French Kids Eat Everything


I know. I know. Discussions about French children, and their behavior, are everywhere right now (including on this very blog). Obviously, it’s a topic I’m curious about while we’re living here in France, so I hope you’ll indulge me. The other day, I heard about a book called French Kids Eat Everything. It’s written by Karen Le Billon, and it comes out in April, so I haven’t read it yet, but the title reminded me of something my children reported — that during school lunches the French kids eat everything on their plate. At every meal.

In several cultural guidebooks, I read the same thing is true for adults — that it’s considered rude not to finish everything on your plate at a restaurant or a neighbor’s home.

At our home, we don’t have the finish-everything-on-your-plate-official-rule, but since we’ve moved here, I notice that my kids do clean their plates. It seems to be a habit they’ve picked up. And I confess: I like it. I feel like they’re more considerate about how much food they serve themselves, knowing they will finish every bite. They seem to be more aware of their portions.

What about you? Do you have any official or unofficial food rules at your house? Do you ever leave unfinished food on your plates? Were you a picky eater as a kid? Are you still one as an adult?

P.S. — Drawings by the lovely Sarah Jane — she illustrated the whole book.

112 thoughts on “French Kids Eat Everything”

  1. I think its such a fine balance between not making a big deal about what you are eating and also celebrating the meal by preparing it lovingly and with some visual appeal. I really believe that my children pick up on how my husband and I enjoy our food. This worked well with our daughter but our son has been a little bit more of a challenge. It has taken time but by offering new foods over and over again in a loving manner and showing him that we all enjoy it has made a big difference! And if all else fails add more butter! ;)

  2. I find watching portions helps kids eat. friends are surprised at what my kids will eat – but then I tell them my children eat out of those tiny Ikea bowls and likely eat 4 tablespoons for dinner. IF it is something they like they will have seconds. I cook what my husband and I like (I do do things like spaghetti and pizza for them too) but I just keep serving it up. sometimes they turn their nose up but thats ok! more for me! Slow and steady wins the race.

    I had friends who told me their daughter is so picky and they are so worried about what their child eats etc. I told them not to worry, kids actually dont need to eat that much. Then I find because of the picky nature they are feeding a 3 year old bags of bolognese baby food. I said your kid eats more than my 9 year old.. dont worry!

    so do the french allow small portions? are kids just eating bread and cheese and other things they can ‘pick at’? because I’m sure most kids would love a french diet if it is like that. French are known for being fairly healthy/slim so I suppose they are not overeating even with the ‘finish your plate thing”

  3. Hmmm… Let me be the one to differ! ;)

    We had friends visit from France last year and let me assure you, they DID snack and they did NOT clean their plates. Our friends have an older daughter who will enthusiastically eat anything (well, except peanut butter!) you throw at her and likes 90% of it. However, they have a 10 year old son who likes NOTHING, will try NOTHING and seem to eats the same things over and over; bread with jam every day for breakfast, regardless of what’s prepared (in his defense, his mother did the same every day for a month!), chicken fingers and burgers. The weird thing is that the adults did the same thing; ordered and ate the same thing over and over (who ever heard of an adult ordering chicken fingers off of the children’s menu in a nice restaurant?!?!) and weren’t interested in trying anything new, regardless of where we were or who prepared it. It was BIZARRE!

    In our house we have a few hardcore food rules; children do not serve themselves, we do not eat sugar before lunch, you must try everything but don’t have to eat it if you don’t like it, and you must eat all your “healthy choices” if you want treats after meals (more good should go in than bad).

    Typically, we don’t snack, and as a result, our daughter tends to clean her plate. That said, I’m conscious of not giving her more than I think she’ll want and she is VERY physically active. We repeat over and over, “If you’re not hungry, you shouldn’t eat, but there will be no food later.” I am not a short order cook!

  4. This is a fun topic! We always start (dinner) with a green salad. Our girls know they must finish their salads and vegetables, but they are not required to finish anything else. Our desserts tend to be fruity or at least somewhat wholesome, so they can have dessert if they have finished the greens and veggies. At restaurants, they are not required to finish ANYTHING. Is it just me, or is restaurant food in the states pretty salty and over-processed?

