Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Lunch Wars

Food is a battleground. Every parent knows this. Kids all seem recognize that food--what they will and won't eat, the speed at which they will or won't eat it, their willingness to sit in their chairs, etc...--is one small area in their limited little lives in which they can exert control. And drive their parents crazy.

Before coming to France, I'd heard about the whole movement to get your kids to eat everything: "the French way." In all areas in which we Americans would like to see improvement, we tend to look to the French as our counter-example. Without a bit of our puritanism, they seem to do so much better than us in so many ways. They don't get fat, although they eat copious amounts of foie gras and triple cream fromage on bread! They age beautifully, never fighting it but somehow becoming more fetching with every new wrinkle! Their children sit obediently through three-hour lunches, polishing off every last escargot, never having a separate meal!-gasp-of something more "kid-friendly."

All of this sounded good to me. I wasn't so naive as to believe that all of these "French X don't..." books had the whole truth. But I was hopeful, especially where it came to Max's diet. Our kids never fail to surprise us in the ways that they stubbornly insist on being themselves, in spite of our genes and best efforts to train them. As a lover of pretty much all ethnic foods, spicy food, stinky food (cheese at least) and everything pungent and flavorful, I expected a kid who would take after me. Even when I was little, I'd eat hot sauce until tears streamed down my face, partly to be macho but also because I genuinely liked it, already getting high off the endorphins. Matt is not quite as much a fan of heat, but he's also got a wide palate, and our fridge is stocked with more "weird stuff" than normal. But since birth practically, Max has preferred a much more limited range. He's not quite as bad as the kid I knew who went through a phase of only eating white cheese sticks, but he likes his food simple, plain, and (preferably) raw. Given his choice, he'd live on desserts, raw vegetables, yogurt, and noodles with butter and parmesan. It's really boring, but he's also really stubborn, and I don't like fighting over food. It just doesn't seem like a battle worth waging, especially since he will happily consume heaping portions of vegetables. So before coming here, I'd largely given up.

But then he started at a school with a "composed" lunch served every day, and given no alternative, I found myself getting on board with the whole "French kids eat everything" plan. I remembered my mother saying that you have to try something 7 times before you can decide if you like it. Seems kind of quasi-scientific, but then again why not? I was happy not to have to spend the time to pack a lunch, and I liked the idea of him having this cross-cultural experience every day. I'd read (in the aforementioned get your kids to eat book) about the cloth tablecloths laid on French school children's cafeteria tables, the courses, the way that they were expected to keep their elbows off the table and their hands in sight at all times. Matt and I joked that if Max got nothing besides better table manners after this year in France, it would be well worth it.

From the start, let's just say that he didn't come home raving about his lunches. "They're very French," said one other mother, a woman from Mexico who (as Max reported to me) packs her son a lunch of rice and beans and tortillas and other items every day, because he refuses to eat the meat and fish in heavy cream sauce that the school seems to serve daily. "It was lamb again!" Max says indignantly, almost every time I ask him what was for lunch. Or else "horse hooves," although I find this very hard to believe. Or "Baby cows!" When Matt pointed out that this was called, "veal," it didn't seem to make him any more predisposed towards it.

Another big parenting term these days is "natural consequences." This is supposed to be the best form of discipline (or coercion). You let the kid hang himself, and then wait for him to find a way out of the noose. Joking aside, I do like the thought of "natural consequences," at least in principle, and hoped it might work here. Sure, he didn't like the school lunches. But since he didn't have an alternative, he'd eat them and his palate would grow more diverse and sophisticated. I thought: if he doesn't eat his lunch one day, he'll realize how hungry he was all afternoon, and the next day he'll eat it.  When this didn't seem to happen--when we picked him up and he was nearly psychopathic, and we asked what he'd had for lunch, and he snapped, "A LOT! I ate SO MANY RADISHES!"--we started to get concerned. "We have got to pack that kid some other food," Matt finally said last week, after our normally agreeable child fell apart on Friday afternoon, and then admitted that he'd eaten a "huge" lunch of beets. "Pascal gets to bring his own food. Why can't Max?"

Why indeed? Although I'd been on board with the French lunch program, Max has been in school here since January, and if he hasn't learned to love lamb and cream sauce by now, the odds are he's not going to. He's outplayed us at the natural consequences game. The natural consequence of having to put up with his vicious low blood sugar every afternoon is that we are worn down and sick of this particular battle. He won. So over the weekend, I bought a loaf of wheat bread, a jar of peanut butter and some jam. I'm willing to make him lunches, but easy ones. As far as I've seen, they don't even sell elaborate lunch boxes here.

Day 1, yesterday, all seemed fine. I explained to Anne, his Irish teacher, that I'd packed him some food because he doesn't like the school lunch (and has, in fact, decided that he is a vegetarian now) and she said that this was okay by her. At the end of the day, Max seemed much happier, and he'd polished off both sandwiches. But he also told me that Elodie, his French teacher, wasn't pleased, and that she was going to talk to me about how he couldn't bring his own lunch to school.

"Don't worry," I said to him. "It'll be fine. I'll explain to her."

But this morning, Elodie greeted me with a distinctly frosty demeanor. She didn't broach the topic, so I did, assuming it would be fine.

"In fact it is not fine," she said in French. "It is against the rules for children to bring their own food."

"But why?" I asked. I have been here long enough that, I have to admit, I'm becoming much less conflict-adverse. I'm actually kind of starting to enjoy a good verbal sparring match. I feel like I've learned a few tips from the folks here.

"It is important for all of the children to sit together and eat the same meal," she said. "They learn to eat at the table that way."

"In principle I agree," I said. "But he is impossible at the end of the day, and when we ask, he says he ate only vegetables. We can't stand his moods. He doesn't want to eat meat, and after trying to fight it for months, we are accepting that this is his choice, because what else can we do?"

"It is very difficult for a child to be vegetarian," she said. "He is too young."

"There are regions of India where everyone is vegetarian from birth," I said. (Good one! I thought) "I was vegetarian for many years. I know how to make vegetable-based proteins, and he eats a vitamin-rich diet."

"Yes," she said. "Beans are a good source of protein. But not sandwiches."

"Excuse me?" I said. We seemed to be getting to the source of her scowl.

"These sandwiches. It's very American, I know. If he has them, the other children will all want them, and it's not a proper lunch. What is in them?"

"Peanut butter. A good source of protein."

She didn't respond to this. "The school lunch has many courses. There is an entree (appetizer) and a main dish, vegetables, dessert and cheese. He doesn't have to eat the meat."

"Fine," I said. "I will pack some extra food, so he can eat it if he's still hungry or at the end of the day, and he can eat the other courses."

"No sandwiches," she said, to which I agreed.

Sometimes you have to concede the battle in order to win the war.

Max makes his feelings about roasted sheep head quite clear.

Another appealing display at our corner butcher's. (Note how the chickens seem to be clutching their own beheaded selves in horror).

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