French School Lunches

Our guest blogger, Karen Le Billon, contributed this entry on French School Lunches. And those lunches are truly that amazing. While many French parents will complain about their quality and standards, the fact is that compared to many other nations the French school canteen system excels on many fronts. One of them being nutritional education that is intentionally integrated into the school curriculum through the daily lunch experience. French kids might eat well at home, but the French government makes sure that they eat really well at school.

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.

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Why are these menus so good? Because the French believe that learning doesn’t stop in the lunchroom. In the ‘school restaurant’ (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). Nonetheless, reading the French school lunch menus is an eye-opener about what kids can eat.

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 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!

In closing, here's a lovely quote from the website of the school restaurant 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."

Food for thought, n’est-ce pas?

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