  5. I was a very picky child and am only picky now about meat. One of my kids is picky and the other is not. They snack more than they should, and we are working on it. I have allowed them to only eat certain things, as long as they eat something and am hoping now I can introduce them to more. But I do realize they may be like me and not eat anything new until college. I don’t like to fight at mealtime, but I am also over fixing something different or slightly different for every person.

  6. I read that young kids get overwhelmed with big portions and lose their appetites, so when mine were toddlers, I gave them a tablespoon or two of each thing we were eating and they could have more if they wanted. They always asked for more, but if I had given them as much as they would typically eat in the first pass, they often would barely eat any. I don’t know why that is, but they both eat fairly well now as young teens. Even now, I look for small fruits and vegetables. A little apple is much more appealing that a big one, and you can have two if you want!

  7. In our family food rarely gets thrown away, the kids get smallish portions, with seconds available. We also eat several foods, which I hear is the case in France as well. So there would be a starter type of dish, greens, main dish. As there is no snacking in between, the plates are cleaned, and sometimes they ask for seconds. At meals they drink milk, or water, no sweet drinks. They also eat dessert, which could be joghurt, fruit, quark, smoothie, or a cookie. Another unspoken rule is not to leave the table, before everyone is finnished eating. The kids are now 3 and 5, so its easy for them to understand. I like hearing them ask: can I leave the table now, mama? :)

  8. I urge my kids not to say no to a new dish. They are free not to continue eating if they don’t like it. Almost always, I get a ” I didn’t know this tastes so good!”

  9. This sounds like an amazing read!!! We are constantly amazed when friends say their kids eat like adults – ours definitely don’t. I put less on their plates and they eat it all… but often visitors will load their kids plates up and then we toss heaps away. I reckon they can always ask for more if they want a bit more – but mostly they want to get out and play!!! And as for snacking and grazing – with eight kids I never pack snacks when we go out or take drinks… when I had two or three – sure, no problem!!! But actually it can be a bit ridiculous, why must little kids always have a snack in one hand to keep them quiet in the store or whatever. We snack at specific times and if we are out it gives us an opportunity to try something new. And I’m all for opportunities!!!

  10. We live in Paris. My kids are both French and American. My oldest 2.5 yrs old loves all veggies, will eat escargots, stinky cheese etc…meat is not his favorite thing right now but gets enough per the French doc. What we do is expose him to everything. He eats what we eat.

    We just had a baby she is 4 months now. We will be starting solids at 6 months per French doc recommendations. Maybe they introduce foods differently or like us expose the kids to everything young?

    The French don’t have full plates…i.e. in restaurants they are not large portions. Normally there are many courses…so the portions are smaller. On a daily basis we do not have an appetizer…but my husband and son always have cheese! My husband often has to have something sweet after the kids go to bed…likely its a creme dessert or yogurt. And yes our son always eats at the table and has a set snack time 4 pm generally which is typical “gouter” is what it is called

  11. When we moved to Italy with our 9-month old, I was shocked to discover that there were almost no pureed baby foods to buy! The closest I could find was a tall jar with pureed veg on the bottom, pureed meat in a layer on top of that, and pureed pasta on top of that: just like an Italian meal! It was funny. I bought a little food grinder and pureed for him whatever we ate. There were no kids’ menus in any restaurants. Our son just ate what they made for him. It was the same for all the kids/babies we saw out with their families: they ate, with gusto, what their parents ate. I think that they have in Italy a very strong food culture, and take pride in making and eating delicious food; they would never give a child chicken nuggets or “plain pasta,” or anything tasteless. We live in the States now. My son is now almost 11 and eats everything. We have always said to him, when he’s been reluctant, “What if this is the greatest food EVER and you miss it?”

    1. Baby June was about the same age when we arrived here in France, but luckily baby food was easy to find. I love that there’s no difference the kid and adult menus in Italy. So great!

  12. I was a very picky eater as a child. I wouldn’t eat hardly anything! The only way I made it through dinners for 10+ years was to force myself to eat the foods I hated (usually meat) mixed with bits of food I did like (mashed potatoes) on my fork. That way I tried to only taste the potatoes while making the meat disappear. I never thought the ‘one bite rule’ worked since I never actually tasted that one bite; just forced it down while trying not to cry. Today I eat most everything besides mayo, hardly cooked steak or eggs and lamb.

