Getting To Yum With Karen Le Billon
A chat with author Karen Le Billon about dinnertime games, her new book, and learning to love your veggies!
Author Karen Le Billon is the first to tell you that she was a picky eater until her twenties. But a year in France with her two small daughters and partner Philippe changed her outlook, and inspired her first book French Kids Eat Everything. With her new book Getting To Yum: 7 Secrets of Raising Eager Eaters, Karen shares practical ideas for meals, as well as tips for getting the whole family excited about dining together. Below, we ask Karen about her personal approach to meals, Getting To Yum, and how to make dining chez toi positively merveilleux.
Better Together: Congratulations on Getting To Yum! We love that you’re focused on reducing pressure and stress at mealtime. Can you give our readers a taste of your mealtime philosophy?
Karen Le Billon: The most important thing to keep in mind is that food is fun, and food is love! I know that may sound hard to believe for some parents (and it was hard to believe for me at one point), but good food and family meals can be a source of family togetherness that has many benefits—psychological as well as physical. Keeping the atmosphere light, enthusiastic, and warm is key.
Beyond that our philosophy is fairly simple: I usually don't spend more than half an hour cooking, and choose simple recipes accordingly. We eat three courses: veggies first (a proven method to get kids to eat more); main dish (starch, protein, and more veggies on the side); and dessert (usually fresh fruit or home-made smoothies). We sit at the table with a tablecloth and candles (yes, every night, except in the brightest summer months), and take turns talking about our day. Sometimes we use Table Talk games, but I find that as my kids grow older we are engaging in mealtime conversation without the need for prompting.
BT: We are longtime fans of your French Kids’ School Lunch Project, where you showcase school lunch menus from a different village or town in France on a regular basis. How has living in France shaped your approach to kids and food?
KLB: I drool over those menus too! Living in France made me realize that kids will live up to our expectations—even if we set the bar high. Schools and parents believe that children need to be taught to eat, just like they are taught to read. With patient persistence and a lot of loving support, even the pickiest eater can expand their palate. Most importantly, parental belief that kids can learn to eat better makes a huge difference.
BT: How does better eating together make for a happier family?
KLB: It sounds crazy, I know, because mealtimes are often incredibly stressful for families. The 'arsenic hour' is a perfect label, I used to feel, for that mad scramble in the kitchen to get a meal on the table at the end of a long workday. But eating together can make for a happier family if you treat mealtimes as a family ritual in which the emphasis is on sharing, supportive conversations and a shared food adventure. Some families find that setting themselves a 'Food Challenge' is a fun way to encourage more family mealtimes: Dad might pick cauliflower as his challenge vegetable, while the kids pick broccoli. Learning to like new foods can give kids a real sense of accomplishment—much like learning any other new skill. But if you make it fun—as I recommend parents do in Getting to Yum—this will make it easier for the whole family.
BT: You list some great mealtime games to help kids explore food. Can you tell your readers about one favourite?
KLB: Sure! Getting to Yum has 20 games designed to address common eating challenges. The Mixing Game deals with that classic problem of 'foods touching' which often gets toddlers clamping their mouths shut. The idea with this game is to put your child in charge of mixing progressively more challenging combinations over a period of several days. For example, on Day 2 you give them two separate bowls with the ingredients of one of their favourite dishes, and ask them to mix. On Day 3, you make a fun mix at snack time. Near the end of the sequence, your child chooses a Mixed-Up Dish—combining two foods that they really like. It sounds silly, but it works wonders!
If you’d like to mix up your dinner routine, Gettingtoyum.com is full of these games, plus recipes and fun activities for kids, all grouped into Taste Training Plans. There are even consolidated grocery lists every week to help make meals together something to really look forward to. Bon appétit!