Easter in France: ‘Lamb cakes’, edible bird’s nests, and Easter pâté

Easter is France’s second biggest family holiday after Christmas (the French don’t have the equivalent of Thanksgiving, instead celebrating le Toussaint (All Saints Day) at the end of October).  Easter is much anticipated because schoolchildren have two weeks of holiday at this time of year (often spent with their grandparents, another French tradition). Everyone gathers on Easter weekend for the highlight: the family meal.

So, what’s being served? Champagne and ‘amuse-bouches’ are often eaten first at the aperitif, while everyone gathers before sitting down at the table.

As it’s springtime, asparagus is often served as a first course, perhaps with fresh chives. As eggs are often a theme, the usual vinaigrette might be thickened with just a bit of hard-boiled egg yolk–a subtle may to make the normally light dressing a little richer.

A special Easter pâté might also be served; the traditional recipe is a square loaf of pâté baked with eggs inside, wrapped in puff pastry–which has a fun look when sliced.

Lamb is typically served as the main course (another traditional dish is chevreau (baby goat), with broad beans as the traditional side dish.

Salad and cheese are the third course. Typically, at a festive meal, there will be at least four cheeses to choose from: a blue cheese (like St Augur or Roquefort), a goat’s cheese (often with an ash-ripened covering), a semi-firm, drier cow’s milk cheese (like tomme, the classic from the French alps), and a softer, richer option (Camembert or Brie).

Dessert is varied, but there is often a pound cake rich in eggs. The French also often make an edible ‘Easter nest’, which is simultaneously a decoration and dessert–shaped in puff pastry in the form of a nest, and stuffed with edible chocolate eggs. A hit with the kids, it goes without saying.

Each region will have its specialties too: the ‘lamala‘ (baby lamb) cake from Alsace, made in a special pottery cake mold only used at this time of year (it’s designed to stand up and look like a lamb, which it actually sort of does), or the ‘fouace’ bread (a sweet brioche somewhat like challah) from the south-west of France.

Eating a meal like this usually takes a few hours; the French eat slowly, pausing between courses, telling stories, enjoying one another’s company. It took me a while to get used to when I first met my husband, but now I enjoy these long, leisurely meals at the table. By eating small portions, and eating slowly, the French enjoy each of the tastes on offer without feeling (or being) stuffed. The art of slow food, something I had to learn (but am glad I did).

Happy Easter/Passover, and Bon Appétit!

Yummy, healthy food for kids isn't fancy….but fun! How to re-think your approach to kids' meals, French style

 I am very excited, and honored, to be doing this guest post for Karen. Her work and crusade are so worthwhile. I am a French mom living in LA, raising a 19 months old son, and writing my FrenchFoodieBaby blog about our journey in educating his taste buds and making him a gourmet and healthy eater, the French way. And I’m here to debunk some of the myths and mystique behind French family cuisine, and try to show families that the French approach is much simpler than it seems.

The French way of eating, and their approach to educating children’s taste buds, has definite benefits (including the fact that kids actually enjoy eating vegetables, and have lower rates of obesity). So the next logical step would be for more people to implement and adapt those methods for their family. And a lot of families have indeed been inspired by it, as demonstrated by the great deal of interest in Karen’s book and work in general. But I have found in my interactions with a lot of moms and families mostly in the US, that there’s this ingrained belief that French food is fancy. I say “French-style cuisine” and a lot of people visualize intricate sophisticated dishes, hours laboring by the stove, expensive ingredients… all of which would make it quite impractical to most families, and wasted on young children. (Note that I talk about “French-style” cuisine or “French way of eating”, because I’m not so much talking about what the French eat and French cuisine per se, but how the French eat, the way they approach food and nutrition. You can adopt that approach with any type of international cuisine, and in fact, a lot of French families cook from a variety of cuisines from around the world.)

