In a nutshell, I totally loved the book; her writing is compelling and colourful, the approach she advocates was for me a fertile mixture of common-sense and crazy, and it dealt with my favourite subjects: food, parenting, and anthropology. Be still my heart! Now I am going to throw a bunch of quotes at you and show you some pictures of how I totally reorganized the dining room after having read it.
"Philippe and Janine [her husband and mother-in-law] scanned the menu [posted outside her daughter's school on the first day], clucking cheerfully at their favourites. But the list struck me as ludicrous. Beets? Fresh fish? This sounded like a meal in a Michelin-starred restaurant, not food for five-year-olds. And certainly not for my five-year-old.
'Um,' I said hesitantly, 'something seems to be missing. There's only one choice every day.' I was thinking of school cafeterias back home, where kids always had a choice, although one that was often admittedly dubious from a nutritional perspective...
'Everyone eats the same thing, bien sur!' replied my husband [a native Frenchman]. I had already learned that the phrase bien sur ('of course') usually implied I had unknowlingly committed some sort of social blunder, about something that seemed blindingly obvious to the French.
'But what if the kids don't like what's being served that day?' I asked. This question gave rise to odd looks from the parents shepherding their children through the school doors.
'They go hungry!'"
"Suddenly timid [a guest at the first dinner party she attends after having moved to France], I turned quietly to Virginie. 'Where I come from, only a few people are interested in gastronomie. Why is it such an obsession for the French?'
'It's a pleasure, but not an obsession!' she said, laughing.
'Good food was democratized a long time ago,' added Sylvie, overhearing us. 'It's because of the French Revolution: the aristocrats no longer had a monopoly on the best food and the best chefs. The revolutionaries made French food culture accessible to everyone.'
'Not just that!' interrupted Hugo. 'It's economic! Paris was Europe's first big city with a middle class that had enough income to eat at restaurants. Cooks couldn't depend on aristocratic patrons any longer, so they opened restaurants and that to compete for customers and public opinion. French food is about capitalism and competition leading to better food for everyone!'
'Actually, it's about religion,' offered Sylvie. 'Catholic countries always have been more interested in food. French gastronomie is like a secular communion, like a sacrament or a ceremony.'
By this point, I was completely lost. Maybe I was misunderstanding the word 'gastronomie'. For me, it meant elaborate, expensive, indulgent meals that had little to do with what interested me about food: nutrition, health, and price. ...
'It's part of French culture,' someone else chimed in, 'that children should learn to eat well!' This got the most enthusiastic nods.
"From the French point of view, the world is made by adults and for adults. Few concessions are made to children. Their children dress like little adults: mostly pastel and matte colors, and no more pink on the girls than you would see on their mothers. The furtniture in kids' rooms is usually a miniaturized version of adult furniture (no princess loft beds with slides, thank you very much, and no princess potty thrones either). Children are expected to be quiet (tranquille) in public. They are not placed on a pedestal and are not expected to be at the center stage in a gathering."
"Fischler's work on adults also confirmed my impressions. Americans tend to be anxious about food and to identify health, nutrition, and dieting as key issues they associate with eating. The French, on the other hand, almost never mention any of these topics when asked for their thoughts about food. Rather, they talk about pleasure, tasty food, socializing, culture, identity, and fun. In one of the most revealing studies, Fischler showed a picture of a chocolate cake to both American and French people and asked them for the first word that popped into their head. For Americans, the most common word was 'guilt'. For the French, the most common word was 'celebration'."
"Back in Vancouver, the little kids we knew grazed constantly. They snacked at school and after school. They snacked at after-school events, sports practices, at the park, and at almost any gathering lasting more than about fifteen minutes. They snacked in their strollers and cars. ... Snacking is so widespread - and so ingrained in North American parenting routines - that I had just taken it for granted. I brought snacks with us to everywhere we went..."
"'When I first arrived in Vancouver, it seemed so rude!' [Celine, the author's French friend who'd lived years living in Canada] exclaimed, when I got her on the phone. 'First of all, someone is eating alone, in front of you, and not sharing. And they're often standing up or walking around. The French feel uncomfortable seeing someone eating if they're not sitting down. And I couldn't believe how messy it was!' ...
And another thing Celine said intrigued me. 'Americans have no self-controll!' she kept repeating. This, again, reflects French views: people should show self-restraint when it comes to eating. This means that treats are rare, should be eaten only occasionally, and should be savoured. Moreover, it means that food should be eaten only at mealtimes, and only at the table. In breaking all of the French food rules, Americans were guilty of demonstrating a lack of self-control. For all of these reasons, the American approach to snacking seems both slightly bizarre and vaguely repellent to the French. ...
Feeding children in France often feels like taking a train in Switzerland: it's always on schedule. In their daily routine, French children, like their parents, eat at the correctly scheduled time. ... Just as important, French children do not eat at unscheduled times. But scheduling meals does not mean (and is not viewed as) deprivation. The French anticipate eating. They have mastered the art of making food delicious at all times, and they themselves regularly indulge in it. The same is true with the gouter [the 4:30 PMish after-school snack children get; everybody eats supper at around 7 PM or 8 PM], which is associated with many cozy rituals...
We'll just have to have really delicious snacks, I thought. Suddenly, this didn't seem like such a bad idea after all."
"These meals taught me that pleasure (le plaisir) is the most important goal for the French when they're seated around the table. The French children I met seemed to know this intuitively. This was confirmed when I looked up surveys of French children's eating habits. In the biggest one to date, the following statement got the highest 'agreement' out of kids:
The most important thing is to enjoy your food."
What challenged me most in the book was snacks. I was already down with most of the other food rules, such as avoiding emotional eating, sitting together as a family to eat, choosing real food, etc., but the snack thing was tough to wrap my head around. I realized by the end of the book that I really did know it was truly wiser than my pro-snack approach; after all, when I started weaning Ambrose my first step was to limit milk before mealtimes, because I knew that if allowed to nurse freely, he'd eat less, and be hungry at bedtime, requiring more milk all night, and on and on. The French approach is all about creating delicious, nourishing meals, and ensuring that nothing disinclines the children from eating well at those meals. So we've stopped giving Ambrose snacks and I don't even let him have fridge milk before supper. No more bed time snacks, no more almonds at night. And you know what? He eats more! Why am I so surprised?? Carefully cultivating the right degree of hunger before a well-prepared meal is essential to make sure that meal is enjoyed!
What I concretely applied at home involved a reorganization of the whole dining room. I wanted the table to be the center of our home life, a beautiful little oasis, I wanted our dining room to be beautiful and tidy even if no other room was. But stuff always ended up on the table, and aside from getting baskets, I couldn't think of what to do about it. The book motivated me strongly to find a solution, so I put together a book shelf my mom had given us, and tah dah! We now have a shelf for books being read, mail, and other papers and things that otherwise would end up on the table. We also have a place to put our bags, and I brought our table cloths and candles onto that shelf for easy table beautification (these were formerly in the bathoom and living room, respectively). And it looks awesome! After a few days, I decided to integrate the no distractions rule more fully and moved Ambrose's play kitchen to the living room, bringing in his little table, for which I made a tablecloth as well. This worked well, as he's gotten used to enjoying a little table at preschool and will sometimes complain that our table is too big for him.
I very much want to take a vacation in France, bien sur, and I very much recommend the book if you need some motivation to integrate your vision of the good life with the reality of your space and time management, and especially if you are caught in a snacking-pickiness-bad sleep cycle with your kids! Vive la bouffe!