Welcome to the French Kids’ School Lunch Project. In a ‘Tour de France’ of food, I post the school lunch menus from a different village or town in France every week. Click here for my weekly posts on delicious French school lunch menus.
When you read through the menus, you’ll see that an impressive range of vegetables (beet salad anyone?), all kinds of fish, a huge variety of cheeses (yes, even the stinky blue kind) all make an appearance, along with lovely dishes with a French touch (like roasted guinea fowl for preschoolers in these amazing menus from the town of Versailles).
The question is: What can we learn from the French approach? Now, French school lunches are not perfect (as I explore below), and I’m not necessarily recommending the wholesale adoption of the French approach to eating. The French eat their fair share of junk and fast food (as any visit to a big French supermarket will tell you). But what is interesting about France is the way the French have chosen to react to the pressures of junk food, fast food, busy lives, long commutes, food marketing, and the allure of cheap, processed ‘fake foods’.
The French have decided the teaching healthy eating routines to children is a priority, and they teach children about healthy food in the classroom AND the lunchroom. So I believe that some elements of the French approach (like their well thought-out approach to ‘taste training’ for kids) could definitely work here. (Note: it’s no coincidence that France has the lowest child obesity rates in the industrialized world–see my post on ‘French Kids Don’t Get Fat: Why?’)
In my opinion, the French approach demonstrates what can be done by communities when food–and teaching children to love eating healthy food–is a priority. Note: unlike the United States, there is no national school lunch program in France. All of the lunches you’ll read about here are funded by local municipalities. Three-course (or even four-course) freshly-prepared hot lunches are provided to over 6 million French children in the public school system every day. Even without national subsidies, these meals cost, on average, $3 per child (and prices for low-income families are subsidized), not significantly higher than the lunches provided through the National School Lunch Program in the US. So the French don’t spend much more than we do, yet their kids eat seem to eat, on average, better than ours do–even in the smallest villages and poorest towns of France. (For an interesting comparison, you can check out the Fed up With Lunch blog, where teacher Sarah Wu photographed lunches in her kids’ school for a year, sparking a fascinating debate about school food).
Why do the French put this much effort into healthy lunches? Because it makes sense–socially, economically, and nutritionally. Here’s a quote from the website of a school near Paris: “Mealtime is a particularly important moment in a child’s day. Our responsibility is to provide children with healthy, balanced meals; to develop their sense of taste; to help children, complementing what they learn at home, to make good food choices without being influenced by trends, media, and marketing; and to teach them the relationship between eating habits and health. But above all else, we aim to enable children to spend joyful, convivial moments together, to learn a ‘savoir-vivre’, to make time for communication, social exchange, and learning about society’s rules–so that they can socialize and cultivate friendships.”
Of course, these comments on the French approach to lunches are a series of generalizations. There are great school lunch programs here at home, and the French system is not perfect (as I explore below). Nonetheless, reading the French school lunch menus is an eye-opener about what kids can eat. Perhaps most astonishing of all: there is no kids’ food here. No flavoured milk (the kids drink water). Ketchup only once per week (and only with dishes with which ketchup is traditionally served, like steak). There is little any fried food (which can only be served a few times per month, according to Ministry of Education regulations).
So what do they eat if they don’t eat kids’ food? Read on: I hope the menus will provide you with plenty of food for thought. (And for more food for thought, see this fun news video–in English–on French school meals.)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Click here to read French school lunch menus, posted each week from a different community in France. 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 children to eat a wide variety of foods.
Or, for a general overview of how school lunches in France are organized (and some criticisms of the current system), keep reading on this page. (The photos were taken by my sister-in-law at her daughter’s kindergarten in Paris.)
How is the lunch structured, and how long does it take?
Starting when children enter school at age 3, school lunch consists of four courses: a vegetable starter (for example, grated carrot salad, or beet salad), a warm main course served with a side of grains or vegetables, cheese, and dessert. Why veggies first? Well, the French often do this at home for their first course; but they also know that hungry kids are more likely to eat the veggies if they are served first.
Fresh baguette, eaten plain, is also served. The kids drink water (there are no other drinks of any kind available at lunch, and there is a national ban on vending machines and junk food in all French schools). Dessert is usually fresh fruit, but a sweet treat is often served once a week.
There is only one choice on the menu, and food is served to children at the table until they are finished primary school (at 12 years old). This may be why the place where lunch is eaten is called a ‘restaurant scolaire‘ (school restaurant). High-school students typically get two choices for each course and often eat in a ‘self’ (meaning a self-serve cafeteria), although many French parents are ambivalent about this self-service model (preferring the idea of a restaurant).
The French Ministry of National Education sets a minimum time requirement for children to sit at the table: 30 minutes. This is in order to allow them eat their food sufficiently slowly and properly. Talk about ‘slow food’ training! (In contrast, my kids get precisely 10 minutes at their school in Vancouver, including unpacking and packing up. Humph.)
Why are school lunches so important for the French?
Lunch is traditionally the largest meal of the day in France, representing (at least according to the French Ministry of Education) 40% of children’s caloric intake. French children tend not to snack between meals, and eat a relatively late dinner (at 7:30 or 8 pm), in addition to their one sanctioned snack of the day: the after-school goûter. So it’s important to have a big lunch to tide them over to dinner-time.
