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.)
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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.
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.