Amazing French kids school lunches….this week in Denain!

Not many people have heard of Denain, a small town (population: 20,000) in northern France. It used to be one of the country’s wealthiest industrial towns, and gained fame as the ‘city of a thousand chimneys’. Denindustrialization, the decline of France’s domestic textile industry, and the closing of the town’s last steel mill in the 1980s have changed the town’s fortunes dramatically. It now has the highest unemployment rate and lowest average household income in France.

Out of curiosity, I decided to check into the menus at the local schools, to see whether they would be offering the same types of food as elsewhere in France. And I was pleasantly surprised.

Here’s what high school kids (at the town’s only high school, the ‘Collège Gaëtan Denain’) are eating in Denain this week. As everywhere in France, there are four courses, but unlike the primary and preschools, the high school kids actually get one choice per course. No vending machines are allowed in schools (this is a national policy), and kids are strongly discouraged from bringing lunches from home. Who would want to, with meals this good?

Monday, February 2nd
Beet or endive salad
Chicken with rice or stuffed cabbage (a classic children’s dish, usually the large outer leaves stuffed with savoury meat and vegetables, tied shut with string, and baked)
Cheese or yogurt
Paris Brest (a delicious cream-stuffed pastry) or Basque cake

Tuesday, February 3rd
Leek tart, or pizza on ‘pate feuilleté’ (a flaky puff pastry)
Turkey cutlet, or ‘Bulleros’ with tomato sauce (a spicy Spanish dish)
Sauteed broccoli, mushrooms and carrots
Cheese or yogurt
Grapes or kiwis

Wednesday, February 4th
Tomato or green salad
Frankfurter sausages or beef steak
French fries or green vegetables
Cheese or yogurt
Ice cream

Thursday, February 5th
Country pate (from the hilly Ardennes region near the town) or selection of cold cuts
Fresh fish ‘a la Bordelaise’ sauce (a classic of French cuisine, in which the fish is baked with a breadcrumb/herb topping)
Ratatouille or vegetable ‘brunoise’ (a mix of finely diced vegetables, typically zucchini, turnip, carrot and onion)
Cheese or ‘Fromage blanc’ (a sort of tangy cross between yogurt and ricotta)
Pear, orange and pineapple fruit salad

Friday, February 6th
Grated carrots or asparagus salad
Beef tongue or ground beef
Pasta and green vegetables
Cheese or yogurt
Fruit salad with honey syrup

Now, some of these menus don’t sound as fancy as those in other towns (like the amazing pre-school menu in Versailles). And, as is typical for northern France, the menu has more dairy products and sweets than the menus in southern France (where a more Mediterranean diet is the norm). But this still seems relatively healthy to me, with great vegetable choices, and fresh fruit three out of five days per week. And, remember, the local government is responsible for all aspects of the school ‘restaurant’ as it is called in France. Given the relatively poor economic situation that the town of Denain is in, I think this is a pretty impressive menu!

ps By the way, northern France has a very distinctive culture, so much so that its residents have an affectionate nickname: les ‘Chtis’ (pronounced ‘shtee’)–which is a reference to their unique pronunciation of the French language. One of France’s most popular movies in recent years tells the story of an initially unwilling bureaucrat who is removed from his post in southern France and sent to the extreme north as a punishment–but finds much to fall in love with once there. It’s available in English as the film ‘Welcome to the Sticks’ or (‘Welcome to the Land of Shtis’); well worth watching!


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 well.

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!

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

We’ve heard a lot lately about the dangers of snacking–but is it really such a bad idea?

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, 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 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 banning 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 (4 and 8) 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 North American parents. 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 so controversial, to say the least.

Here’s my view, based on what I learned in France–but also based on commonsense. 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. And I think that we see the signs of this all around us here in North America.

No culture is perfect, and there are lots of things I wouldn’t want to adopt from France, but I do think they have some great ideas about how to feed children–ideas we could definitely learn from.

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?

France’s new tax on soda pop: Should we tax ‘bad’ foods?