The best way to think about a school cantine (cafeteria) in France is to imagine what your school cafeteria would have been like if the food had been made by cordon bleu chefs-in-training, overseen by a nutritionist, and served to you at the table by maternal waiters (who were only too happy to cut up your food if you couldn’t quite manage it). The official term restaurant scolaire (school restaurant) sums it up perfectly.
More seriously, a cantine is a lot like a cafeteria, except that younger students are usually served their food (the meals are not self-service until they are in high school). There are no vending machines in French schools (they are banned by law), and children are strongly discouraged from bringing their own meals from home (and most don’t). So the cantine is the place where the majority of French children eat lunch on school days.
Why do they all eat together in one big room?
Eating, for the French, is not just about ingesting food. It’s about socializing, about sharing, and participating in a shared rite of citizenship. Learning to eat well is actually a form of citizenship training, as odd as that might sound. The French even have a word for this: commensality (la commensalité), which literally means ‘eating together in a group.’ This social aspect of eating is very important for the French, who never eat alone if they can help it. Eating, from the French perspective, is about sharing–conversation, ideas, and good company. Think about it like this: if the car is (arguably) the inanimate object that best represents American culture, the French equivalent would be the dining table.
How long have French cantines existed?
Dating from the mid-19th century, the school cantine has been a near-universal institution in France since 1945. The origins of the cantine help explain the sense of social mission: they were started after World War II, in the context of food scarcity and rationing, to give children at least one balanced, hot meal per day. Many cantines found in many government offices and workplaces were created at the same time. Cantines were often largely used by poor families in the mid-20th century, as middle- or upper-class mothers would pick up their children and bring them home for lunch. But with the increasing proportion of women in the workforce (two-thirds of French mothers work full-time, which is about the same proportion as in the United States), children from all income levels started attending, and the role of the cantine as a socialization mechanism began to be emphasized. At our village school, even the children of stay-at-home moms often ate lunch at the cantine.
How many children do they serve?
According to the organization ‘Cantine Scolaire’, 6 million French children eat lunches at the cantine every day.
Who is responsible for managing school cantines?
Municipal governments are responsible for pre-school and school lunches. Often, schools have a built-in kitchen and dining room. Where they don’t, meals are usually provided by the municipality via one or more ‘central kitchens’, which in some cases will supply a number of schools. In some cases, these kitchens are run by the municipality, but there is an increasing (and controversial) trend to out-sourcing meal preparation to large private companies like Sodexo. However, even where a private company prepares the meals it is the municipality’s responsibility to monitor them, serve them, and provide staff to help the children eat. (High schools have a separate system, and usually have an built-in, large kitchen on the premises.)
Parents are often also involved, through being members of the committee that oversees menu choices, food purchasing, and other logistics. In fact, French parents take school lunches very seriously. When we were living in France, the first question I would often hear parents ask when they picked their kids up was: ‘how was your lunch today?’!
(Note: this means that school lunches are under local control, unlike in the US, which has a variety of national programs, like the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, and the Special Milk Programme. France does have a national program, funded by the European Union, called ‘a fruit at recess’, where they hand out fresh fruits for afternoon snack).
Who pays, and how much does it cost?
The relevant French law allows municipalities to set their own prices, but also allows for a sliding scale, and caps prices — with the goal of allowing all children to have equal access. So prices vary between French municipalities. But the average price per meal paid by parents is somewhere between $3 and $3.50 (as compared to $2.70 for the SNAP-funded meals in the US). In Paris, for example, most families pay $3, the wealthiest families pay $7, and the lowest-income families pay 20 cents per meal. (In many cases, municipalities subsidize lower-income families through general tax revenues, and have mechanisms to make meals available free). Even with cross-subsidisation, there is often a tension between offering more expensive items (like organic food), and keeping prices low.
What is on the menu?
The foods that French kids eat at lunch are amazing! Roast guinea fowl for pre-schoolers, beet salad, endive….for a full list of menus from around France see the school lunch menus posted weekly here
The French Ministry of Education has strict regulations governing portion sizes, nutritional composition, and cooking methods. For example, over the course of 20 meals (one month), only 4 main dishes and 3 desserts can be high fat (more than 15%). Fried food can only be served four times per month. Schools must limit ketchup to once per week (many don’t serve it at all). Schools are not allowed, in fact, to leave any sauce, mayonnaise, salad dressing, or ketchup available to students to serve themselves freely. Oh, and no sugared, flavoured milks. The kids get water at lunch. Dairy requirements are met through cheese or another dairy product like yogurt.
Who prepares the meals, and where?
A cantinière (or cantinier) prepares the meals. Interestingly, although chefs and cooks in the French restaurant industry are still mostly male, most cooks in schools are women. This may be due to the fact that the wife of the school principal was, in the 19th century, also assigned the role of school cook. (The cantinière is also a culturally important figure in French military history, as this was the term given to the (obligatorily married) women who supplied French troops with food, tobacco, and liquor.)
Most schools are built with kitchens, and cooking is done on the premises. (In some cases, municipalities may have a central kitchen, where food is made for multiple schools and then delivered.) Increasingly, however, French schools are contracting out meal preparation to private companies, which is the cause of some controversy in France.
What about allergies?
