Yummy French Kids School Lunches…this week in Paris!

This week we’re back in Paris, in the 13th arrondissement (one of the 20 neighbourhoods which make up the city of Paris, each with its own distinct character). Bordering the Seine, this formerly working class neighborhood now has a large immigrant population, notably from Asia, and is one of the poorest parts of Paris. Unlike other parts of the city, modern buildings and high-rises dominate here, and few tourists make their way here (except to visit France’s National Library — a controversial building looming over the riverbank, named in honor of former French President Mitterrand).

So it’s a good place to see how ‘ordinary’ Parisian kids eat. This is definitely not as fancy as some of the other menus I’ve posted (for example, pre-schoolers in Versailles eating Roast Guinea Fowl, grapefruit salad,and cabbage salad — all in the space of one week!), but is still very varied and healthy.

Monday, February 6th
Tomato and corn salad, organic bread
Pork sauté (or beef, veal, or chicken) with lentils
Camembert cheese
Dessert: an orange

Tuesday, February 7th
Country pork pate (or chicken pate), organic bread
Veal cutlet with green peas
Cheese: St Môret (think: tangy cream cheese, and you’d almost be there)
Dessert: a kiwi

Wednesday, February 8th
Vegetable soup (carrots, potatoes, onions, leeks), organic bread
Chicken sausage and green beans
Riz au lait (a traditional french dish, somewhat like rice pudding)
An apple

Thursday, February 9th
Endive and apple salad, organic bread
Meatballs with ‘sauce catalane’ (onions, green peppers, tomatoes, garlic) and rice
Yogurt
A banana

Friday, February 10th
Tabouleh (couscous, parsley, tomatoes, spices), organic bread
Fish meunière (a savoury sauce) with carrots & parsley
Cheese: Saint Paulin (a mild, semi-soft cheese often served to children)
Fruit compote (a little thicker than applesauce)

Sounds pretty great, doesn’t it?

Quite a few people have written asking about how this all works. For those interested in an explanation, read on! (Luckily, all of this information is posted on line by many French municipalities, so the figures below were all available at the school website: http://caissedesecolesparis13.fr/).

Like any other town in France, the Parisian government is responsible for providing food to all of its pre-schools and primary schools, as well as daycares and after-school care programs (high schools have their own cafeterias, run separately). But because Paris is so big, it delegates this to the arrondissements, which are a like mini-municipal departments; they manage public services in their area, but report to the Mayor of Paris.

In the 13th arrondissement, lunches are provided to children, teachers, and other staff by a staff of 320 (including 22 chefs) in 23 kitchens: 15 kitchens within (the bigger) schools, and 8 additional ‘central kitchens’ from which food is delivered to the smaller schools (which often have a smaller kitchen for finishing food preparation). These kitchens made 1.8 million meals for 12,000 students, staff, and teachers in 2009! (If this sounds alarmingly large-scale, remember that Paris is by far France’s biggest city! The LA Unified School District food service serves 553,000 students every day.)

As is the case all over France, there is only one menu, every day, for all children in all of the schools; the only exceptions are made for halal/kosher (substitutes are provided when pork is served), and for allergies. The French believe that children should eat what they are served, without complaining. In my observation, the meals are usually so tasty that this isn’t an issue.

The typical menu usually has 4 courses: salad starter with side of bread, main course (meat/fish or other protein, and vegetables), dairy (usually cheese or yogurt), and dessert. The specific dishes follow French Ministry of Education guidelines (e.g. ketchup and sweetened desserts are allowed only once per week; raw vegetables must be served three times per week). In fact, the standards set in the 13th arrondissement are higher: no fries are ever served, and ten percent of food served is organic (and all of the bread!).

As everywhere in Paris, families pay according to their income. The poorest families pay 17 cents (that’s per meal!) and the wealthiest pay just over $6.50 (5 Euros). The average price per meal paid by families is just under 4 dollars (3 Euros). Additional financial subsidies are available in some cases.

However, the total cost of providing each meal is 6 Euros (the other 3 Euros is paid out of the city of Paris general tax revenues). In other words, the cost of the meals is subsidized by the general taxpayer, and then cross-subsidized again between families with school-age children. The goal is to make meals affordable for everyone, and to allow everyone to eat the same high quality food at lunch — which, for the French, is the most important meal of the day (with 40% of daily caloric intake, on average).

