Aidan Larson is an American mom of three navigating her way through life in France and writing about it on her blog: Conjugating Irregular Verbs. She writes from her dining room table in the South of France in between motherhood, French lessons and perfecting her oeuf en croute. Previous lives include teaching, copy editing and bookkeeping.
If we want our children to eat well and be healthy it’s not at all that complicated. It is a matter of starting young and teaching children that food should be enjoyed and appreciated.
In France food is serious business. Each region has their own cheese, culinary specialties and pride in what they produce. From an early age, eating as a family and at regular times is the norm. It sounds ridiculously simple, and it is.
Living in France you learn to think of food differently. While there are fast-food restaurants, they are few and far between compared to small cafes and sit down restaurants. In the States there are drive through restaurants a plenty, shouting from billboards the latest menu deal where you can easily be tempted to drive through, grab a bag of calories and scarf it down in the car on your way somewhere.
When we are so used to eating this way it’s no surprise that our children choose a bag of chips and a soda from the vending machine or a greasy slice of pizza from the cafeteria line rather than sitting down for a proper meal. In France, the mid-day meal is the feast; the biggest and most nutritious meal you’ll have all day. There is a small breakfast of yogurt and cereal with warm chocolate milk or juice. And a snack in the late afternoon followed by a small something like a cheese crepe or baguette with chestnut spread in the evening. Between noon and two is lunch time and most French observe this without exception. Stores and pharmacies close for lunch and people sit and savor their main meal before returning to work for the afternoon.
School lunches are the beginning of a lifetime of healthy eating habits; communal, balanced, and leisurely, as much a time for socialization as nourishment.
Each day French school children have two hours for lunch. They can either come home and eat with their families or stay at school and eat in the cantine. I don’t say ‘cafeteria’ because at our school it is not at all a cafeteria. There is no line, no lunch lady ladling food onto trays and no options or vending machines. Each day the children enter the cantine which is set up with tables already laid for lunch. Each place setting has a real plate, fork, knife and spoon along with a napkin, small glass and carafes of water. The children sit and are then served the first of four courses—entrée, plat, cheese and dessert.
First comes the appetizer or ‘entrée’ and it is usually a salad like shredded carrots in oil and vinegar, beets or radishes, sliced thin and served with butter and baguette. The lunch staff place the appetizer in the middle of the table and the children serve themselves. When they’ve finished this course the table is cleared and it’s on to the main or ‘plat’.
‘Plat’ consists of a meat and accompanying vegetables and starch. This is placed on separate platters in the middle of the table and the children serve themselves. Some examples of a lunch course are cordon bleu with green peas and potato gratin, lamb stew with couscous, or individual roast chickens with mashed potatoes and green beans. My children’s favorites are cordon bleu, which they describe as a chicken nugget stuffed with ham and cheese and breaded fish with lemon butter or beurre au citron.
Then follows a very integral part of the French table, the cheese course; sometimes it’s gooey cheese like Camembert, creamy cow cheese or tangy goat cheese rounds but it can also be plain yogurt. This is not always served with bread but depends on the style of cheese.
Finally, they have dessert. Every day. It can be crème caramel, chocolate mousse or a piece of fruit.
And when they’re finished they go outside for a run around before settling back in for their afternoon lessons.
I would love to eat this way every day and find myself trying harder on the days my children are home for lunch and on the weekends to make them a balanced, warm lunch to share. Dinner isn’t a heavy meal and it makes more sense to go to bed having mostly digested your daily intake of food.
When you wonder why the French and other Europeans make such delicious food and are relatively healthier and thinner than we Americans you have to look no further than the school lunch. We are moving in this direction with all the interest in cooking, slow food, healthy choices and attention given to school lunches through blogs like Mrs. Q’s and that is a good thing. I am sure there is a future in providing healthier choices for our American children. It starts with all of us. One school lunch at a time.
Her children’s French school lunch menu for March can be viewed here: http://www.ville-lecres.fr/fichiers/596/menu-2011-03.pdf