Slow Food for Kids: Why the slow food and the school lunch reform movements should join forces…and what they could learn from the French

I love my older daughter’s school here in Vancouver. She loves it too. It’s a fantastic place. The teachers are great, the kids are full of energy and enthusiasm, and we’re good friends with quite a few of the parents. I make these comments as a prelude for this blog post, because I do have something negative to say about the school (it’s possibly the only criticism I have):

Lunch lasts 10 minutes.

In the schedule we receive at the start of each year, it’s written down in black and white: Lunch: 12:00 to 12:10. This includes unpacking the lunch, eating, and packing up. Kids eat at their desks (we don’t have a cafeteria or a school kitchen), then head out to play for 50 minutes before classes start in the afternoon.

Now, I don’t know about you, but 10 minutes seems pretty short to me. As far as I can tell, some teachers observe this timing strictly: “Time’s up, out you go!” Others let the kids take a bit more time. But, still, it’s short. My daughter often comes home without having finished her lunch. Except soup. I sometimes despair of the fact she seems to have a mostly liquid diet at lunch, but it’s one nutritious thing she can eat quickly. Even then, she is often hungry when she gets out of school at 3 pm, and so has a big after-school snack (which is, in some ways and on some days, almost like a late lunch).

As I work full-time, there is not a lot I could do about this. Plus, even the kids with stay-at-home moms don’t seem to go home for lunch very often. They want to stay and play with their friends. So kids gobble their lunch (or spend time trading treats), and head outside.

I’m not the only mother who complains about this. I hear it all around me. But it seems that a quick lunch is part of our culture. My French husband was shocked when he learned about how the school treated lunchtime here. (Our daughter was in kindergarten in France (where we were living at the time), and started school in Vancouver in Grade 1, just after we had moved back from France.) And then it dawned on him. “So that’s why everyone at work gobbles a cold sandwich in 5 minutes, sitting alone at their desk. They trained them to do it at school!” Prior to this, he had never understood why he was the only one at work who wanted to spend a good half-hour (minimum) eating and chatting with his colleagues–the norm in France.

In fact, this is how the French teach their children to eat. By national Ministry of Education regulation, school lunch — the sit down, eating part of it — must last a minimum of 30 minutes. That’s understandable, given that lunch is the main meal of the day (40% of caloric intake), and especially if you consider what is served: a four-course lunch with starter, entree and side, cheese, and then dessert. (For more information on the amazing menus in French schools, see my French Kids School Lunch Project). The children then play for an hour (to digest properly, bien sur), while teachers have their 1.5 hour break (also with a freshly cooked three or four course hot lunch). School finishes later as a result–the French school day is typically 8 hours, e.g. from 9 to 5 pm, even in primary school.

The French believe that food education is one of the most important tasks for parents and teachers. That’s why French kids get (fun, tasty, and informative) lessons about food in the classroom and in the cafeteria. Interestingly, many of these lessons are about how as well as as what we should eat.

Right now, I feel like my daughter is learning that (i) it’s OK to gobble your food; (ii) meals are an interruption in the day, and what you eat is not important; (iii) it’s OK to choose ‘easy to eat’ or convenience foods.

In contrast, French kids learn that (i) it is important to eat slowly (partly because the ‘fullness feeling’ (or satiety signals), where you brain registers how much food you’ve got in your stomach, takes 20 minutes to kick in); (ii) meals are a highlight of the day, and definitely worth spending time on; (iii) variety, novelty, great-tasting foods and (gasp!) pleasure and fun should be the priority–none of which means eating faster.

The French, in other words, have a slow food culture, which applies as much to kids as to adults. One example: kids’ after-school activities are never scheduled during the traditional dinner hour. No one would want to impinge on one of the most important family rituals of the day.

The French even have a special word they use to encourage kids to ‘slow food’ their eating habits: déguster. Like many French words concerning food, déguster is difficult to translate. It often gets translated simply as ‘taste’ (as in ‘let’s taste the food”). But French people usually use the word ‘goûter’ to refer to the physical act of tasting something. The word déguster actually means to eat something slowly and carefully, to savor, and to appreciate (but not to revel in food, for which the French use the term se régaler). In the culinary world, the word dégustation is used to refer to a formal event at which food tasting is conducted with almost surgical precision (like a wine tasting). But ordinary French people also use the word at home, most often when they are telling their children to slow down when they’re eating.

