How My Daughters Learned to Eat Like the French

A preschool-level lesson in French food culture.

Comments: 44

  1. Dinner without whining used to be completely normal in this country when I was growing up. This business of catering to/putting up with children's tantrums and fussy food habits are relatively new developements. I'm 51 and everyone I knew was expected to eat what was served and behave at the table...none of this chicken nugget/ children's menu nonsense. if you didn't eat you went hungry and if you didn't behave, you were sent to your room (at the very least).

  2. Yeah, me too. Both my spouse and I are in our 50s and we both remember eating everything that our mothers cooked for us. Even liver, even spinach. To complain that we didn't like it or wanted something else was just not an option.

  3. H add onto your response; we did eat, when dinner was served. We did not eat when it wasn't meal time. Too many children in our country not only eat "fake food", but they eat it randomly, at any time that is convenient. No wonder we have an obesity epidemic in the US!!!

  4. Exactly - when did the change occur?

  5. Ah, Americans! Years ago, the Japanese were management geniuses whom the Americans needed to emulate. Now, you never hear that. I don't need to say why.

    Now, the French are the masters of parenting. Not long before that delusion will be shattered.

  6. We no longer hear about the Japanese management style because American companies have already absorbed the lessons. Closer ties with suppliers is now the norm. Processes to solicit and utilize work-flow improvements from employees are much more common. Perhaps eventually some of the lessons from the French on child-rearing will seem trite because we have learned and incorporated their practices.

  7. Bravo, you nailed it! I too lived in France (Paris). It amazes me how many Americans write about the mysteries of amazing French parenting without acknowledging the role French school system has in learning good manners, good eating habits, good posture, along with academics. Thank you for writing this article!

    Our schools lack of involvement in raising well rounded citizens puts all the burden on the parents. And when the parents fail at this responsibility we see it in restaurants with kids eating only chicken nuggets, running around, etc.

  8. This is a wonderful article. Many US parents seem to be too busy to teach basic manners to their children, and eating "fast food" contributes to the problem. The following article, "24 Ideas for Instilling Manners in Chidlren," may be of interest. For a direct link, see:

  9. I'm not sure you are drawing the right conclusion here. I was taught manners by my parents and my wife and I in turn taught the same to our children. We did not expect the schools to do this. If they can partner with each other, great, but I am not sure this should be an excuse for the parents not to do this with their own kids. It is possible to raise children with varied diets and to not be out of control in restaurants. We did it and we've seen other parents do it, as well.

  10. Do the French have a food industry that markets "kids' food" directly to them? That's one of our biggest challenges here in the States.

  11. Good point! When you start marketing clementines as 'cuties' it's beyond a problem.

  12. The French eating rituals seem not terribly different than those expected of me and my siblings. We grew up in the 1950's. Table manners were expected. Politeness to the cook was expected. Conversation and discussion was the norm. Mom and Dad taught us.
    If only the U.S. supported families as do the French; imagine a pre-school teaching manners as described in the article.

  13. We have that. It's called Montessori school.

  14. My daughters Montessori teaches table manners!

  15. Oh, and she eats everything we do; loves lo mein, pad thai, sushi and miso soup, lobster bisque, munches peas and lettuce in the garden, and thinks chicken nuggets are gross! My husband did introduce her to ketchup though, UGH!

    They don't know any better when they are really little; they will eat what you feed them, if it's real food! That junk in jars doesn't count IMO...

  16. This is such a hopeful story- it's great to remember that kids aren't just one way and there's nothing we can do about it- every culture has rules and norms that we could examine and choose to teach or not teach our children. Respect for and connection to our food is an amazing place to start!

  17. Don't waste your time with the "counterpoint" link. That counterpoint (from 1991) runs counter to every experience I have had in France. The author sounds like a spoiled brat who didn't appreciate anything and was rebelling against anything her parents tried. Poor thing, being hauled off to Paris. And the fact that she learned nothing from the experience speaks volumes, not matter what her profession is today. Today's magazine article illustrates that Americans can "change their ideas" when exposed to a different culture, not just French culture.

  18. The differences are remarkable! Having lived and taught in both cultures, I am still flummoxed as to how long children can sit at a dining table and remain civilized. This training starts at a very early age and remains with the adherent for life...quel plaisir!

  19. Strict Rules and Homogeniety. Makes life "easy", doesn't it? When everyone eats the same thing, at the same time of day, in the same manner, does the same thing and believes the same thing, people (and children) tend to get in line and conform. France is a great country, but like most Western European countries (and many others around the world), there is usually one way of doing things.
    By they way, I also agree with the 1950's comments here. Why can't parents simply trust in their judgement; set fair, but firm rules, and go forward, instead of looking for the country of week that will be the "silver bullet" to produce perfect kids?
    Last point - I always found with my kids that "you have to try everything once" and always serving kids the same food that the parents are eating generally takes care of these issues over time. Together with standard basic table manners, of course.

