N° 11 | June 2016

Eating Fruits and Vegetables in U.S. and French Family Dinners

The consumption of fruits and vegetables (F&V) is critical for the prevention of childhood obesity. Yet intervention programs to promote this have been unsuccessful1. They have focused on modifying individuals’ behaviors, ignoring the context within which eating takes place2.

An ethnographic study to examine families’ culinary habits

This study compares the meal environment of 8 Californian and 8 French families (19 children in each locale) in order to better understand the relationship between local practices and preferences and children’s consumption of fruits and vegetables. It analyzes video recorded ethnographic data collected over 2 dinners in each home (32 meals in all). The analysis of the ethnographic observations affords the examination of the families’ culinary habits as culturally organized activities and parental practices that socialize children into fruit and vegetable consumption3.

A greater exposure to F&V in French children

The French children were exposed to a greater variety of fruit (14 types) than the U.S. children (4 types). More importantly, fruit was an integral part of the French dinner; all families served fruit as the last course of the meal (14 of 16 meals) and all children ate some. Fruit appeared in only 3 U.S. homes and only 3 children were observed to eat any. While the French children were exposed to a greater variety of vegetables than the U.S. children (33 vs. 22 types), vegetables were present in most U.S. and all French dinners. But, did vegetables have the same value and consumption patterns in both sites?

Vegetables and Meal Structure

Most of the U.S. meals (12/16) comprised a single course - all dishes were served at the same time, while all the French meals consisted of multiple (3-5) courses. The division into courses offered the French children more occasions to consume vegetables, which were offered without competition from other foods. And when served alone, children felt pressure to cooperate and eat them. In the U.S. dinners, where the dishes were served simultaneously, a child could appear collaborative, eating other foods while ignoring her vegetables.

Regular size vs small vegetable dishes

Regular size vegetable dishes were more common in the French meals (26 French, 9 U.S.) and small vegetable dishes in the U.S. meals (13 U.S., 7 French). The latter were always in competition with meat or carb dishes. Regular size vegetable dishes offered more opportunity to consume vegetables and they appeared more central to the overall meal.

Vegetables consumption

46% of the time the U.S. children did not touch their vegetables, while only 10% of the time the French ignored them. Also, 58% of the time the French children ate the amount of vegetable expected, while only 27% of the time the U.S. children did the same. The French children ate more vegetables than the U.S. children!

Socialization of Eating

French multiple course meals socialized children to commensality. Parents encouraged talk about the pleasure of food and the importance of ingredients and quality. They modeled eating behavior and cajoled their children to taste different foods emphasizing taste (“It’s super good”). American meal organization prioritized meat and carbs. Parents mostly did not serve or force their children to eat vegetables, signaling that these were optional and of lesser value. Allowing children to eat alternative “kids” foods demonstrated the belief that children eat differently than adults and that they can have autonomy and individual expressions of taste.
We have shown that local practices and preferences influence the consumption of fruit and vegetables. We propose that intervention programs consider incorporating into their recommendations suggestions for both fitting fruit and vegetables into local eating models and modifying meal organization.

Based on: Kremer-Sadlik T, Morgenstern A, Peters C, Beaupoil P, Caët S, Debras C, le Mené M. (2015). Eating fruits and vegetables: An ethnographic study of American
and French family dinners. Appetite 89:84-92.

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2013). State indicator report on fruits and vegetables. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
    National Fruit & Vegetable Alliance (NFVA). (2010). National Action Plan. To Promote Health Through Increased Fruit and Vegetable Consumption. 2010 Report Card. Delaware: NFVA.
  2. Rozin, P., Kabnick, K., Pete, E., Fischler, C., & Shields, C. (2003). The ecology of eating. Smaller portion sizes in France than in the Untied States help explain the French paradox. Psychological Science, 14, 450–454. 3. Ochs, E., Pontecorvo, C., & Fasulo, A. (1996). Socializing taste. Ethnos, 61, 7–46. Weisner, T. (2002). Ecocultural understanding of children’s developmental
    pathways. Human Development, 45, 275–281.
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