“Il faut déguster!” my mother-in-law will often say, which literally means “Slow down and savour your food!”

The French mean ‘savour’ in the full sense of the word. In the ‘taste training’ given to children in school, they are taught to experience food through the five senses: to explore how foods sound, smell, look, and feel as well as taste. Fun games and learning activities are used to encourage this, even in the youngest of children. Children become alert and attentive to the multiple sensations and pleasures they can derive from food. And so they become more inquisitive, and eager to taste new things.

This even worked for my older daughter, a seriously picky eater who gradually learned to love trying new foods during the year we lived in France. The ‘slow food’ approach used at school, and within my extended family (my husband is French), started to rub off on us. Meals became a family ritual and a haven (and no longer a harried, stressed, rushed part of the day–and a chore I often disliked, if I’m being honest). And because I was less stressed and more focused on having fun with food, we ended up eating better, and more adventurously. This had a really transformative effect on our family: how we ate ended up changing what we ate. (And this was what inspired me to write French Kids Eat Everything).

That’s why I find it fascinating that the Slow Food movement in the US and Canada hasn’t really focused on kids. Slow Food USA had the Time for Lunch Campaign (now finished), which sought to encourage the US government to provide more support for school lunches, and revise its National School Lunch Program. And, they mention the importance of school gardens and ‘kids can cook’ classes the Slow Food USA website (with 20 or so examples from Slow Food chapters–which all sound amazing).

These are great initiatives. But I wonder if they miss the point. Slow Food isn’t something you do once in a while in a special class (although I’m sure these classes are great). Slow Food is actually a social relationship to food, and to one another–which means it is an everyday practice, something that becomes a shared ritual.

A similar criticism applies to school gardens. Not every school will have access to the resources, land, and volunteer labor necessary to create and maintain a garden. (As a gardener myself, I know just how much labor is involved.) And because gardens are voluntary, they run the risk of only reaching those schools and kids who are already interested in the issues. But what about the rest?

Transforming the way eating happens in schools (the how as well as the what of school food) requires integrating food education into the curriculum, so that all kids have access. And school lunches should be an important part of this curriculum–because learning doesn’t stop when kids enter the lunchroom. Here, we might learn a lot from France, which takes food education very seriously, and which has developed amazing curriculum and ‘taste training’ for kids of all ages.

A new campaign along these lines (called something like ‘Slow Food Schools?’) might help Slow Food to grow beyond its slightly foodie-elite niche (an unfair criticism, I know, but one I believe to be somewhat accurate). It needs to reach out, as Josh Viertel, the head of Slow Food USA , argued recently in an article in The Atlantic. In that article, Viertel offers the hope of “building a movement committed not only to the simple pleasure of the shared meal and paying the farmer fairly but to becoming a force for social change.” What better place to do this than through schools–creating the next generation of Slow Foodies?

On a pragmatic level, the school lunch reform movement is growing by leaps and bounds, but most of the parents involved in school lunch issues don’t have much to do with Slow Food chapters; it would make great sense to build these alliances into Slow Food’s next child-focused national campaign. And it might soothe ruffled feathers in the recent debate over Slow Food USA’s recent change in direction, as a Slow Food School campaign allows for the original vision of Slow Food (which includes taste and food education) to be combined with the food justice mission that the organization so clearly needs if it is to expand its reach and impact.

If this were to happen, the school food reform movement would become even more of a force to be reckoned with at the national scale. And, maybe, just maybe, the next generation of our kids would have more than 10 minutes for lunch.

18 thoughts on “Slow Food for Kids: Why the slow food and the school lunch reform movements should join forces…and what they could learn from the French

  1. I grew up in Winnipeg and my Mom alternated between oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, and Red River Cereal for breakfast. The Red River runs through Winnipeg; the cereal originated in Manitoba in the 1920′s. I don’t eat grains any more, but I used to enjoy it with brown sugar and milk.