  20. I am so excited to get my hands on this book! I have just pre-ordered my copy, and plan to devour it as soon as it arrives (with all the energy I will save not chasing my child around his train set with fork fulls of food in hand :) Quite seriously, I find the writing style beautifully descriptive and delightful to read, and the book super interesting to me as a chance to explore how 'culture' and 'nurture' interplay. Can't wait...

  21. Ah yes, the French are SUCH great parents - France, with one of the highest suicide rates in the world and the largest consumers of anti-depressants in the western world BY FAR. Where some parents don't even allow their children to use the informal version of "you" with them. But their children eat their vegetables. And you think their priorities are straight?

  22. ...Which goes to show that you, the parent, is the reason your child has bad (or good, as the case may be) eating habits. Children don't just "have" North American (read: bad) eating habits by some divine source. They are taught them. By the parents.

  23. When we go out to dinner with other families, we always put the children at a separate booth or table. We've been doing this since the children were old enough to order for themselves. They feel grown up, are happy to hang out with their friends, and we get to enjoy the restaurant and the company of our friends. I think kids are less likely to whine to Mom about the food choices if Mom is not even at the table!

  24. Lovely piece. A lot to be gleaned. I'm sure the French have their own parenting challenges just like the rest of us, but when it comes to food, they appear to take the cake.

  25. The real test is what her kids would do if offered Brussels sprouts. Even at 61, I'm not sure I could be polite and actually eat them.

  26. My husband is French, and after 20 years of marriage (and 3 more or less grown children) I agree with this particular 'quirk' of French culture; children are not catered to in the extreme, as opposed to American parents who dance around their kids. Rather, they are simply brought up to understand etiquette in it's various forms whether it be mealtime or being in different social situations. And they seem to manage these social graces marvelously, learning to enjoy, for the most part, the various situations rather than grumpily tagging along.
    Bon courage aux Americains!! Tenez bon!

  27. I am quite perplexed when I read articles like this where the author marvels at the idea of children displaying good behaviour and good manners. When you become a parent it is incumbent on you to teach them how to behave, how to eat, how to dress, how to deal with social situations; then, when they become of an age to decide for themselves, you have to just step back - and pray that you made a lasting impression!

  28. Great article! The importance of restraint aka impulse control in kids is key - as is shown in Goleman's books on emotional intelligence and food is one area where it can become a real issue. For some reason, we seem to have lost ground on getting kids to interact with food in a healthy way in North America - interesting to read about this perspective from abroad, Karen - thank you for sharing and can't wait to see the book!

  29. huuugg...such stereotyped cliches served !
    what about a French journalist writing about the culinary habits, tastes and manners of modern american kids ? would that publish a book ?
    I am French, living in America. My kid has to wash his hands, sit down at the table, wait for his food to be served, and yes, eats everything, including the dreaded carottes rapees mentioned in this silly article.

    I am cooking a Gratin d'Aubergine for dinner as I am writing this, and he loves it.
    It is all about how you raise your kids, not " Being French ".

  30. Ca Suffit/ Enough already!

    Being half French and living in Brooklyn I think I have had enough of this constant drumbeat about how the French bring up their kids better etc... Every French family I know who lives in NY talks about how much more free society is here, how there are so many choices, how they don't feel shackled by family and norms. Meanwhile all the Americans are longing for the structure that defines the European family.

    The grass is always greener, but one caveat, have we seen how economically struggling French people feed, raise their kids? I bet there are no springs of lavender on the table.


  31. You know, if I had a state subsidized preschool for my children starting at age 3, they too would have remarkable manners. I have been to any number of French resorts, and can tell you that many those children grow up to be remarkably not as concerned with other's opinions.

    My personal favorite was the Parisian who cut in line in front of a wheelchair bound woman. Voicing my shock, the wheelchair bound husband chuckled and said that I must not be French. So that's OK but children not using their knife and fork is not. I'd rather my kids eat with their fingers.

  32. Tiger Moms are yesterday's soup du jour and now the Americans turn to France where fast food doesn't exist and everyone throws dinner parties where the kids' table is kitted out with "creamy linen tablecloth", "cutlery intertwined with sprigs of dried lavender", and napkins "nestled in wineglasses next to ceramic bowls"...

    Bon chance American parents!

  33. This isn't an article about food, it's about instilling boundaries and discipline in kids; something which is obviously lacking on this side of the Atlantic.

    I would bet money that the French also don't have a laundry list of "food sensitivities" that need to be loudly and vigorously catered to in public as well.

  34. My father tells that only once did I refuse to eat the food set before me. He removed the plate from the left, and as it passed on the right, I grabbed it from him and began to eat.