I started becoming more aware of those preconceptions about French cuisine when I started my son on solids when he was about 5 months old. I was following a Mommy & Me class which happened to be around lunch time, and started bringing my homemade baby purees to class. Soon came the era of finger foods, around eight months, and I started bringing a mini-version of a “4 course meal” for Pablo in class, basically a finger food as appetizer (hearts of palm, green beans, cauliflower, etc.), a homemade protein & vegetable puree, a kind of cheese, and a bit of fruit compote or yogurt for dessert. There I was, thinking I was doing nothing out of the ordinary. And one day, another mom commented on the “gourmet meals” I was making Pablo, and that he was the “best fed baby in LA.”

This same perspective a lot of North Americans have of French cuisine, shows up again when you start telling them what French kids are served for lunch in school. When I first told my husband we were served a sit-down hot four-course lunch, he just couldn’t believe it, rethinking with some nausea about the sloppy Joes, pizzas, stale spaghetti and overcooked burgers he ate in school.

Karen’s brilliant idea to post the menus from French school lunches on her blog, really shows some concrete examples of what goes on every day in French schools, and by extension, what they eat at home too.

I am often asked by busy moms browsing through Pablo’s menus, “How can you do these fancy meals for Pablo every night?” Well, I hate to kill the bubble and gourmet aura around French family cuisine, but I’m here to tell you that it’s just not that fancy. Well… it is, and it isn’t.

If by fancy, you mean that it tastes really good, then yes it’s the idea. If by fancy, you mean some thought and finesse has been put into the dishes that compose a meal, then absolutely. If by fancy, you mean that care was put into presentation and preparation, definitely. That approach is the cornerstone of the French view of food as a pleasurable, worthwhile, sharing experience.

However…
If by “fancy”, you mean I slaved by the stove all day to prepare them, well, that’s…

Myth #1 – French style meals take hours to prepare.

Most French moms work, and are definitely back at work by the time they start their babies on solids, so they can’t spend the whole day by the stove. I found that most family dishes we cook on a weekly basis require 20-25 minutes of preparation with some additional cooking time, during which other stuff can get done.
As Karen has mentioned, studies show that the French do spend on average 13 more minutes cooking per day than Americans, cooking on average for a total of 43 minutes per day. Feeding a family a fairly balanced diet with a wide variety foods, vegetables in particular, doesn’t require a lot more time, but it does require a bit of thinking and effort. I think the French think of “the education of taste” as an important parenting and family priority. They find a way to devote it a little bit of time and effort, because eating well as a family is of value to them, the same way they would devote time to homework, or getting their kids to practice the piano.  
Tip: It is mostly a matter of being a bit organized, by making a meal plan, having some cooked veggies or soup made ahead for the week, and planning on a balance of simple preparations (smoked salmon or canned sardines or a slice of ham, or pan-fried meat or fish, or crock pot recipes) to help keep busy nights stress-free. (If cooking is stress provoking, kids will pick up on it, and it will definitely put a dent on that food/pleasure association in their mind). It is also a matter of accepting to take a little extra time to do it. Trying to think of cooking not as a chore, but as an opportunity to slow down, be in the moment, and do something really good for our family.
If by fancy, you mean that French-style cooking uses hard to find, obscure ingredients for intricate dishes, that’s…

Myth #2 – French style meals are very complex and sophisticated

To the contrary, I would argue a lot of French family dishes shine by their simplicity, from chocolate mousse, with only a few ingredients, to mixed vegetable salads simply tossed together. Most French family recipes are not any more complicated (often less) than making chocolate chip cookies, muffins or pancakes.

