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.

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.

What French Kids are Eating For Lunch….this week in Grenoble

Nestled in the foothills of the southern French Alps, Grenoble (population 150,000) is known as the “Capital of the Alps”. Palaces, museums, and a lovely ‘old quarter’ attest to its long history as a Roman town, and as the crossroads between France and Italy for centuries. Today, Grenoble is a university town, an international scientific centre, and a city for outdoor lovers.

So, what are French children eating in Grenoble this week? It’s easy to find out, because all over France the menus are posted online for parents to see.

This week’s menu (titled “I am improving my eating habits”) actually has 4 courses (although some would be served at the same time): Entrée (starter), Plat (main dish) and Garniture (side dish), Fromage (cheese), and Dessert.

Monday November 7th
Beet salad with vinaigrette, organic bread
Organic roast chicken
Organic creole rice
Plain yogurt (with sugar)
Organic fruit

Tuesday November 8th
Green salad, organic bread
Veal saute with ‘hunter’s sauce’
Zucchini casserole
Brie cheese
Couscous cake (yummier than it sounds!)

Wednesday November 9th
Tabouleh salad, organic bread
Ground beef
Green peas ‘a la francaise
Cheese: Carre de l’est (a square-shaped cheese from Lorraine)
Fresh fruit

Thursday, November 10th
Tomato salad with vinaigrette, organic bread
Fish ‘brandade’ (fish with vegetables, cooked in a savory) sauce
Croc’lait (bite-sized milk chocolate filled with praline and puffed rice)
Applesauce

Friday, November 11th
Remembrance day (holiday)

How much do families pay for this? On a sliding scale (according to family income), the lowest price is $1, and the highest price–for the wealthiest families–is $7 (similar to prices in Paris). Most families pay around $3 per meal.

How much would you be willing to pay for meals like these?

It’s National “Tasting Week” in France…the biggest food fest of the year!

France’s “National Tasting Week” is a national food celebration that dwarfs anything we do in North America. For a full week, an already food-obsessed country focuses on food, food, and more food.

Celebrity chefs show up in schools, restaurants offer innovative (and often inexpensive) tasting menus, top chefs open their doors (and, even more intriguingly, their kitchens) to the general public, and all sorts of wonderful (and sometimes wacky) workshops are offered across the country.

What about a ‘Raw Cocoa Tasting’, or a session with ‘Grand Chef’ Medigue at the Chateau D’Orfeuillette in Lozère? And that’s just for the kids! Their parents head off to shows like CreaSculptures: the world’s first forum dedicated to the art of sculpting fruits and vegetables.

Even better: all school children participate in half-day food workshops with chefs, bakers and pastry-makers. Why? Here’s the answer from the organizers of “Tasting Week”:

“Educating taste, particularly in childhood, is the key to a balanced, healthy and diverse diet for one’s entire life. All children can learn to appreciate different tastes, to distinguish between them, and to talk about them. Schools, chefs, and the family: all have a role to play.”

Amen! And Bon Appétit!

It's National "Tasting Week" in France…the biggest food fest of the year!

France’s “National Tasting Week” is a national food celebration that dwarfs anything we do in North America. For a full week, an already food-obsessed country focuses on food, food, and more food.

Celebrity chefs show up in schools, restaurants offer innovative (and often inexpensive) tasting menus, top chefs open their doors (and, even more intriguingly, their kitchens) to the general public, and all sorts of wonderful (and sometimes wacky) workshops are offered across the country.

What about a ‘Raw Cocoa Tasting’, or a session with ‘Grand Chef’ Medigue at the Chateau D’Orfeuillette in Lozère? And that’s just for the kids! Their parents head off to shows like CreaSculptures: the world’s first forum dedicated to the art of sculpting fruits and vegetables.

Even better: all school children participate in half-day food workshops with chefs, bakers and pastry-makers. Why? Here’s the answer from the organizers of “Tasting Week”:

“Educating taste, particularly in childhood, is the key to a balanced, healthy and diverse diet for one’s entire life. All children can learn to appreciate different tastes, to distinguish between them, and to talk about them. Schools, chefs, and the family: all have a role to play.”

Amen! And Bon Appétit!

If you were a Parisian kid, here's what you'd be eating for lunch today…

OK, we know our school lunches are seriously lacking. But at the same time we sort of get resigned to it. Like the head of the food services program at my daycare who told me (as I was timidly asking for fresher, healthier food to be served instead of the usual stuff on offer): “kids only eat pasta and fishy crackers anyway”.

Humph. Our year in France showed me otherwise.

Here’s an actual photo of a high school lunch starter course (French school lunches usually have three courses) from a high school in Bourgoin-Jallieu (population: 25,000). As in all French schools, the daily menu offers only one choice, and students can not bring their own lunches from home.

And this is what Parisian kids ate today for lunch (in the 17th arrondissement, which is one of the middle-income neighborhoods in the city):

Menu: A Tour of Asia (yes, the school menus do have fancy titles)

Cucumber Raita
Tandoori brochette
Organic lentils
Ice cream and dried fruit

Admittedly, this is slightly out of the ordinary, as it is the French ‘Tasting Week’ this week (more on this in a moment).

But just to make my point, here is today’s menu from the 18th arrondissement, one of the lowest-income neighborhoods in Paris:

Sliced Cucumbers
Coleslaw
Ricotta and spinach tortellini
Cheese: Emmental and ‘ash heart’ (this is a mystery to me, even when translated)
Fresh tropical fruit

All over France, this is how kids eat. And it isn’t more expensive than meals in North America.

I know what you’re thinking: where do we start? More on that in my next post.

If you were a Parisian kid, here’s what you’d be eating for lunch today…

OK, we know our school lunches are seriously lacking. But at the same time we sort of get resigned to it. Like the head of the food services program at my daycare who told me (as I was timidly asking for fresher, healthier food to be served instead of the usual stuff on offer): “kids only eat pasta and fishy crackers anyway”.

Humph. Our year in France showed me otherwise.

Here’s an actual photo of a high school lunch starter course (French school lunches usually have three courses) from a high school in Bourgoin-Jallieu (population: 25,000). As in all French schools, the daily menu offers only one choice, and students can not bring their own lunches from home.

And this is what Parisian kids ate today for lunch (in the 17th arrondissement, which is one of the middle-income neighborhoods in the city):

Menu: A Tour of Asia (yes, the school menus do have fancy titles)

Cucumber Raita
Tandoori brochette
Organic lentils
Ice cream and dried fruit

Admittedly, this is slightly out of the ordinary, as it is the French ‘Tasting Week’ this week (more on this in a moment).

But just to make my point, here is today’s menu from the 18th arrondissement, one of the lowest-income neighborhoods in Paris:

Sliced Cucumbers
Coleslaw
Ricotta and spinach tortellini
Cheese: Emmental and ‘ash heart’ (this is a mystery to me, even when translated)
Fresh tropical fruit

All over France, this is how kids eat. And it isn’t more expensive than meals in North America.

I know what you’re thinking: where do we start? More on that in my next post.