The French approach is to have each school prepare an specialized meal for any child with a medical certificate. An agreement (called a Pacte d’accueil individualisé) may be signed between the school, the cantine, the child’s doctor, the school’s doctor (yes, each school has a doctor), and the parents. This agreement authorizes the child to bring a lunchbox from home, and store it in the fridge at the cantine until lunchtime. Of course, the child can also go home to eat, if that’s an option for the family.
Criticisms of the French approach to school lunches
Not all French schools respect the stringent Ministry of Education regulations. As this article in the French newspaper Midi Libre explains, there is a high degree of variability from one town to the next. Larger cities may have poorer-quality meals, particularly given that they are prepared in a large ‘cuisine centrale‘ off-site. The article cites a report stating that only one in two French children find the meals at the cantine to be tasty; however, the article notes that the emphasis on fresh fruit and vegetables rather than sweet or salty treats is not necessarily the easiest way to please kids’ palates!
Although many French schools provide substitutes for pork, they do not serve officially certified halal options, leading to the potential exclusion of devout Muslim students from school. Remember, students are strongly discouraged from bringing lunches from home; so if they want to eat halal, they can’t eat at school. Given the large Muslim population of France (although statistics are not kept, it is estimated between 5 to 8% of the population), this is a potentially serious issue. (For some reason I have not yet figured out, kosher food doesn’t seem to inspire the same controversy).
Moreover, over-crowded cantines have led some schools–mostly in bigger cities–to create policies of prioritizing students based on whether or not their parents work: children of families with two working parents get priority spots, then children of families with one working parent. Children whose parents don’t work are given lowest priority, on the theory that it should be easier for parents to pick them up and bring them home for lunch. But the sense of exclusion and shame that this might foster for the unemployed (not to mention the fact that someone actively seeking work might not have 2.5 hours at lunch time to take their kids home and feed them) has incited controversy in France, with some suggesting that these policies should be outlawed, and that everyone should have equal access.
The Ministry of Education regulations which govern the types of food that cantines must serve have been criticized by parents who want vegetarian diets for their children (the word ‘vegetarian’ is not used consistently in France — some use it to refer to a diet without red meat, whereas others use it in the English sense).
Debate has also arisen in recent years about whether all French cantines actually respect the strict Ministry of Education regulations. Most recently, there has been a debate about whether the ground beef used in kids’ meals was too high in fat, but this seems to concern only a relatively small number of products (sometimes fraudulently ‘certified’) that make their way into the system, at least according to health inspectors.
And some argue that French cantines don’t go far enough–that the meals should be healthier, with more organic options. This is the argument made by Philippe Durrèche and Jacques Pélissard (President of the Association of French Mayors) and in their book ‘Cafeterias: Kingdom of Bad Food‘? (Cantine: Le règne de la mal-bouffe?). They also decry the increasing trend of outsourcing the production of meals to ‘mega-kitchens’ run by private companies, which they argue produces an antispetic cuisine that prioritizes food safety over tasty food. (I think that their views must be taken with a grain of salt, given the very high expectations that the French have of the food they eat! For example, the book defends unpasteurized cheese in cafeterias, but many schools don’t want to take the risk-even if slight-of any children becoming ill).
So, the French cantine engenders active debate in France (and I’m sure I’ve missed some criticisms, which I’d be happy if readers pointed out). However, most French people seem very supportive of the idea of the cantine, and defend its principles of quality, universality, and accessibility. Debate usually arises when these principles aren’t being met–but this is a sign of support for cantines, as a central part of the lives of French school children.
Click here for my weekly posts on delicious school lunch menus from around France.
118 thoughts on “French School Lunch Menus”
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My son has refused to eat at the French school cantine for 2 years now and the director says I’m not allowed to bring a packed lunch. Coming from the Uk where there is a packed lunch culture, sometimes I think the French system is quite rigid, and when I look at the menus, there is often an ingredient that will discourage a small children from eating the dish. I’m now wondering what to do, as my son loses weight during school terms. Any ideas appreciated !
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What if the kid doesn’t eat meat, like they’re vegan or something?
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The reason these meals are provided so cheaply is because they are subsidised by taxes. I am French but live in the US and have to say that Americans would revolt if they had to pay the taxes paid in France.
I think the point Josefina is referring to is that parental choice is being removed which is very much ‘anti-American’. My own opinion is that where we have the choice of what to feed our kids in school, we can send a packed lunch for them. What is served in schools does not affect my kids. The way we eat at home is the main thing. They are allowed a school lunch whenever they want it and i always have a small amount of money in their lunch account for it if necessary. However, they choose not to because they prefer what they pack from home.
Ultimately, it is my responsibility what my kids eat… not the governments. I like to take that responsibility and am not going to start demanding the government provides different food in school… the freedom to choose is worth more
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Your kids only receive ten minutes? How is that even possible? That sounds insane. There’s no way my daughter could unpack, eat and pack back up in that time. Where does all the time in their day go? So sad.
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this is a great website. really helpful. im doing a study of french school food in year 8 and this helps me a lot 🙂 what would be the average servings of food every day for a child with no allergies in highschool. eg first course vegetable, 2nd course meat etc thank you 🙂
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Oh, forgot one more question. I think the document says
To limit the supply of fat no more than 3 fatty (>15% fat) desserts can be served.
But then later it says:
To limit the supply of simple sugars no more than 4 desserts made of sweet foods and containing over 15% fat can be served.