One French secret is the way they name their dishes. It always sounds sophisticated. As Karen reported recently, Cornell researcher Brian Wiansick found that using attractive names for foods do make them more appealing. And to children especially. And if you peruse the French school lunch menus, you will see many “fancy” names for very simple dishes. For example, saying “Jardinière de légumes” sounds better than “mixed vegetables”, it gives the image of a garden where the vegetables grew. The French, known to take food very seriously, wouldn’t give foods silly names to get kids to eat them (not on the official school menu anyway), but even the restaurant-like names on those menus might just make the kids feel like they’re important enough to be served “fancy” dishes.
And the dishes also often look sophisticated, as care is definitely given to presentation, for children included. The French really consider that the aesthetics of food is key to children’s education of taste and appreciation of cuisine. All five senses are involved in the pleasure of eating.
Tip: I pick a lot of fairly simple recipes that make their ingredients shine. For that, it is important to choose good quality ingredients and fresh produce as much as possible.
Another secret is the use of herbs and certain condiments to add some subtle flavor to dishes. My mother can’t cook without thyme and bay leaves. Tarragon, parsley, basil for salads. These simple herbs are the “je-ne-sais-quoi” of French cooking.

 

If by fancy, you mean that it costs an arm and a leg, that’s…

Myth #3 – French meals are expensive

I guess that this is relative to every family’s budget, and certainly the price of food has gone up everywhere. But in our family, using seasonal produce, cooking with fresh (or frozen) foods and planning our menu has eliminated a lot of waste and saved us a lot of money. We’re not talking
truffle and lobster here, but peas, carrots and chicken.
Tip: Finding ways to cook with what we’ve got left in the fridge can lead to very creative recipes and fun meals. Also the advantage of cooking on a regular basis, is great money-saving leftovers. I’m pretty thrilled on an exhausted evening, to find we have leftover watercress soup, mustard pork tenderloin and sauteed apples and onions in the fridge…
In an attempt to illustrate my points here, I picked a lunch menu served last October in a French school in St Manvieu Norrey, Normandy, sharing the recipes with you here. It sounds really nice, but is actually very simple to make, with inexpensive ingredients, taking a reasonable amount of time to prepare (with the possibility of making some of it ahead.) And last but not least, it is really delicious, and offers a wide variety of vegetables in one meal. So why not try it?

 

Appetizer: Tomato mozzarella salad (not much of a recipe, just slice, drizzle with olive oil, add herbs and serve!)
Main course: Chicken cutlets with “sauce chasseur” (hunter’s sauce, cool name), with jardinière de légumes (this is a fancy name for gently sautéed vegetables)
Fromage blanc (rough equivalent here would be Greek yogurt)
Dessert: Wafer cookie (store bought)
(For a home meal, I would forgo the cookie, give a piece of cheese, and the Greek yogurt as dessert, sprinkled with a bit of sugar or a few berries.)

Chicken fillets with sauce “chasseur”

Serves 4
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time – 15 + 10 minutes
Age for babies: 10-12 months in small quantity, to give a taste of the sauce. The mushrooms make a good finger food.
Note that you can use this sauce with any poultry. You could also serve it with a cut up chicken, or a whole roasted chicken.
4 pieces of skinless chicken (either breast or thigh)
1 lb mushrooms, washed and sliced
6 tbsp of butter
4 shallots, peeled and minced
2 heaping tbsp flour
1/2 cup white wine (or white grape juice, or juice from canned mushrooms, if you want to go alcohol-free)
1/4 cup chicken broth
1 tbsp of tomato concentrate
1 bouquet garni (in a piece of hollow celery rib, put some thyme, parsley, sage, 1 or 2 bay leaves, cover with another piece of celery rib and tie with kitchen tie.)
Salt & pepper
5-6 sprigs of fresh chervil (if you can find it, I’ve had a hard time finding it in LA), stem removed, minced
5-6 sprigs of fresh tarragon, stem removed, minced
Cut the chicken in strips and set aside.
For the sauce:
In a saucepan, melt the butter and sauté the mushrooms. Add in the shallots, and cook for a few minutes.
Sprinkle flour, stir and let it get a bit of color.
Stir in the wine and broth. Add the tomato concentrate, bouquet garni, salt & pepper.
Stir and bring to a boil. Cover and let simmer over medium low for about 15 minutes.
At this point, you can keep warm, covered, on very low heat, while you cook the chicken.
In a frying pan, heat some olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the chicken strips until cooked. Salt & pepper to taste.
Before serving the sauce, remove the bouquet garni, and incorporate the minced chervil and tarragon.
Pour sauce over the meat and serve immediately!

