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.

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