    You can order it here (I have no affiliation)

    http://www.canadasfood.com/product_info.php?products_id=14

    I love, and am fascinated by your book, and this blog, and the French approach. Gives me food for thought LOL!

    I’m French-Canadian, and I think some of the French (from France) traditions were brought over and are still alive in parts of French Canada.

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  2. Allegra,
    I love Red River cereal…I actually found it last summer in Point Reyes Station in northern California. It was in a little gift/food shop and I bought a few boxes because it’s hard to find. I’m not sure where in CA you live, but at least it’s in your state:)
    Good luck!!

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  3. We live in the Niagara region of Ontario. The schools here no longer have “lunch”. Instead, there are two “nutrition breaks”. These are part of a “Balanced School Day” schedule. This means that the students have two 20 minute nutrition breaks and two 20 minute fitness breaks during the day. The first break takes place between 10:40 a.m. and 11:20 a.m., and the second break between 1:00 p.m. and 1:40 p.m. My children find that even 20 minutes is not long enough to get your lunch, unpack, eat, clean up and get dressed ( especially in winter) to be ready for the fitness break. Fitness breaks do not seem to be interrupted – the time always seems to be taken away from the nutrition break. I understand that there is good intention on behalf of the school board, but, unlike the French, proper digestion and appreciation of what is going inside your body, does not seem to be on anyone’s radar. We educate our children at home as much as possible and provide home made food and left overs from those dinners for lunch. We are proud of our children for their confidence to eat differently from most of their peers and to know that completely pre-packaged lunches are just wrong – no matter the excuse.

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  4. Sad indeed. I got told something similar by the top administrator for the daycare network here in our hometown. This was one of the encounters that motivated me to start the French Kids School Lunch Project: proof that kids can eat well if we teach them (and then give them the opportunity to practice)!

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  5. So glad you enjoyed the book. Your point about eating together at lunch is an interesting one. I have a proper sit-down lunch every day in our work lunchroom–and am often the only one eating (other people might run in and out for coffee), except for one lone Frenchman who was working with us last year. People do feel harried and pressed….except, if everyone stopped for lunch hour, and ate together, then perhaps it might become an enjoyable office ritual? Indeed, my colleagues have started doing this once a week: lunch together on Fridays. This is an important way to connect with people, as you note (and if it improves workplace relations, as I believe it does, then it might even be viewed as a good thing by employers). By the way, productivity (measured in terms of GDP per worker) in France is higher than in many other countries (including Canada, Germany, Italy, the UK, and Japan), although it is below that of the US. The French believe that stopping to eat lunch actually improves worker productivity. A debate to be had, I’m sure!

    Source: for worker productivity data: British Office of National Statistics (2010, purchasing power parity adjusted): http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/publications/re-reference-tables.html?edition=tcm%3A77-224531

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  6. Rushing through meals is what we do so often it is almost impossible to make kids sit through a meal that lasts more than 20 minutes. My husband is from Spain and there they approach mealtimes very differently. I can relate to how you felt during the long French family meals – it takes some time to get used to it. But it is a very valuable experience, especially for children.

    When I got involved at our local school’s wellness team at the beginning of this school year, the administration told em that the kids do not have time during the lunch break to eat anything except pizza and chicken fingers mainly because it is “what kids eat”. Sad, sad, sad….

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  7. I read your book. Excellent! Growing up in Toronto and going through elementary school in the 70′s, I seem to remember having 30 minutes for lunch and not feeling rushed. And I don’t think I am alone in this. Yet, despite that, I look around my office and many, including those of older generations eat lunch at their desk. So I’m not sure that we can say that short school lunch breaks caused us to forgo lunch.

    I grew up in a Latin American family and we too socialized over meals (although we certainly do not take it to the level of the French)! We were never in scheduled activities over dinner and I can’t remember ever missing family dinner every night of the week until I was an adult and working!