    1. Christine Barker

      I’m so fascinated by this topic.

      Your experience sounds similar to mine, I also always had a glass of water to wash each mouthful down. Sadly, I’m not a good eater as an adult.

      If the meal was particularly bad (in my opinion) and I couldn’t eat it, my mum would sit on my lap (up to say I was 12), hold my nose and when I opened my mouth to breath shovelled a forkful of food in… Needless to say this approach didn’t help

  13. I find food habits fascinating too! I never had to clean my plate, growing up, but I certainly had to try everything that was being served. And there was no “plan B”- if I didn’t eat enough dinner to be full, I’d just be hungry until breakfast. I think that you’re a lot less likely to be picky if you don’t have other options!

  14. i think it’s funny that the post is sponsored by hidden valley ranch. ranch seems like the opposite of french dining.

    additionally, i didn’t realize it until the article, but we definitely eat like the french… set times for eating, sitting down, etc. and we couldn’t be happier with our sons eating habits and general behavior.

    1. Hah! It’s true, Ranch isn’t sold in France, but sometimes I imagine it would be a best seller here — the French seem to love sauces and dips for everything. They’re the inventors of mayo, after all. : ) At school, the kids say even frites (french fries) are typically dipped in mayo.

  15. My dutch mother and my french father have different habits of eating, althoug my mother enjoys french habits like a light breakfast, a complete lunch (entree, plat de resistance et dessert with a black coffee) , and a light dinner.
    In holland it’s the contrary: a big breakfast, a light lunch (some kind of sandwich eaten in 5 minutes) and a bigger dinner at 17 or 18 H (that’s so early compared to us 19:30-20:00)

    As a child my mom would sometimes make us egg sandwiches on salad, and we knew what it meant:
    ok girls, today everybody can read while eating . yay.

    We had to eat once a week liver, which I thought was awfull, but we still had to eat some and during winter their was soup at night, and I hated soup because it smelled like vomit.
    THey didn’t force me to eat it, and usually went to bed on an empty stomach but better that, than soup.

    At school, we were forced to drink milk, and it made me sooo sick , but nobody was aware of my intolerance to lactose.

    And the gouter I prefer the most is bread with a piece of dark chocolate inside or peanut butter but it’s a luxury item.

  16. I’m from Germany but grew up in Holland and all I can say that this really isn’t a French thing only. My grandparents almost starved to death during WW2 and I think that is one reason why many Europeans are much more conscious about food. It’s been passed on through the generations that
    You only put on your plate what you can eat and in Holland as well as in Germany, leaving food on your plate is rude.
    I also don’t know any better than that when you eat, you sit down, relax and the only thing you do is eat. No tv, no wandering around with food, no snacking in between. Even if it’s just your four o’clock tea and cookie which we have in Holland when we get home from school. And when it’s not breakfast/lunch/dinner time the fridge is simply off limits.
    It’s also like that for adults in the work place. We have our breaks and that’s when we eat: a coffee break in the morning, then lunch, sometimes another short break in the afternoon. Everyone stops working, you sit together and have your drink/food.

    When I moved to the States I was in shock, shock, shock how much food is wasted and thrown away in private households. My friend’s kids don’t clean their plates? In the bin it goes! My eyes nearly popped out when I witnessed that for the first time. They also don’t seem to keep left-overs and eat them the next day. I still can’t get over it, how little children are taught to value their food and how much is thrown away.
    It often looks to me that people in the U.S. don’t eat because it’s an enjoyable act but it’s just another activity, one that you must perform in order to keep your body going, like breathing. People eat while they are driving, walking or working.
    It leaves me flabbergasted each time I see it.

  17. My French husband and all his friends are the pickiest eaters I’ve ever encountered. he won’t eat anything that he didn’t eat as a child. No cold food (I’m not kidding – he will only eat meat at barbecues because the rest of the food is cold), garlic, bananas, cinnamon.
    While living in Belgium, my children refused to take fruit to school because the other kids made fun of them. Not only that, more than half were over weight… maybe that’s the “clean your plate” affect or maybe it’s all the chocolate candy bars they took for lunch.
    It’s always frustrating for me to read these things because I’ve had the exact opposite experience.
    Just thought I’d give a different perspective.