But doesn’t the first statement already rule out the second? If you can’t have more than 3 fatty desserts how could possibly have 4 or more fatty *and* sweet desserts?
Am I misunderstanding this?
You say in your post that the new rules stipulate that only 4 main dishes and 3 desserts can be high fat (more than 15%). But if this 15% represents percent of calories, then it’s extremely low fat. I can’t see how most of the meat and fish and egg dishes that are listed as the main courses on your blog posts could contain less than 15% fat. So I went to check the original French documents, and what it *actually* seems to say is that only four *appetizers* can have more than 15% fat (and the appetizers seem to generally be salads). It also says that there cannot be more than 2 protein dishes containing as much or more fat than protein. Assuming this is by calories not weight, the rule is actually 50% fat not 15%!
Can someone please let me know if I understood this right? (My French is minimal.) In case it’s helpful, I’m posting the relevant portions in French below, and here’s a link to the original document:
Click to access journal-officiel-02102011-p58-6069-72.pdf
Au sens de la présente annexe, on entend par :
– produits gras : produits à teneur en matières grasses supérieure à 15 % ;
– produits sucrés : produits contenant plus de 20 g de sucres simples totaux par portion ;
Pour limiter les apports en matières grasses, il convient de ne pas servir :
– plus de 4 entrées constituées de produits gras ;
plus de 3 desserts constitués de produits gras ;
– plus de 4 plats protidiques ou garnitures constitués de produits gras à frire ou préfrits ;
– plus de 2 plats protidiques qui contiendraient autant ou plus de matières grasses que de protéines.
Pour limiter les apports en sucres simples, il convient de ne pas servir :
– plus de 4 desserts constitués de produits sucrés et contenant moins de 15 % de matières grasses.
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Thanks for your wonderful book and website! My husband and I were discussing the benefits of longer meal times and thought that one of the main reasons for this was the way that the French have a multiple course meal. I grew up in a home that always had our meals family-style in one course (everything at the table all at once, we pass the food around the table, etc.). My husband also grew up in a home like this but served a mission in Hungary and so has experience eating meals in a multi-course fashion. I looked around a bit online and couldn’t find too much about serving a family using multiple courses every day. My questions are– is this how you serve your family meals? How do you manage this? What are the courses you serve? How do you keep it manageable? Let me know if you have answers to these questions! This is something I would seriously like to contemplate trying, but feel a little lost as to how to start. Thank you!
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Wow – very excited to hear about your website! I will check it out now! Merci!
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Great site. I linked it to my article on French school lunches compared to American school lunches.
I have been analyzing school lunches in both countries starting two years ago.
As an American registered dietitian living in France my focus is looking at the nutritional aspects of both countries menu choices.
Here is the most recent article, just published today with the link to your website at the end:
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I grew up in France, and food allergies were unheard of with the exception of strawberries until quite recently. I think the very recent increase of junk / processed foods is probably the culprit when it comes to food allergies. Maybe GMO? I know that before moving to Canada I had never heard of peanut allergies. I’m convinced it is because the French don’t consume peanut butter at all. Peanuts were not meant to be eaten that way. The French are not equipped to deal with allergies yet, because historically, we didn’t have any…until now. I’m one of those French who think that fast foods such as McDonalds should be forbidden on French territory to preserve our health and heritage of gastronomy.
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Kids lunches, health and food security are all passions of mine. I’ve just started a company to try to offer an alternative to our elementary school’s hot lunch program (which is usually pizza, hotdogs, etc).
Pikanik is located in White Rock, BC and will be available for schools across the Lower Mainland of BC.
I’d love to hear people’s feedback on my menus — so far kids and parents alike are really excited. Everything is homemade and a tidy balance between tastiness and nutrition. I work with local farmers, local producers and focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients. Modifications available for vegans, veggies, allergies.
Pictures and menu details can be seen here:
A number of schools have signed up already. If you think it’s important to have an alternative, please help me spread the word!
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Thanks so much for your message! I have found a few articles in French, and if you email me at contact(at)karenlebillon.com I would be happy to try to dig them out for you. What other aspects of French schooling do you study?
Thanks for the great comparison between the two cultures. Always interested in US/French comparisons since I study France and have three children of my own. I’m wondering if you have run across any good studies on the history of the cantine in French schools, more specifically on their origins in the 19th century? I’m trying to do some research on their role in Third Republic schools. Just thought I’d see if you ran across any good writings in your own research.
Thanks and keep up the good work.
Hi Karen I came upon your book by chance and have not read it yet but after going on your website I am hooked, I am now going back to the store and get my copy! You see all the debate about feeding our kids with healthy food strikes a cord with me, I am a French woman leaving on the gold coast (Australia) and have my 2 boys 3years old and 2 years old going to day care 3 days a week as I work part time. Since the start of their solids I have been constantly stressed about watching the way kids are being fed around me, the sight of seeing a 2 years old kid holding a pop juice bottle in one hand and a bag of chips in the other when I get out and about is pure agony I am thinking what are doing to that poor kid. You see I have fond memories of lunch breaks in my school years back in France, I loooved going to the “cantine”, getting my intake of veggies and home cook meals but my fav course was the cheese and bread stick… I also remember forming new friendship while sitting at the table in a social manner.
