy to focus on these issues in our day-to-day routines. But through the choices we make about eating and shopping for food (or growing our own), we can make positive contributions to reforming the food system.

So this week’s virtual #DinnerParty is about creating new habits and patterns in our family that will be good for us, and also good for other people and the planet. Why not try Meatless Mondays, for example? Or start a compost? Make a commitment to set aside a certain part of your grocery budget for organic food?

Making resolutions should (in my opinion) be an integral part of Food Day (sort of like New Year’s resolutions). What resolution can you make that will change your family’s eating habits year-round?

ps Laurie’s book and Family Dinner blog have lots of practical ideas for how to make family dinners more fun. Check them out!