Jardinière de légumes (Mixed vegetables)

Serves 4

Prep time: 25 minutes
Cook time: 35-40 minutes

Age for babies: 8-10 months, the veggie pieces make great finger foods.

I use two magical ingredients here, which make the vegetables taste delicious and slightly sweet: the sprinkle of sugar, and the coconut oil (which is so good for you too). Kids usually love it.
You can add more vegetables or omit some, adjust quantities to your liking. This tastes really great reheated, so you can make a big batch, refrigerate and eat the next couple of days.

7-8 carrots, peeled, diced
7-8 mini turnips, peeled (or 1 or 2 medium, peeled and quartered)
15 small potatoes, peeled (fingerling type, or medium red potatoes, peeled and quartered)
2 handfuls of fresh green beans (or frozen)
2 handfuls of shelled fresh peas (or frozen)
6 pearl onions, peeled but left whole
2 garlic cloves, peeled but whole (optional)
Fresh thyme (leaves from 3 sprigs)
Bay leaf
Coconut oil
2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp sugar
Salt & pepper

In a large pot, melt the butter & coconut oil over medium heat. Sprinkle with the sugar, stir a bit, and wait until the sugar has melted.

Then add carrots, turnips, potatoes, pearl onions, garlic, thyme and green beans. Add salt and pepper, stir and cook for about five minutes over medium heat, stirring once in a while.

Add 1/4 cup of water, and cook on low, letting the water evaporate, stirring from time to time, about 20 minutes.

Add another 1/4 cup of water and the peas, and let cook until the water is almost evaporated and vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes. (There should be a little “sauce” in the bottom, a treat to soak it up with good bread!)

Bon appétit! And I’d love to hear your thoughts, if you do try these recipes and this multi-course meal!

French Taste Training Tip of the Week: The Lunch 'Surprise Box'

Introducing new foods in a fun, pressure-free way is a key part of the French approach to kids’ food. In the school lunches served in France, this happens on a regular basis (for example, schools don’t repeat the same dish more than once every two months). They can do this because kids get a fresh, scratch-cooked meal at the ‘school restaurant’ (the name says it all).

Sounds good, you’re thinking. But how to do this when your kids pack a lunch from home (which is what we do now that we’re back living in Vancouver)?

Here’s one simple idea: designate one of the compartments in your child’s lunchbox the ‘Surprise Box’ (we use ones from EasyLunchboxes). We chose the smallest compartment, into which I pack fun, unusual things (fruits, vegetables, or even sweet treats). We talk about the new foods when the kids get home — they love sharing their reactions. And I make sure to put in rare favourites (like out-of-season fruit) from time to time, so they have really positive associations with the Surprise Box.

Some recent suggestions from our Surprise Boxes: pomegranate seeds, very thinly sliced endive (French ‘chiffonade’ style), cubed mango, tiny baby carrots (from my neighbour, who was thinning her new carrot plants), a basil leaf, and (my personal recent fave) a macaroon (on National Macaroon Day, bien sur!).

If you do try it, let me know how your kids like it! And I’d love suggestions about other things to include as Surprises.

Lovely review of French Kids on Forbes.com

Thanks to Michelle Maisto for her lovely review of French Kids Eat Everything at Forbes.com.

Here’s a quote from the review, which I thought was spot-on:

“The 10 “rules” she comes up with are really common sense ideas you probably, however vaguely, already know. But if you’re like me, you may find them excellent, if not also habit-changing, reminders of how things should be. Or can be. Key to enforcing these rules is a French parenting mentality that’s loving but firm.