I now have to face a new way of thinking when it comes to feeding Australians kids and it saddens me to know that when they go to school I will have to pack a lunch that they will need to down in 10 min and it wont even be warm… My dream would be to see those “cantine” being built in our Australian schools! But where do I start to campaign for thoses?
I talk to mums around me and they also want he best for their kids but it is difficult to do so when all there is available at schools is the “tuk” shops filled with beef pies, sausages rolls (all prepacked) chocolate bars and juice/soft drinks! I am lucky enough so far I have managed to give my kids only water and only the very occasional bag of chips but how long until one day they come home from a party or school and ask “mum, why cant I have pop juice and chips like the other kids” do I give in so he feels he can fit in or do I hold my grounds and explain those will make you feel bad?
I would love to start a revolution on food habits for little ones and I am all pumped up for it after reading your blogs … So watch this space!
Having just spent a year in Sydney with our kids at the Lycée (Moyenne section et CE1) – we are back in Toronto. I am happy to be back ‘home’ (we are originally from the UK) but am alarmed at the food we are now eating and dread the school year beginning and the cantine being a thing of the past! Your book was wonderful – it made me realize how much of a French experience we had had in Sydney…that the differences were not only Australian but also French! Now I have to figure out the snacking issues…:) I borrowed your book from the library but think I will need a copy to reference…it is wonderful – I have read so many things aloud to my husband! And I realized that the Moyenne section teacher really did spend about twenty minutes discussing making the morning snack smaller and in France they had moved to get rid if it entirely…!
Hi, Professor Le Billon! I loved your book and recommending it to all! I have been trying for years to get the group home where I work to do something similar to what you describe in your book at mealtimes, without success. The weight problems of the children of the poor are horrific! Junk food is cheap and easy, and of course its what the kids are used to. They have a “corrupted palate”, as some chefs like to put it. I plant a flower and vegetable garden every year; the girls really like this, and happily eat the produce from their little garden. They have also come to enjoy shopping at the local farmer’s market and picking their own veggies. They like learning to cook. I spend time haunting the Salvation Army and tag sales, etc. for extra pots, pans, and other cooking utensils. We wear them out at a great rate.
We also have children with food allergies. I think the reason the French are so cavalier about this is perhaps because they haven’t been in enough lawsuits yet. (Spoken like a citizen of a highly litigious society!) Also, perhaps they haven’t had the horror of seeing a child going into anaphylactic shock and/or being rushed to the hospital for a tracheotomy or worse. Wait until they wind up in the docks some day after almost (or actually) killing someone’s child through such unnecessary negligence; or should I say intransigence? Hopefully, they’ll wake up and smell the (french roast) coffee, before such a tragedy occurs.
The French are right about most everything else, however, and I can understand why they consider our children so spoiled-and the adults, as well!
I love your site! Keep up the good work! Sharon
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Thanks so much – I’d love to share the link, so pass it on!
Thanks for your interesting comment! Actually, initial breastfeeding rates are (slightly) lower in France, and babies are weaned earlier (on average) than babies in the US and Canada. For statistics, and my thoughts on a French view on breastfeeding, see this post: http://bit.ly/MiuUz6.
However, your suggestion is backed up by research: the foods that mothers eat during breastfeeding are passed into the milk, and can affect babies’ later food preferences (this is even true before birth, as the tastes of what a mother eats are passed to the baby via amniotic fluid!). So even if French mothers breastfeed for a shorter period of time, their food preferences are likely shaping those of their babies. Fascinating thought, isn’t it?
Patricia, I completely agree. Allergies are manifested in many ways. Some are “true” allergic reactions while others create symptoms of drowsiness, confusion, aggression, hyper-activity and even depression. This makes me wonder if France has much experience in dealing with ADHD or other disorders when compared to American schools. Many families who suffer with these symptoms have found relief by eliminating processed foods. I’m not an expert either, but with the countless hours of research I have done on this topic I feel confident in saying that the Standard American Diet has lead to a condition called “leaky gut syndrome” which is connected to allergies, ADHD and other mental/emotional disorders, and auto-immune disease. Obviously, diet isn’t the ONLY cause, but there is a very strong connection that shouldn’t be ignored.
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Thanks so much for your comments. I really enjoyed hearing about your Head Start program, which sounds wonderful (scratch-cooking–good for you!). You’re right: it is expensive and time-consuming to prepare healthy meals for children, and it does take time to teach them to eat well. However, I believe it saves us money in the long run (in terms of health care costs, for example). And it certainly enables children to lead happier and healthier lives. Food education is a bit like preventive medicine, in this sense, and so well worth it!
Sorry, don’t know why that happened. Will try to find out and let you know!
I have tried several times to subscribe to your blog, and it keeps asking me if I am sure I want to do this and to try again. Any idea why?
Love your blog!!
I found your article very informative. It is certainly a conversation starter about how we can improve our school lunches by learning from other cultures. Although I do think the French could use some fine tuning, I think they provide a far supperior lunch program to most US schools. I think to change things such as food choices, catering to everyones desire, refusing to send children home for lunch, would be to make them American. Those complaints are based on the way Americans see things. Although there may be some French people who are unhappy with these practices the majority agree with them, or think that they are the best option. America is all about the individual and trying to please everyone.