  18. Hola, I´m from spain and I think is an Europe thing. I worked in a camp in US and I was amazed how kids throw away their food, and no one tell them a thing. I remember my friend Marta being the last at school lunch because she never likes the food.

  19. I think you hit the nail on the head, though, when you mentioned portion size alteration. There’s the American “clean-plate-club” which involves eating everything off the plate regardless of how much was put there to begin with. Thanks!

  20. We are an American family living in Japan and I notice too that take out boxes are almost nonexistent at restaurants. Finishing your plate is taught at my kids Japanese kindergarten, every single grain of rice should be eaten. They do get smaller portions too, but they can go back for more as much as they like. I had to learn the hard way about proper snacking times and places in Japan. In the US we used to bring snacks like a bag of Cheerios to church for my young kids to eat. But I got pointed out by an elderly Japanese man that it was not acceptable for them to eat during church. And I learned that you should eat out of direct sight of others at gathering places like church because it is a little rude to be the only one eating or feeding your kids.
    In our house we have the “try everything twice” rule. We feel that our children should give new food a real chance before deciding they do or don’t like it. We knew moving to Japan we’d come face to face with lots of new foods. So we wanted our children to keep an open mind and we say “try the new food once to taste it and try it again it see if you do or don’t like it”. So far it’s worked well for us.

  21. I found this post most interesting as I’m a French mother of two (14-year-old and 6-month-old) who moved to the U.S about 2 years ago to get married to the most amazing American man !
    My older son has always been a really good eater, as he was willing to try different food. As a kindergartener and elementary schooler, he was lucky to attend schools where everything was prepared and cooked on site (unlike a lot of French schools today :( and really enjoyed it. Students were even offered organic and foreign specialties menus on certain weeks.
    I’ve started ‘diversification’ with my younger son, and I’m pleased to see that he enjoys eating all kinds of foods as well. Food is such a major part of French culture, I’m also glad that my husband enjoys eating à la française. He actually says he’s feeling healthier everyday … which is only an excuse to pour himself another glass of Bordeaux and have another piece of Brie !!

  22. Since we’ve moved to Ghana (from Australia), our food choices have become more limited, with the ‘snack’ foods of the west, difficuilt or expensive to come by. That, and such a different palate to what we are used to has led to our children being much more adventurous with what they try, and (best of all) much less picky. I think its a case of when they know their options are limited, they will try more new foods, and enjoy the food they are given. I have never seen so many clean plates at the end of a meal. It’s been an unexpected bonus.

  23. Our daughter went on a student exchange program to France (from Australia) when she was 17 and since then, has become a very adventurous eater. Before that, she was somewhat fussy. When that French student came to stay with us, she was way less adventurous and never complimented me on my meals, which I usually put a lot of effort into!
    When my children were little, I usually served small portions and expected them to clean their plates – they could always ask for more.

  24. Simply put our rule is: “Take what you want. Eat what you take.” So I find we are cautious with our portions. If something is left and you are still hungry you may have more.

  25. I’m french and my grand mother used to say “ce que tu prend, tu le manges!” (what you take, you eat it) .
    My parents used to says to “goutes avant de dire que tu n’aimes pas ” “taste it before saying you don’t like it”, “si tu n’as plus faim pour ton plat, alors tu n’as plus faim pour ton dessert” (if you’re full for your plate, you’re full for dessert too) or “ont dit pas c’est pas bon, mais je n’aime pas” (don’t say it’s not good but I don’t like it).
    Also, we don’t think a “kids food” existe. Kids eat what adult eat because the taste have to be educated. No kid will suddenly start to like vegies at the age of 18. Just like wine, you have to get used to it.
    My parents forced me to eat a little bit of everything again and again. When I was a kid I didn’t like many things. Now, aliments I can’t eat are only eggplant and parsley. They are some others aliment I still don’t like but I can force myself to eat it without any difficulties.

    But I do think that us (french people) do nothing better than foreigners. We get fat, and french parents and children do have many imperfection. Sometimes (rarely but still), my mother juste gava us cereals for dinner! Or “lazy meals” such as croques monsieurs or pain perdu.

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