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 reactto 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.
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.)