I work for a Head Start program where we do many things the same way as the French. We do eat family style though and because of this we do not allow any outside food to be brought in. We will provide substitutions for food allergies, but not for religious reasons. We will provide ingredient lists and the children can choose not to eat the part of the meal they don’t agree with. We make all food from scratch on site. Everything is at least all natural, in some cases organic. Our food program is very exspensive and time consuming for the entire staff though. We do allow minimum 30 minutes to eat.
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Thanks for your thoughtful reply.
Sweden is similar culturally and politically in that individual needs are seen as counter the needs of the greater community. However, I feel that this is due to centuries of oppression and it isn’t something I can brush off as simply being different. I can see your point though.
However, when striving for something good, such as creating good eating habits in children, using force never seems to be a good solution. The government may ban vending machines and tax soda drinkers, force kids to eat what’s served at school (or else go hungry), but in the end it will backfire. Humans have a strong instinct to be autonomous, children included. As long as big business backed by government support (direct and indirect) continue to push junk food on us, there isn’t a whole lot this approach will be able to accomplish.
In a homogenous culture this system might work perfectly. But no western country today is that. And definitely not France.
I think choice is good because we live in such large social groups with a huge range of cultural differences. If nutrition isn’t a concern, but just making sure that kids eat their food, then sure, this system is fine.
Thanks so much for the link (will tweet about it)! Would love to hear your thoughts on the book. Love your blog, by the way!
Thanks so much for your interesting comments. You’re right – there are many ways to define ‘healthy’ food (and we shouldn’t only define it by the absence of certain foods, as you suggest). It’s difficult for parents and children who don’t agree with the government approach (e.g. vegetarian and vegan families), as I discuss in my blog post here: https://karenlebillon.com/2011/11/07/does-a-healthy-school-lunch-have-to-include-meat-the-french-government-says-yes-and-bans-vegetarianism-in-schools/.
The French have chosen (in many aspects of life, not just school) to have a one-size-fits-all approach. That’s very different than the individualistic approach in some other countries. But it’s part of their culture and their political values. In countries with a more individualistic approach, more choice would be necessary. But in France, where ‘food education’ is viewed as part of the training that French citizens receive, few parents complain about the lack of choice (they do, however, sometimes complain about the quality–I am not saying that French lunches are perfect!).
There are advantages to having only one option on the menu: lower rates of ‘plate waste’ (food thrown out), and positive peer pressure (seeing other children eat a new food increases the likelihood that a child will eat it). But there are also disadvantages, as you have pointed out. No system is perfect–the question is, which one do we choose?
Note, in making these remarks I’m not recommending we eat exactly like the French do (which would be impossible), but rather hope that the blog will inspire debate about how we could feed our children better. So I’d love to hear other thoughts: should children be allowed a choice on school menus?
I’d be happy to provide some ideas. What, in particular, is your project focusing on?
Hi I’m doing a project on France in school.
By any chance could you post some ideas to put in.
I’m hoping to make my project soo good it will make you want to go there !!!!!
I have a lot of work to do so it would really help!
I love your website
Thanks for reading
Andrea mitchell !
I found your post linked to by Nourishing Our Children, and I linked to it in an article on my blog, if that is alright: http://www.culinaryreformation.com/french-childrens-meals/
I really enjoyed what I have read so far on your blog and think you have a great perspective. Hopefully I will get your book soon to read. I don’t have children, but think and write about training children’s appetites. Plus, I love France!
Thank you for your article!
I love the idea of every child having the right to eat good, healthy food, even during school hours. However, I fail to see how the French system delivers this right to any of its students.
I happen to believe that the inclusion of vegetables and absence of flavored milk are far from the only hallmark of a healthy diet. I can only imagine that the French have endorsed the same anti-fat dogma as the rest of the world, and as they too are seeing outsourcing becoming more and more common, what these cantine programs do is limit students’ options. Governments do not have the last say in what constitutes healthy food. I believe that should always be up to each family to decide for themselves.
However, when schools forbid children to bring their own food from home, they’re in effect forcing children to eat according to the government’s standard of good nutrition. Since most parents work away from home, few families can bring their kids home for lunch if they disagree with the government nutrition dogma.
In Sweden we have a similar program, only that it’s “free”. Because people are under the illusion that the food is being paid for by ‘someone else’ (and not by taxes which we all pay), school lunches have been made into its own holy institution. As a parent with a different notion of what a healthy diet is, requesting that your child eat food from home is pretty much like swearing in church. I basically feel that my child has lost his right to be well-fed during school hours simply because he knows good food from bad. And school lunches are bad. Period. Mushy mechanically separated meat anyone? Oh, but there’s a vegetable buffet, my sons’ teacher has told me. But no real wholesome fats. Which is why my son is ravishingly hungry two hours later even on days when he happens to at least like the food enough to eat it.
Karen I find your articles very interesting. I have 4 grandchildren and our family loves cooking and eating together. I think the family that eats together stays together!
Thank you. Your page is now booked marked.
Wonderful article. I love to read about the French way of eating and training their children. I am appalled at how inhumane our school lunch programs are in the United States. Our children get 20-25 minutes in total, to eat lunch AND play outside. They stuff their faces with food so they can go out and play as quickly as possible! This lack of time to eat is unhealthy and, in my view, more animal than human. I like how the French consider eating to be a form of citizenship training. I would argue that Americans are also using our food and eating habits to train our citizens, whom we tellingly call consumers. America seems to value corporations above everything else lately, and our eating is just one more way in which we support the fast food, corporate culture. Perhaps gaining an awareness of this, and that there are different ways to live, we will decide this is not how we want things to be.
