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Cooking for Hugo: A French Food Education

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Hello! Don't think I've forgotten about this little series. It's just that for a while there, well, Hugo sort of went on a food strike. (In addition to the nap strike! I know.) And it was so strange and so frustrating that I sort of couldn't bring myself to write about it while I was in it. You know? He stopped wanting to eat my lovingly prepared vegetable purées, he stopped being interested in the food I made for myself and he threw everything I put in front of him to feed himself on the floor. A few times, he even reached inside his mouth after I put a spoonful of food in it and sort of clawed out the food, shrieking all the while in disgust. It was awful.

In retrospect, I think it was an unholy combination of teething and too many bottles and textural issues and also just plain babyhood and I'm very, very glad to say we seem to have worked things out. Now Hugo gets a big bottle first thing in the morning and another big one before bed, but the rest of the day, he eats three proper meals at the table. It's so satisfying and wonderful to see him digging in to whatever I put in front of him. Phew.

But some of my behavior while this was going on was giving me pause. When Hugo refused to eat something, I'd quickly prepare something else and offer to him instead. When that got thrown on the floor too, I'd look for yet another thing to give him, often resorting to buttered bread or pasta. After all, I couldn't very well let my almost 11-month old go hungry, could I? Those rules about not cooking things to order for your kids obviously were only meant for older kids, right?

Except then I was hanging out with my French girlfriend Marguerite and when I told her about what was going on and how I was dealing with it, she did one of those half double-takes backwards and shook her head gently. "Oh, no, Luisa. He refuses to eat? Then that's it. Don't make anything else for him." But, but, I protested. He's just a baby! Won't he be hungry? Won't he wake up in the middle of the night? Aren't I sort of then sending him to bed with no supper and won't I be judged cruelly for that and sent packing straight to Hades? "No! He has his evening bottle, right? He's almost 11 months old. He'll be fine." And, um, she was right.

So today, folks, I want to write about French rules for feeding children.

When I was pregnant, I read Pamela Druckerman's Bringing Up Bébé (French Children Don't Throw Food is the UK title). It had gotten a lot of mixed reviews - I got the impression that many Americans didn't like the idea that the French, yet again, were trying to tell them how to do things better. But I really liked the author's story, her self-deprecation and her admiration for what the French do actually get right with child-rearing. (And yes, at this point, you may substitute many other words for French: Europeans, Asians, common-sense folks, the older generation.) Particularly with regards to food. (NB: The book deals with many aspects of child-rearing in France; food is just a small part of the book.)

Then, I decided to read Karen Le Billon's French Children Eat Everything, which centers around the author's experience of moving to France with her two small, very picky children and learning the hard way about how to get them to eat better and behave better around food in general. Le Billon's husband is French and the pressure from his family and the community is very hard on the author; I often felt such sympathy for her predicament, caught between her own culture which had influenced her daughters' bad habits and her French in-laws's glowering disapproval. It can't have been easy for her to be the only foreigner in a small French village, surrounded by such rules and rigidity. By contrast, Pamela Druckerman's experience is far gentler. The French come across far nicer, too.

But both women observe many of the same phenomenon when it comes to children and food in France:

1. Babies are fed things like blue cheese, puréed beets and other strongly-flavored food right from the start.

2. There is a great reverence for the ritual of sitting down at a nicely set table for each meal, together.

3. The emphasis is on food being a purely sensual experience, not one in which punishment or reward ever plays a role in any way.

4. The importance of serving food in courses (vegetables to start, for example, then a main course of pasta, perhaps, or meat, and then fruit or yogurt for dessert), to give even a baby a sense of how a proper meal should unfold.

5. Never, ever, ever eating outside of set mealtimes (which are breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack and dinner).

6. Following the child's lead if he or she refuses to eat and simply ending the meal. No drama, no fuss.

There are others, too, but these are the ones that resonated the most with me. And they inspired me to make a few changes to mealtimes with Hugo. Not only do I no longer continue offering him different things until something "sticks", I also don't wheedle and cajole him into eating one more bite of anything. If he's done, he's done and I respect that. I also don't give him any snacks (though this one is a little tougher to enforce with his softie grandmothers around) in between meals, which almost guarantees that he's happy to eat his meals with real gusto.

So, tell me, readers! Have you read either of those books and if so, what did you think? Did you find inspiration in the pages or were you already feeding your children à la française? Is your home culture similarly "strict" with rules for feeding children? Or do you think the whole thing is authoritarian and awful? Tell me what you think, about any and all of it.

Also: What school lunches in Japan are like.

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