How long is your lunch break? In France, it’s two hours…

The French are serious about eating. Nowhere is this more evident than at lunchtime, when the entire nation sits down for a proper meal (the biggest and most important meal of the day). Over 95% of French people do this. Stores and doctor’s offices close. No one answers the phone. The mid-day meal is sacred.

Even children at school get a long lunch break: between one and a half to two hours. A minimum of 30 minutes during that time period is spent sitting at the table, eating the freshly prepared, three- or four-course meals, that kids get every day. The rest of the time is spent playing (and digesting all of that good food).

Why so long? Lunch is supposed to represent up to half of daily caloric intake, so eat big meals at midday rather than in the evening. Plus, the French believe that eating slowly is an essential part of eating properly.

Meanwhile, back in North America, my older daughter gets all of…10 minutes for lunch, precisely scheduled by the school from noon to 12:10. Needless to say, she doesn’t eat much. But at least she eats. Studies show that up to half of North Americans don’t eat lunch at all. Instead, they snack, with all of the negative effects on health, mood, IQ and weight that you might imagine.

How much time do you take for lunch?

11 thoughts on “How long is your lunch break? In France, it’s two hours…

  1. My lunch break is a half hour. Sometimes it is less. I’d like it to be longer, but on the other hand I wouldn’t want to stay at work longer.

    I don’t see my lunch hour becoming longer. I’m a nurse, and would have to guess that even in France there are still some jobs where it just wouldn’t be easy to facilitate a very long lunch break.

    You mentioned that in the French sometimes eat almost half their caloric intake at lunch, I find that really interesting. I’m diabetic, so that way of eating would be really difficult for me…I can see how people would feel the need for a nap!

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  2. Great question! French kids have an after-school snack too, but then they don’t eat dinner until 7:30 or 8 pm (and then go straight to bed, but dinner is a light meal because they have had their main meal of the day at lunch).

    I agree that North American kids are hungry in the mid-afternoon, both because of what they eat and how little time they get to eat it. So I give our kids a snack after school, but usually only juice or fresh fruit. This means they’re not famished, but that their appetites aren’t affected either.

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  3. I’ll be interested to see what you have to say in your book about how to handle post-school hunger. We don’t really do between-meal snacks at our house, but there’s no way the kids could make it all the way to dinner after their ten-or-fifteen-minute lunch at school, so I end up giving them something — usually a bowl of Cheerios — as soon as they get home. But it does mean they’re not necessarily so hungry at dinner time and can afford to be pickier . . .

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  4. Thanks Chris (for the comment, and the intro to The Lunch Tray…great blog!). School lunch time at my older daughter’s school is scheduled for 10 minutes. This includes unpacking, eating, and packing up their lunch boxes (we don’t have a cafeteria, so kids bring their own food from home). I can’t tell you the number of times her lunch has come home uneaten. Campaigning at your local school is a great thing to do, but I know change is hard…so I can relate to the Iowa City story.

    Do we need something like a ‘Kid’s Lunch Charter’ that people could sign up to, so that local campaigns can link into something bigger? What do you think of the Slow Food Time for Lunch campaign? Ironically, as far as I can tell, they seem to be mostly focused on what kids eat rather than on how long they eat for….

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  5. The shortness of elementary school lunch periods in America is unbelievable. I recently posted at The Lunch Tray about the effort of parents here in Iowa City to petition for a more humane lunch period for their kids — so far with no success.

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  6. Fascinating Ben! In our little village in northern France, shops shut promptly at 12:00, and didn’t open again until 2:00. A big meal, and then a quick lie-down/nap were common for kids. Adults sometimes napped, but usually didn’t (I think the nap is much more of a tradition in southern France, which makes sense given how hot it gets). In Paris, lots of workers (office staff or otherwise) go out for a lovely lunch (they have ‘menu’ type 3 course lunches at lots of cafes, and lots of employees get discounted ‘tickets’ from their employers that they can use to get these meals for a reduced price). Or people eat in the in-house cafeteria (cantine) which is found in most larger workplaces. Sandwich at the desk is a bit rare even in Paris, in my experience (and according to official statistics, which are scrupulously gathered on these things!). People expect that their workplaces enable workers to have a good lunch…although this is indeed changing, as some other comments have noted.

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  7. I can only speak for Labastide where I lived and was only there for a year, but the protocol (I was quite sternly told) was to eat at noon, then around 1pm was L’heur Repas (sp?) (give or take 15 minutes) were you just relax a bit, make social phone calls and that type of thing, then you slept. One neighbour, well into her 80s, said (to my wife) that you don’t really get your energy back unless you finish the nap with ‘a bit of romance from a good lover’.

    I have often wondered how people in offices etc deal with this (in Labastide everyone just comes home, but it was a smallish village). I was told that people tended to eat sandwiches etc at their desks in Paris a lot (but then everything that was wrong in France/the World was generally the result of Paris according to the typical Bastidienne)…

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  8. I think one of the weirdest things, and probably to French people as well, is the sight of millions of people chomping and slurping their lunches in their cubicles, at their desks, after microwaving leftovers or frozen meals. Where I used to work there was a French guy who always, without fail, took the time to sit and have a proper meal at lunch. And he took breaks in the morning and afternoon for a cigarette. He was the anomaly. But he was no less effective or efficient than anyone else. Quite the contrary in fact. He also was so much more grounded than the frenetic and scattered North Americans who ran to get food, then were on their blackberries while they walked back from getting their food, then did 3 or 4 things WHILE they tried to eat. Where I work now, we have a small kitchen and lots of people take an hour to sit and eat together, chat, joke, or sometimes read the paper. I often take a half hour walk after I’ve eaten (Old Montreal is lovely!) and now most days, unless I have extremely tight deadlines or have to leave early, take a full hour or hour and a half. I find I’m much more focussed and efficient. Although, how do the French deal with the afternoon ‘lull’ in energy after eating such a big meal? Or is that also a ‘myth’ and a consequence of the North American eating patterns? Mark Hyman has interesting things to say about this … but it’s a theory I haven’t quite assimilated yet.

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