The average American diet in general is absolutely horrifying. Processed, GMO food is gross enough but worse than that is the school lunch program. They serve the worst of the worst. Meat with ammonia, processed pizza and fruit in corn syrup, its gross! There’s been recent stories where kids have had their balanced lunches taken from them and replaced with that garbage! They sell cakes, sodas, candies all day long. First thing in the morning the breakfast programs offer sugary doughnuts or sugary cereal. Kids can choose a candy bar OR pizza/chicken nuggets. Its a real mess.
I don’t send my kids to government run institutions, I homeschool for many, many reasons. Knowing that they aren’t being force fed bad food is just one more benefit of taking responsibility of my childrens well being.
Thanks for your interesting articles. I have a few thoughts on why kids are not as picky in some cases and that’s down to breast feeding. Babies who are fed formula get the same taste every time they feed, whilst breast fed babies taste the food that the mother has eaten through the breast milk. I suspect that in France, more mothers breastfeed and for longer as well.
As for allergies, chemicals and food additives are certainly a no-no for healthy eating, but I believe, that the increase in childhood vaccinations are also a bit influence in this regard. I wonder if more vaccines are being pushed on young babies in France these days as well?
For those of you who are interested in the dangers of childhood vaccines, please visit this website: http://vaccinationcouncil.org/
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Thanks for your post on such an important topic. French schools deal with allergies in two ways: (i) they make the child a special menu; or (ii) they allow the child to bring their own meal from home. They can also go home for lunch, of course. I think French doctors and schools are well aware of the issue (because of research by groups like the (Cercle d’Investigations Cliniques et Biologiques en Allergologie Alimentaire)). Is French society somewhat lagging in its awareness? Anecdotally, I would say ‘yes’. People talk about it less, in any event. But this is changing, notably over the past few years–there is much more discussion of gluten allergies than in the past.
I am not a doctor nor an immunologist, but I am someone who has had known allergies to nuts and eggs since I was very young. Actually, at the height of my asthma/allergy issues, I was unable to eat a LOT of foods, but eventually grew out of those sensitivities. (They presented as true allergies, for instance, turkey would cause hives and breathing difficulties.) Since I am 51, my personal experience suggests that allergies are not really more common today, but they ARE more well known and understood. It was impossible for me to eat the school food, my food always came from home, as the idea of making something “special” for a child who was allergic was unheard of. My earliest memories are of dinners with four or five vegetables on the table, things that I could eat as well as things the rest of the family could have, but I could not. My mother realized quickly that I was not safe unless I knew what I could not eat, and was accustomed to seeing it but not eating it, and all these years later, I bless her for that! When I was as young as four, I KNEW that I could not eat a cookie or cake that was offered because it was likely to have either eggs or nuts in it. I was taught as soon as I could talk to politely say, “No, thank you.” without further comment, both in the presence of my parents and when by myself. The idea of a peanut free classroom or school would have been considered ludicrous in those days, and yes INDEED, I am THAT allergic to peanuts! French schools sound as if their way of thinking is the way American schools thought until very recently.
Are you sure they eat a salad for a starter? Salads are normally eaten after the main course.
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Lots of these companies are springing up all over North America, and they are really inspiring. You’ve reminded me that I need to blog about this soon…thanks!!
I hear many stories like this, and I think you’re right (and this is partly what inspired me to write the book). The French system isn’t perfect, but they do believe that (a) learning doesn’t stop in the lunchroom and (b) it’s the job of parents (and also teachers) to teach kids to eat well. Eating is a skill that is learned (just like, for example, reading). The good news is: we can teach our kids to eat well. But there are a lot of pressures and barriers that make it more difficult for this to happen–hence the need to connect to the food movement, in my opinion. So glad you liked the blog!
I would like to add that while doing online research today, I ran across a California family run business that seems to have taken the idea of providing healthy school lunches to children very seriously— and they started a business to do just this! They provide lunches for private and also public schools in northern California. They have a centralized kitchen and then truck deliver the lunches to the schools. You can update the child’s individual lunch needs and menus on your computer or phone– they have a phone App, even!!
So they are even taking the French concept of healthy ‘real food’ further by using healthy, slow food techniques plus technology to individualize the child’s menu. Love that.
This idea seems like genius to me…
I actually called this company today, and spoke with Sandy, just to see if they have an affiliate in Maryland. They do not, unfortunately for me. But the concept seems amazing!
Just ran across your website today via “Fed Up With Lunch” blog. Wow! I am blown away as a parent of school children and also as a lunch room volunteer/monitor at my chldren’s public Maryland elementary school.
Your vivid photos and descriptions of lunches in France are inspiring but also simultaneously depressing… My school only reheats frozen foods or offers ‘Farm to Table’ raw vegetables. And I am grateful for the sometimes sad little vegetables they offer as part of the “Farm to Table” program.
Most public schools do not actually cook food… only reheat food. Thus we have the typical pitiful chicken nuggets, or sad greasy pizza as the main ‘entree’ and then maybe a bit of raw broccoli and then the kids typically get an ice cream bar.