They also believe that food education — learning about foods, the importance of eating a varied menu and how to comport oneself at the table — is a critical component of the French schooling system, but that teaching children to be happy, healthy eaters begins the moment they move beyond breast milk. Nothing is too pungent or exotic to resist offering an interested, toothless infant.

The American thinking is that if a child won’t eat something, she doesn’t like it. The French thinking is that she hasn’t yet learned to like it — so one should keep cheerfully serving it.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself! ;)

The science behind the French approach to kids food

Various bloggers have asked about the scientific basis for the French approach to kids’ food.

Good question!

The issue of children’s food–and children’s health more generally–became a scientific concern in the 19th century, when infant mortality rates in France were the highest in Europe (and high rates of maternal mortality during childbirth were also a serious issue). In response, the French developed the science of ‘puériculture‘ (literally – the science of infant and child health and hygiene); for example, they invented one of the first modern incubators (the ‘Lion’ incubator, named after Alexandre Lion, was the model first used in US hospitals). Historians generally point to the Hôpital des Enfants Malades (Hospital for Sick Children) in Paris as the world’s first paediatric hospital (opened in 1802, it still exists today, as part of the famous Necker hospital). This gradually became a worldwide trend; the first paediatric hospitals opened in the US in Philadelphia (1855) and Boston (1869).

From the outset, French scientists were particularly interested in children’s eating habits, given that good food is one of the core values of French culture. Their research–much of which I cite in my forthcoming book–is fascinating. Some of the best-known researchers are Dr. Claude Fischler (a sociologist with CNRS, who has worked with Dr Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania), Dr. Natalie Rigal (a specialist in developmental child psychology at the University of Paris/Nanterre), and  French oenologist and “taste philosopher” Dr. Jacques Puisais, who created the Institut du Goûtin 1976, and initially developed some of the “taste-training” ideas that are now used in French classrooms. There are many other researchers studying children’s food in France, notably those working at the Institut du Goût in Paris, and the Centre des Sciences du Goût et de l’Alimentation in Dijon.

A few years ago, these researchers did a comparative study of French and American parental feeding practices, and effects on children’s eating habits (de Lauzon-Guillain 2009, full reference below). They were motivated by the fact that no cross-cultural studies of children’s eating habits have been done between France and US (as opposed to cross-cultural studies of adults). They were also motivated by the fact that the differences in rates of obesity and overweight were striking: in 2000, 6.4% of 6–9 year old French children were obese (95th percentile for weight) and 20.6% were overweight (85th percentile), whereas 15.3% of 6–11 year old children in the United States were obese and 30.3% were overweight. (Obesity rates for French children have since stayed stable, or even declined slightly, whereas they have continued to increase in the US).

So, what did the researchers find? Here’s a quote: “US parents (mothers and fathers) reported higher levels of allowing children control over their own food intake, using food to regulate the child’s emotions, and using food as a reward for behavior than French parents. American mothers reported higher levels of teaching their child about nutrition and encouragement of balance and variety. In contrast, French mothers and fathers both reported higher monitoring and higher restriction of their child’s food intake for weight control than US parents, and French fathers reported greater modeling of healthy eating than US fathers.” French parents exerted more control over their children’s food choices (for example: only allowing one snack per day). More research is required to fully understand the links between culture, parenting practices, children’s eating behaviours, and outcomes like weight status–but this study is suggestive of some important issues, such as the use of food as a reward.

There are also many interesting studies on the French approach to fostering a love of variety and new foods in the children–even before they are a year old. Let’s look at the results of one study, published in 2007 in the peer-reviewed (and leading) journal ‘Appetite’ (Maier et al 2007; full reference below). It compared French and German mothers, and found that:

In the first month of weaning, French mothers typically gave their infants 6 different vegetables (the Germans gave 3).

More than 40% of French infants were exposed to between 7 and 12 vegetables, but none of the German infants were given more than six.