  35. I'm an expat living in France who works with teens on year-long high school intercultural exchange programs. Guess what our biggest problem is with American kids? The French host families are shocked by the lack of structure in their eating habits as much as by what foods they eat (coke & junk food) / won't eat (a variety of vegetables, fruits, cheese and meats); and the kids cannot understand that the French usually don't snack, and eat sitting down, at a table with other people, at fixed hours, with the TV off. And they have trouble sitting at the table for the hour or so this takes, too. But many of the American kids do come to love the French habits (people sharing a meal and caring what they eat) even though it may take a rough couple of months for them to discover this.
    When I used to take my own kids back to the US on vacation, they often couldn't understand the American concept of 'kids' meals' with nuggets and fries; my then six-year-old daughter always wondered why people were shocked when she asked for corn on the cob and green beans like the adults. In French school canteens, the kids (from age 3 up) are served the same meal as everyone else, adults included. They aren't forced to eat everything, but the school tries to 'educate the palate' starting early.

  36. Like many commenters here, I am puzzled by this recent bandying about of French parenting culture as some new aspirational goal for Americans. American parents once knew these things too. You prepared a meal at approximately the same time every day, you sat down, you expected your children to sit down, and you ate it together. If the kids didn't eat it or complained, they didn't get another meal. I guess now your neighbors would be screaming child abuse if you let your kid go hungry for a few hours as a discipline tool.
    I admire French culture and food, but it's not some shining beacon of enlightenment for us to put on a pedestal. We Americans lost our minds all on our own, and France isn't going to save us.

  37. Such a great article...can't wait to read this book with my daughter! The point isn't that the French are perfect's that this author was able to distill some key food rules that tend to be lost or forgotten here in North America. I think we can learn a lot from parents all around the world!

  38. This feels like a plot to make Americans hate the French even more. Stop with these silly generalizations. Children are children. The kids I knew in France who ate in this way did so because they were afraid to do otherwise. Deeply afraid. Besides, French supermarket shelves are loaded with instant mashed potatoes and, yes, instant broccoli. (Just add hot water and stir.) Granted, some French children eat like the fairy tale children from this article. But plenty don't. My son's best friend ate hamburgers and fried potatoes for years. He would not touch a vegetable. My nephew was so poorly behaved as a little boy that the 4-star Parisian restaurant his parents frequented gave us a PRIVATE room. And who came up with the "15 minute late" rule? I lived in France for years and never heard such a thing. My French husband says these articles are only ever written by the expats who live in a bubble on the west side of Paris - and that the French children in those neighborhoods are usually raised by nannies until the parents can deal with them.

  39. The "positive peer pressure" mentioned in the article has nothing to do with French culture. Last night, my family ate dinner with two other families in a Japanese restaurant. We do not have any familiarity with Japanese food, but the other families and their children did. My daughter ate at one end of the table with the other girls and happily ate the miso soup (with green things and tofu) and the terriaki chicken we ordered for all of them. She would have never done that if she were eating with us; everything would have been gross and disgusting because it was new and unfamiliar.

    The only ironic part is that my daughter ate all of her food. The other girls, while they liked what they were eating, barely nibbled at everything. Why? My daughter only eats at meal times and gets one afternoon snack. The other girls have toddler siblings and are therefore grazers and eat snack food throughout the day.

    The lesson here is that while we all try to get everything right, we never will. Stress the things that are important to you and don't sweat the other stuff. It will all come out right in the end.

    And peer pressure can be a good thing. :)

  40. Does the NYTimes not like women (or rather mothers) in the US? This past Sunday it was about how we fail our children's diet, last Wednesday it was how we obsess about toxic chemicals in our homes (, a couple of weeks ago we were contributing to children's ADHD (, next week we will probably see a repeat of the Tiger Mom and our lack of attention to (insert one here) homework/music lessons/potty training. For all the blustering in the Opinion pages about how the NYTimes supposedly cares about women's rights, the stories in the style and other sections of the paper tell a different story.

  41. Hello,
    I am French, and I am surprised by 2 things in this article.
    1. How you put the French "parenting" way on a pedestal. Forget it, our kids are little brats too.
    2. How many of the comments have simply noticed that common sense was the best way to deal with children. I do not share the opinion that American boys and girls are worse than ours. Just cooking "something", whatever it is, with your kids can be fun ! They are proud, they learn something and they are sharing good times with you. I don't want to patronize anyone, but maybe it's a way to explore further.

    I have been struck also by the intelligence of many comments in this thread, really understanding where the problem, if you call it a problem, was.

    From France with love :-)

    On an unrelated matter, please have a thought for the little jewish kids slaughtered in Toulouse yesterday. We will eventually catch the bastard who did it.

  42. This mother needed to go to France to have her children behave well at a dinner? As an American teacher living in France, I admire and appreciate aspects of French culture. However, I am still so surprised by all of these Americans that look to France on how to raise their children, lose weight. How about taking a little pride in your culture and look around. There are plenty of American parents who do a perfectly fine job of raising well-behaved, cultured children. Although that also calls into question where and with whom these people spend their time.

  43. So the mob of college-aged folks I saw lined up at the McDonalds last night in Montpellier must have all been foreign exchange students, right?