The school lunch program is overseen by a committee made up of town councillors, representatives of the French national Ministry of Education, and about a dozen elected parents. The high degree of interest amongst parents isn’t unusual; when we lived in France, the most common thing I heard parents ask their children when picking them up from school was: ‘How did you enjoy your lunch today’? Menus are posted on the school doors (and, although this sounds rather Orwellian, the schools also send home suggestions of complementary dinner menus that parents could prepare in the evenings).

Now, I’d love to hear what you think. Does your school serve lunches like this? Could it? Would kids eat them?


This blog post is part of my French Kids School Lunch Project. Every week, I post the school lunch menus from a different village or town in France, where three-course, freshly-prepared hot lunches are provided to over 6 million children in the public school system every day. These meals cost, on average, $3 per child per day (and prices for low-income families are subsidised). My hope is that these menus (together with my other blog posts about the French approach to kid’s food) will spark a conversation about what children CAN eat, and how we can do better at educating them to eat a variety of healthy foods.

7 thoughts on “Yummy French Kids School Lunches…this week in Paris!

  1. I am really appreciate you for your thinking about lunch ideas of our kids. I think it’s a great idea for proper distribution of protein and nutrition for our kids. That’s why I like your above distribution of lunch ideas. It’s really helpful for our kids very much.

  2. Thanks so much for your comments. Aren’t those menus fascinating? Although French students have bread, they don’t have as many starchy options as we do here. Variety, based around lots of different vegetables, is key. Good luck with sharing those menus with your school meal company, and I’d love to hear about the results!

    ps you may also be interested in American research that shows that marketing healthy food to kids increases their consumption levels, sometimes dramatically. I included a link in my reply to Rachael, above, but here it is again: http://bit.ly/o6bhEO

    Good luck!

  3. Thanks Rachael. I agree: teaching children to eat well is a family responsibility; schools can (and should) help, but it starts in the home. However, there are things that schools can do to encourage children to learn to eat well. The Food Revolution-inspired school lunch reform programs are one example. School gardens and ‘food education’ curriculum are two other examples. The interesting thing in France is that the food is tasty, and trying new foods is portrayed as something fun by teachers and parents. Kids get the message, but it helps if they hear it from multiple sources!

    Another idea for you: fascinating research by Brian Wansink at Cornell has shown that if you ‘market’ food to kids (e.g. by giving dishes fun, enticing names) consumption goes up dramatically. Have you checked out his work? I blogged about it here: http://bit.ly/o6bhEO.

  4. I totally agree: teaching kids to eat healthily is the responsibility of parents, and teachers and the school system can help–but it starts at home. At home and at school, the French introduce these foods gradually and do ‘taste training’ with children in school, to get them used to seeing, touching, and tasting new foods before eating them. They use fun and interesting games for younger ones, and the curriculum gets more complex for older kids. It’s a learning process, and they know that even kids who refuse foods at first will eventually accept them. Making it fun helps too, with cute names for the dishes. Research by American psychologists suggests some kids need to taste new foods up to a dozen times before eating them. Peer pressure and adult modeling can speed this up. I know it sounds complicated, but if eating well is a priority ( as it is for the French) then the answer is: put the time in, and the results will follow!

  5. I am principal of a small alternative school for disruptive children in Georgia. These meals sound amazingly delicious and healthy. A typical meal for our students is pizza, whole kernel corn, a piece of fruit, and milk or juice. Both corn and potatoes are considered vegetables rather than starches. It’s no wonder that we have so many overweight students. I plan to share some of these French menus with our school meal company. Thanks for sharing.
    Jane

  6. I just found your blog and find it fascinating. I also run a food service for a private school in Kansas. I would love to serve these types of meals…but only a handful would even attempt. Could I translate the food into an American version, sure, they still would not eat it. I wish parents would expect their children to eat what is placed in front of them. We cook two meals a week from scratch….those days our numbers go down. When we serve the more typical meal we serve it with whole grain bread, lots of fresh veggies and a variety of fresh fruit. All salads are made with romaine lettuce and not iceberg, we try very hard to make it attractive and tasty. Its still a fifty fifty.

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