During the 28 day study, the French mothers made 18 or more changes in the vegetables they offered from day-to-day. Some made as many as 27 changes. But in Germany, more than 80% of the mothers made fewer than 7 vegetable changes during the course of the study. None made more than 13 changes.

When asked to explain why they choose their particular feeding strategy, the French mothers mentioned taste development (which is prioritized by French paediatricians and parenting books), whereas the German mothers talked about food allergies. But the prevalence of food allergies in infants in Germany and France (and indeed in the US) is the same: somewhere between 5 and 8%.

The take-home message? The French approach focuses on developing a love of a wide range of foods in children before they arrive at that near-universal ‘no’ stage at around the age of two. Their approach suggests that we should be thinking more about taste development and less about food allergies.

These studies illustrate a key point: the French approach children’s food is a set of codified common sense rules and routines that parents can easily follow, but it is based on over 200 years of scientific research–which governments have transmitted to French parents through extensive outreach (e.g. the first modern network of what would now be called ‘maternal and child health’ centres). We don’t need to accept everything they do unquestioningly, but it is an interesting example that we could learn from. And, the results of French research correspond with emerging American research–a topic I’ll blog about in a future post.

Finally, I should note that no approach to kids’ food is perfect. There is a lot of conflicting information out there, from different sources. And even scientists take different approaches; sociologists and psychologists study children’s eating habits from a different perspective than medical researchers, for example. The key is to inform yourself about a variety of perspectives, and then to make an informed choice.

The studies referenced above are:
Blandine de Lauzon-Guillain PhD, Dara Musher-Eizenman PhD, Emeline Leporc MSc, Shayla Holub PhD and Marie Aline Charles MD. (2009) Parental Feeding Practices in the United States and in France: Relationships with Child’s Characteristics and Parent’s Eating Behavior. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 109(6), 1064-1066; and Maier, A., C. Chabanet, B. Schaal, P. Leathwood, and S. Issanchou. 2007. “Food-Related Sensory Experience From Birth Through Weaning: Contrasted Patterns in Two Nearby European Regions.” Appetite 49: 429-40.

For a cross-cultural study in English, see:

  • Dara R. Musher-Eizenman, Blandine de Lauzon-Guillain, Shayla Holub, et al., “Child and Parent Characteristics Related to Parental Feeding Practices: A Cross-Cultural Examination in the US and France,” Appetite 52 (2009): 89–95.

Some references to scientific studies by French researchers (mostly in French, unfortunately!):

  • Official historical website of French paediatric hospitals: http://www.aphp.fr/site/histoire/1901_hopitaux_pediatriques.htm
  • Claude FISCHLER L’Homnivore. Le goût, la cuisine et le corps, Paris, Odile Jacob, 1990.
  • Claude FISCHLER Manger. Français, Européens et Américains face à l’alimentation, with Estelle Masson, Paris, Odile Jacob, 2008.
  • Lyon MURARD et Patrick ZYLBERMAN, L’Hygiène dans la République, 1870-1918, Paris, Fayard, 1996.
  • Jacques PUISAIS Le goût chez les enfants (Paris: Flammarion, 2000
  • Natalie RIGAL La naissance du goût: comment donner aux enfants le plaisir de manger Paris: Agnès Viénot, 2000.
  • Gaston VARIOT, Projet d’un Institut de Puériculture aux Enfants-Assistés, Paris, Imprimerie A. Davy, 1908.
  • Paul STRAUSS, Dépopulation et puériculture, Paris, Bibliothèque Charpentier, Eugène Fasquelle éditeur, 1901.

For those of you interested in more discussions about the science of food, visit Dr Dina Rose’s blog: It’s Not About Nutrition. Lots of great information and resources here!

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.

Should kids be allowed to randomly snack? The French would say definitely not! Here's why…

I wrote this post to explain why I don’t allow my kids to randomly snack or graze throughout the day. They eat three meals a day, and one afternoon snack. If they say they are hungry, I tell them:
“That’s great, you’ll really appreciate your next meal. It’s in (X) hours.”
 I know this might sound cruel! But read on for my explanation of why I think the ‘no snacking’ approach is positive — both for what children eat, and how they eat.

