Organic celery salad and sautéed root vegetables, anyone? How French school lunches teach kids to love healthy food

There is no kids' food in French school lunches. While the French serve things most of our kids would recognize (lasagna, for example), they also have kids eating everything from beet salad to endive, lentils to lettuce, and even roast guinea fowl and stinky blue cheese. And that’s what the preschoolers get.

Six million French children eat tasty, healthy, (mostly) scratch-cooked, three or four course meals every day. And they do this for an average of $3 per meal (not much more than the average price of meals in the US National School Lunch Program). Low-income families have subsidized prices (the lowest price in Paris is 20 cents per meal) and every child—no matter what their income—sits down to the same meal with their peers every day. (Vending machines and fast food are banned in all schools, and packed lunches are strongly discouraged: the cantine is where most children eat).

I blog every week about these amazing school lunch menus at my French Kids School Lunch Project. I started this blog while writing my book, French Kids Eat Everything, which is about the French Food Rules parents use to teach their kids to be healthy eaters. We learned these rules in France, but when we moved back to North America I realized that schools and parents need to work together to teach children to eat well—and that this sadly doesn’t always happen here. The book is a very personal story about how our family transformed our eating habits, but I realized I couldn’t stop there: school lunch reform is something vital for all of our children. Hence the French Kids School Lunch Project was born.

 

Why are these menus so good? Because the French believe that learning doesn’t stop in the lunchroom. In the ‘school restaurant’ (restaurant scolaire--the name says it all, doesn’t it?) they actively teach kids to like and eat a wide variety of food. This is backed up by lessons in the classroom (and, of course, by the French Food Rules that parents teach their kids at home). The French are so dedicated to this that they don’t repeat the same dish more than once every month in any given school. Just think about what your kids’ lunches were like if that rule were in place.

 

Of course, these comments on the French approach to lunches are a series of generalizations. There are great school lunch programs here at home, and the French system is not perfect (as I explore on my blog, there are debates over issues like serving halal food and prioritizing children from dual-worker families). some kids here eat everything, and there are certainly picky eaters in France. Nonetheless, reading the French school lunch menus is an eye-opener about what kids caneat.

 

Perhaps most astonishing of all: there is no kids' food here. No flavoured milk (the kids drink water). Ketchup only once per week (and only with dishes with which ketchup is traditionally served, like steak). There is little or no fried food (which can only be served a few times per month, according to Ministry of Education regulations). Vegetables are about half of the overall meal (the starter is always a vegetable, and the main dish always has a vegetable side dish). There is also no choice on the menu (for primary school kids), and only one choice for highschool kids, minimizing ‘plate waste’, which is often an important hidden cost in our school lunches.

Now, I'm not necessarily recommending the wholesale adoption of the French approach. The question is: what can we learn from them? I believe that some elements of the French approach (like their well thought-out approach to 'taste training' for kids) could definitely work here. So my hope is that the French Kids School Lunch Project will spark a conversation in North America about what children can eat, and how we can do better at educating them to eat a large variety of foods.

Underlying this blog is my belief that healthy food is a right, and that eating well is for everyone--not just for elites or foodies. I also believe that food insecurity and unhealthy eating habits are two expressions of food and education systems that need fixing, so I blog about food politics, and about the amazing people and organizations working for better food in North America. These continue to inspire me...and hopefully you too!

Food for thought, n'est-ce pas? In future posts, I'll explore American school lunches, and discuss some great examples of good lunches here at home.   In the meantime, for more information, check out FrenchKidsEatEverything.com.

In closing, here's a lovely quote from the school website in Versailles: "Mealtime is a particularly important moment in a child's day. Our responsibility is to provide children with healthy, balanced meals; to develop their sense of taste; to help children, complementing what they learn at home, to make good food choices without being influenced by trends, media, and marketing; and to teach them the relationship between eating habits and health. But above all else, we aim to enable children to spend joyful, convivial moments together, to learn a 'savoir-vivre', to make time for communication, social exchange, and learning about society's rules--so that they can socialize and cultivate friendships."

 

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Tags: France, family, food, kids, lunch, school

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Comment by Solange SUON on November 7, 2012 at 3:26pm

Je souhaite vous faire partager cette étude (résumé) du CREDOC sur l'alimentation en général en France et aux USA. Je vous invite à la lire : http://www.credoc.fr/pdf/4p/255.pdf

Il ressort de cette étude que : 

L'ALIMENTATION DES TOUT-PETITS MOINS DIVERSIFIÉE

"Globalement, les Américains n'ont pas une alimentation moins saine que celle des Français", notent-ils. Ils mangent plus de sucre, à cause de leur consommation de sodas, mais l'alimentation des Français est plus chargée en acides gras saturés et en cholestérol, en raison d'une plus forte consommation de fromage, de charcuterie et de viennoiseries.

Les Français entre 21 et 34 ans ont une alimentation moins équilibrée que celle des Américains du même âge et les petits Français (3-14 ans) mangent de moins en moins diversifié. Dans une étude publiée mercredi 5 septembre, le Centre de recherche pour l'étude et observation des conditions de vie (Crédoc) passe en revue les habitudes alimentaires des Français, en les comparant à celles des Américains. 

Comment by Gerry on April 22, 2012 at 3:20pm

The French have much better eating habits than Americans do. 

In alot of American high schools students don't get a lunch period but they can eat in class.  They learn to eat for sustenance not for pleasure.  What they eat is often fast food.  No wonder so many Americans are fat while the French are usually thin.

Thank you for your post. 

Comment by Christel De La Ossa on April 16, 2012 at 6:07pm

I grew up in France and we always had a long lunch. So do adults at work, they take a full hour out of the office, eat out with their colleagues or even go home, then go back to work refreshed, and more productive. That makes for a longer day (French students don't leave school until 5 pm, and adults come home even later, but everyone eats dinner around 8 pm anyway, so it all works out!

Comment by Pascale Heuze on April 16, 2012 at 5:07pm

Of course it is an interesting point of view about some french schools lunchs ! but really do you think it is a common value in French schools ?

Not sure

Comment by Christel De La Ossa on April 16, 2012 at 4:07pm
Another interesting difference is that the lunch period lasts one hour and a half in most French schools, which indeed enables children to "spend joyful, convivial moments together". This is how the French perpetuate their philosophy about food and meal taking (as one of life's pleasures and social activity). Compare that to the much shorter lunchtime allotted to American kids, who spend half of it in line, then gobble up the food hastily and move on to the next activity: now you understand why American adults eat at their desk: they were conditioned in school to consider lunch as something that has to be done quickly, interfering with, rather than being part of, a productive day.
Comment by Catherine Korvin on April 16, 2012 at 4:04pm

Merci de poster cet article. J'aimerai bien avoir acces a des repas equilibres au travail (un lycee dans la region metropolitaine new yorkaise.

Comment by brigitte saint Ouen on April 16, 2012 at 3:57pm

Thank you for your article, My twins are four year old and love to ckk this why this summer i organize cooking class in my summer camp. and we will not cook cupcake and cookies... salade de fraise, and more will be at the menu and each week we will go shopping at the far market and all french way and in french. 

call me for more information frenchPG@32finearts.com

brigitte saint Ouen

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