One of the most common New Year’s resolutions people make is to lose weight by dieting. The idea is that restricting the pleasures of tasty foods will lead to greater fitness and a finer physique. But if these rewards are so valuable, why is it so hard for us to stick to our resolution? Maybe the problem is that when we try to lose weight, we also lose the pleasure of eating.
What if we could have it all? Keep the pleasure and stick to our resolution? In the US, we tend to compartmentalize pleasure, separating it from our daily chores and relegating it to special times. We have happy hours, not happy days. We have guilty pleasures, as if enjoying chocolate or a favorite movie is a moral failing.
In France, pleasure, or “plaisir,” is not a dirty word. It’s not considered hedonistic to pursue pleasure. Perhaps a better translation of the word is “enjoyment” or even “delight.” Pleasure, in fact, takes the weight of a moral value, because according to the French, pleasure serves as a compass guiding people in their actions. And parents begin teaching their children from very early childhood in a process called the education of taste, or “l’éducation du gout.”
Taste as a gateway to understanding pleasure
The education of taste means teaching children to appreciate and savor the wide variety of flavors in the world and to eat properly at the table. In my eight months conducting research on French parenting in Paris, I found that the education of taste begins very early in families and is reinforced in daycare centers, where even two-year-olds are served formal, yet relaxed, four-course lunches with an appetizer, main course, cheese plate and dessert.
But taste education goes beyond cultivating your children’s palate. It’s about awakening and stimulating all the senses as well as the mind and emotions. On a survey listing 50 parenting practices with infants and toddlers, 455 French mothers and fathers in my study rated what we called “stimulating practices” as more important than responding to basic needs and teaching manners. Stimulating practices included reading to children, playing music and giving them massages. The ultimate goal of stimulating children is to develop their understanding of what gives them pleasure.
Restrictions that actually open up the world
The moment that tied it all together for me was when I asked a mother in my research study why it was important to train her children to behave properly in public. She simply replied, “Because if they know how to behave properly, they will know how to adapt and get along with people. And that will give them pleasure.” Adhering to social rules is a means to greater pleasure. You have to give up something to gain something greater.
As Americans, we are taught to deny pleasure and venerate self-sacrifice and hard work. And when we finally take time off to have fun, we often do things in excess. We party hard. We eat and drink too much. And then we feel guilty. When we enjoy food too much, we say we’ve been “bad.” Maybe if we didn’t deprive ourselves of simple pleasures all day every day, we wouldn’t feel so compelled to overdo it on weekends.
A comparative study found that when American parents talked to their children at the dinner table, they talked about what children should eat in nutritional and moral terms. When the Italians talked at the table, they talked about what their children wanted to eat, and encouraged them to develop their individual tastes.
One of the most surprising things that French mothers shared with me in my research was their belief that stimulating children’s appetites for a wide variety of life’s pleasures can actually deter them from becoming addicted to drugs!
Those moms may have been on to something.
Focused family meals
According to a recent national survey in the US by CASAColumbia, teens who have more frequent family meals have better relationships with their parents, and are less likely to smoke or use drugs and alcohol. Sitting around the table talking with your teenagers at least five times a week, even for just 20 minutes, has positive, lasting effects on their health and on family relationships.
But having regular family dinners can be a challenge. Children and adolescents have busy afterschool schedules, and for some parents juggling jobs, working long hours or not having a partner make it virtually impossible to find a moment when everyone is home. But research suggests that making even a little time to have those conversations around the table can have big payoffs down the road.
When you do sit down at the table, leave the television and the phones off until the meal is over. In a recent study, researchers had two groups of families share a meal in a lab made to look like a dining room. One group had no distractions, and the other group heard a continuous loud noise coming from a room adjacent to theirs. The researchers found that the distracted group consumed more cookies. The harder it was to focus on the meal, the more they were tempted to overeat.
The French idea of education of taste has much in common with the notion of mindfulness. Both traditions focus on giving yourself over to the moment and living it fully. If you are going to enjoy your favorite food, really enjoy it and don’t feel guilty. Notice the subtlety or the intensity of the flavors and savor each morsel. Lose yourself in the pleasure. As we start a new year, if we must deprive ourselves for a distant goal, why not at least find and enjoy the many small pleasures along the way?
Marie-Anne Suizzo works for the University of Texas at Austin. She received funding from the Spencer Foundation for her research on parental involvement in low-income US families. She is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.