Earlier this week, the French government passed a new law introducing a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks which will apply to soft drinks (both sugar and diet) and sweetened juices. Public health campaigners are delighted. But the tax–a minimal 1 cent per container–has been criticized as ‘discriminatory’ by manufacturers, who have threatened to increase prices significantly (some newspaper articles talk of 20 to 30% rises) to offset lost profits.

France joins a number of other European countries (Denmark, Hungary) which have implemented so-called ‘sin taxes’ or ‘fat taxes’ over the past few years. Critics argue that the low levels of such taxes won’t deter necessarily consumption. But they will bring in a lot of revenue: an estimated $150 million for the French government–which will be welcome in the current economic climate.

In the US, the debate over ‘fat taxes’ heated up in the 1990s following a New York Times op-ed by Kelly D. Brownell (director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale). He argued that the lower cost of unhealthy food creates an incentive to consume it:  more calories for your buck. Other food writers like Michael Pollan have gone further and argued that government subsidies (notably via the Farm Bill) keep the prices of unhealthy food artificially low. But proponents of ‘personal responsibility’, from Sarah Pailin to Rush Limbaugh, have argued against government meddling in food choices (and personal decisions of any kind).

The French see it differently. They feel that a healthy food system and healthy eating depend on both personal responsibility and on social responsibility–supported by government regulation as appropriate. In my opinion, and as I’ve blogged on my French Kids Lunch Project, this has resulted in better nutrition for children–both at home and in schools.

What do you think? Is taxing soda the right thing to do? Is better food a question of personal responsibility, or social responsibility, or both?

 

 

France's new tax on soda pop: Should we tax 'bad' foods?

Earlier this week, the French government passed a new law introducing a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks which will apply to soft drinks (both sugar and diet) and sweetened juices. Public health campaigners are delighted. But the tax–a minimal 1 cent per container–has been criticized as ‘discriminatory’ by manufacturers, who have threatened to increase prices significantly (some newspaper articles talk of 20 to 30% rises) to offset lost profits.

France joins a number of other European countries (Denmark, Hungary) which have implemented so-called ‘sin taxes’ or ‘fat taxes’ over the past few years. Critics argue that the low levels of such taxes won’t deter necessarily consumption. But they will bring in a lot of revenue: an estimated $150 million for the French government–which will be welcome in the current economic climate.

In the US, the debate over ‘fat taxes’ heated up in the 1990s following a New York Times op-ed by Kelly D. Brownell (director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale). He argued that the lower cost of unhealthy food creates an incentive to consume it:  more calories for your buck. Other food writers like Michael Pollan have gone further and argued that government subsidies (notably via the Farm Bill) keep the prices of unhealthy food artificially low. But proponents of ‘personal responsibility’, from Sarah Pailin to Rush Limbaugh, have argued against government meddling in food choices (and personal decisions of any kind).

The French see it differently. They feel that a healthy food system and healthy eating depend on both personal responsibility and on social responsibility–supported by government regulation as appropriate. In my opinion, and as I’ve blogged on my French Kids Lunch Project, this has resulted in better nutrition for children–both at home and in schools.

What do you think? Is taxing soda the right thing to do? Is better food a question of personal responsibility, or social responsibility, or both?

 

 

How to tell if baking powder is still good…and French chocolate macaroons…courtesy of @davidlebovitz

David Lebovitz is one of my favorite food writers (and, no surprise, he is a big fan of French food). After a long stint working for Alice Waters in her famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, he moved to Paris, where he immersed himself in French cooking — and especially desserts.

David’s blog is a treasure trove of yummy recipes (all adapted for North American cooks), and other useful tips. Here’s a useful one from his blog on on how to tell if baking powder is still good.

While you’re on his blog, I’d recommend trying out some of his amazing recipes. This weekend, I’m going to try making (daunting, but delicious) French macarons with my two daughters! His French Chocolate Macaron recipe looks very tempting…I’ll let you know how it goes!