    Now, I often find myself in my office looking for someone to eat lunch with. Fortunately, I can usually find a few people willing to join me. While I would am loathe to give up lunch most days, I definitely feel the pressure of not working as hard as my co-workers who work through lunch. Since I have to pick up kids from daycare after work, I can’t stay late. I agree that our Canadian culture and particularly the fast paced environment where everyone expects instant responses means that no one wants to slow down to eat! It is a shame since without those lunches I have with my co-workers, I would never have gotten to know them or develop the strong friendships that were cultivated over those meals.

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  8. This was really interesting. I have often said I would be in favor of extending the school day 30-40 minutes, even an hour, in order to give the kids longer eating time. It’s a shame that we don’t treat meals as a ritual but instead just something to rush through. One day….

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  9. Thanks so much, Sue! The French use special ‘lunch aides’ to cover the lunch period, rather than teachers (who also get a 1.5 hour break and a freshly cooked three to four course hot lunch!). These part-time employees typically help finalize food prep, serve food (in primary school), supervise the lunch period, and clean up after lunch. Some of them then go to work in the after-school care facilities found on the premises of most French schools. So it does mean more staff, and thus more expense. But the French seem to feel it is worth it.

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  10. Thanks so much–and I agree, although healthy eating starts at home, it is also about making positive contributions in the community. Good luck, and I would love to hear any updates!

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  11. Thanks for this–such an interesting response. I was excited by the Slow Food Time for Lunch campaign too, but it’s now over, I understand. My impression (from the outside) is that children and schools have not generally been a focus. I think there are a lot of parents out there who would be interested in mobilizing around these issues, and the local chapter structure of Slow Food is one potential approach. I wonder whether this post will spark anything?

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  12. Great post !

    I agree with you 100%.

    Right now, my daughter is in a French preschool and they have a 30 minute lunch break, which I think is too short but the kids bring lunch from home, they eat in their classroom with the teacher who shows them good table manners. Most of the kids eats with fork & knife and don’t bring finger-food.

    However, she will be in Kindergarten next year and I am worried about her lunch break. Hopefully, bringing her lunch might save her a few more minutes to eat compare to the children who have to wait in the queue to get their meals.

    I am really appalled by the culture of eating in North America. Food (any) is considered as fuel for the body, so lunch time (even dinner) looks like we’re putting gas in a car… No time to enjoy, share and learn how to appreciate and eat properly.

    I even had to “teach” my Dear American Husband not to rush to finish his plate: it is not a race.

    I will try to be definitely more involved in the school lunch reform…

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  13. I joined Slow Food because I was excited about their Time For Lunch campaign, and nothing came of it. I never learned when the local chapter met despite being on friendly terms with the leadership. But that was okay because the local chapter isn’t focused on school food so my time wouldn’t have been well spent at their meetings. If Slow Food were to build a structure that would facilitate the networking of the school food activists, I agree that it would be a force to be reckoned with.

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  14. I’m loving your blog. Concerning the 10 minutes your children have to eat lunch, my guess would be that the teachers are given 50 minutes of “duty free” lunch time by their contract. If this is the case one way to approach solving it is to lobby for campus supervisors to cover this duty. There are other issues involved too, I’m sure, like how to move all the kids through the lunch line in a given period of time to make the best use of supervisors time (meaning how can we supervise all these children on the playground and still avoid providing benefits…)

    At my school we only had 35-40 minutes for lunch and even after being retired for 6 years I still race through meals. I literally have to tell myself to slow down.

    But the real reason I wanted to comment on this post is to let Allegra know that she can order Red River cereal from Amazon.

    I wish you success in your slow food for kids endeavor. A longer period for lunch would benefit everyone.
    Sue

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  15. Oh, sorry, I don’t know, but maybe one of the other readers of this blog does? It is great cereal – especially in wintertime!

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  16. Great blog full of interesting info. I’ve spent time in France, too, even living with a French family for full immersion during my 18th summer.
    Question for you: I travel yearly to different parts of Canada. A couple of weeks ago we were in Banff where I discovered a simple yet delicious breakfast hot cereal: Red River. How can I get that here in California? Thought you may have some advice. No one here has ever heard of it.
    Milles mercies.

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