As a parent volunteer working in the very crowded and overly loud cafeteria, I am usually as horrifed at what parents pack as a lunch as I am what is served at the school cafeteria. One child who brings in nothing but Ziploc baggies of Fruity/Sugary cereal, some processed crackers, a chocolate processed desserty thing, and maybe a tube of yogurt. This is not unusual. I asked that child, “Well, what do you eat at home?” And with his big 6 year old doe-eyes said, ” I don’t like any vegetable, or fruit… only sweet or snack things.”
We have a whole generation of kids who don’t eat real food!
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The table settings are for a ‘maternelle’ (which roughly translates as preschool). Children start at two and a half (or whenever toilet trained). This particular class was a ‘petite section’ (two and half and three year olds). The ‘moyenne section’ (4 year olds) would also have bibs, but usually not the ‘grande section’ (5 year olds). The children also have napkins, but the bibs help keep the younger ones tidy!
I know the main subject of this article is about what food is served, however my question is not about the food.
I observed in the pictures of the table settings that bibs have been provided. Is that a standard practice in France and what age child would these be for? I am asking the age because I see no highchairs.
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I found your article very interesting.
Yes, french people take more time to eat than in North America so they can eat much healthyer lunches.
How can you eat a lunch in less than 15min? I personaly can’t.
Second, it’s not easy for the parents to prepare lunch everyday. That’s maybe why lots of the students eat sandwiches (easy to prepare and easy and quick to eat). The government could help this way but giving more time and developping school restaurants or hot lunches programs.
In our school, we tried to implement hot lunch but we had no help from the Principale (2 parents needed per classroom etc…)
Third, a cultural difference : most of french kids eat what is on the table or in their plates. Their parents don’t make specific meals for them. The meal is for the whole family and kids have to eat or at least try. French people listen much less to their children than in Canada for this kind of stuff.
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Oui c,est vrai la tolérance pour l,alimentation kacher existe en France c,est a cause du sentiment de culpabilité des français qui pendant la guerre étaient gouverné par le régime de VICHY.Pour ce qui est du halal et de la population musulman c,est simple “la guerre d,Algérie”.beaucoup de Français ne s,en sont jamais remit et on un fort ressentiment envers nos compatriote musulman et oui il y a des racistes en France qui en général vote pour MARINE LE PEN ou pour SARKOZY qui est le seul président français a avoir été apprécier par les américains pour les valeurs qu,il défend . La France se défini comme un pays ou la religion n,a rien a faire a l,école public “laicitée,”Malheureusement il y a de plus en plus d,école confessionnel en France et dans ses écoles les valeurs républicaine n,y ont plus leur places Je sais que cette conception est incompréhensible pour un américain mais la révolution française c,est faite contre le roi,la noblesse et aussi l,église catholique.il existe la loi de 1905″ séparation de l,église et de l,état”.On ne vous la pas dit en France on peut devenir président de la république sans croire en dieu .
les plus a plaindre se sont les végétariens ils ne sont pas assez nombreux en France pour pouvoir influencer les politique français.Je suis un mangeur de viande mais je pense qu,il devrait y avoir un repas végétarien aux moins une fois par semaine a la cantine pour apprendre qu,il est possible de se nourrir autrement.
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I live in New Jersey and my 6 year old’s school lunch with a dessert is $3. I usually make her lunch because of how unhealthy the school lunches are – organic is NEVER on the menu and we live in a pretty nice town. She gets 20 minutes for lunch which I was initially worried about because although she eats most foods she is a very slow eater and my worries were confirmed as she almost never finishes her lunch at school which is upsetting. I WISH they gave more thought about what goes into school lunches here.
Thanks for your reply. You raise a really good question regarding why France seems to have less food allergies and sensitivities – kind of like I remember it as a kid growing up in the 70’s and 80’s in Canada – when food allergies were virtually unheard of. I have thought a lot about this, trying to understand! Is it because over the last decades we (in North America) have seen such an infusion of processed food and additives to our foods that it has started to impact our immune systems in the form of allergies. As we know the French diet is composed of mostly fresh foods, which obviously don’t have the same chemicals added. Just a theory…. I am not an expert in the field at all 🙂
This is a great article that proves that if other cultures manage to feed their kids healthy food, then so can we. I’m a pediatrician that sees way too much obesity and unbalanced eating in children. I am always telling families, “If you only feed kids what they like then they will never learn to love what’s good for them.” The French seem to understand this, as do many other cultures. I will post this on my facebook page, “Doctor Yum”.
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Interesting – thanks for sharing your story. I’m not surprised to hear this; the French school system often has a ‘one size fits all’ approach. I know that some towns (like Nice) actually make individual meals for each child with an allergy (if a doctor advises this is medically necessary). But not all schools will do so. Allergy rates are apparently on the rise in France, so this may change. In the meantime, I think you are right: the average French school/cantine has less experience of/sensitivity to the issue of child allergies than we do here in North America. I’d love to hear your thoughts as to why this is!
My husband and I are also a Canadian/French couple, raising our kids with both languages and cultures. I wanted to add a mention to the section relating to French cantines and food allergies. We are aware of a similar family who moved back to France with their children, one with an egg and dairy allergy. The cantine was unable to provide a meal for the child, and the school forbid her from bringing a packed lunch :). It was a little bit of a vicious circle situation, demonstrating the lack of contact and experience that the average french school/cantine generally has had with food allergies and sensitivities.