We’ve heard a lot lately about the dangers of snacking–and it is a hotly debated topic.

Some argue that regular snacking means that kids aren’t hungry enough to eat the nutritious foods served at mealtimes. Others argue that snacking has benefits (balancing out blood glucose levels, for example).

I only let my kids have one snack a day. But before we moved to France, I let my kids snack several times a day. Whenever they said they were hungry, they got a snack (except in that half hour before mealtimes, and even then I sometimes gave in). However, I learned some things during our year in France that convinced me to change our family’s snacking habits.

The first thing I learned is that most French kids don’t snack randomly at home. They just never think of doing it. Astounding but true. I’ve been going back and forth between France and Vancouver for 10 years, staying for long periods with extended family and friends, and I have never once seen a child open the fridge or cupboard and dig around for a snack, or demand a snack from their parents in between mealtimes. Not once. I kid you not.

The second thing I learned is that scheduling snacks is OK. If it’s a habit, and if everyone follows the same routine, it’s not a problem. French kids never complain about it, because it would never occur to them to eat at the ‘wrong’ time. Life goes on, and even without snacking their kids are just as well-behaved (or even more well-behaved) than ours. And they do just fine at school (even with much longer school days).

There is one exception to the snacking rule, which is called the goûter. French kids DO eat after school. But it’s a mini-meal rather than a snack, eaten sitting at the table, with real foods – like bread and butter, fruit, yogurt. Then, French kids don’t eat anything until the evening meal at 7:30 or 8 pm. No bedtime snack.

The result? You guessed it: French kids eat much better at mealtimes, because they feel hungry. And the foods at meals tend to be more nutritious. So their diets are healthier.

My kids (one in primary school, one in preschool) follow the French approach on weekends. It works really well for us. They are used to the pattern, eat well at mealtimes, and I don’t have to worry about spoiling their dinner by giving them a snack. It was definitely a big adjustment at first. But the French have a lot of routines and great tips they use for teaching kids how to eat. (When we applied them, the results were so successful, and I was so inspired…that I wrote a whole book about it (French Kids Eat Everything), which will be published in April with HarperCollins!)

The French approach at school is also interesting. French kids can’t snack at school, even if they wanted to. They are not allowed to bring food from home, and there are no vending machines (they’re completely banned in all schools). Most French kids don’t even want to snack, because the lunchtime meal they’re offered is so tasty. As the menus on my French Kids School Lunch Project blog suggest, French kids’ school lunches are tasty, nutritious, and highly filling. They eat a lot of foods high on the ‘satiety index’ at lunch, because the expectation is that lunch is the biggest meal of the day.

No snacks!? This might seem shocking to some parents. In some American schools, snacks are served to all children (on the theory that they need good nutrition, so that hunger doesn’t interfere with learning — which is true, particularly for lower-income kids, but perhaps not necessarily needed for all children).

Not snacking is also a difficult concept if you don’t like the idea of your child being hungry. What if my child is hungry? I used to think. Should you really deny you child a snack, even if they say they’re hungry? That’s controversial, to say the least.

Here’s the French view: there is a difference between feeling hungry and being hungry. No one wants a child to BE hungry. But the French think it’s OK to FEEL hungry. What does that mean? It means being comfortable if your stomach is empty, and being able to wait until your next mealtime–even if you do feel hungry. Otherwise, the French believe, you create a culture of ‘unregulated eating’….with all of the health problems that arise from that. To prove their point, they might refer to the statistics which show that American children snack, on average, three times per day (and one in five snack up to five times per day). Although I didn’t agree with their view when we first moved to France, I’m now convinced. That’s why I no longer let my kids snack more than once per day.

No culture is perfect, and there are lots of things I wouldn’t want to adopt from France, but I do think the French have a good approach to snacking. What do you think?