Guest blogger: French School Lunches

Hi I’m Ann. I’m an English teacher married to a Frenchman but currently sans work permit, which means I have a lot of time on my hands for musing about all things French and American on my blog:

When my cousin came to visit me in France last year, he commented that the children here act like “little adults.” It’s not an uncommon remark, and it may be because French children are expected to eat like little adults. It is common knowledge that the French take their food VERY seriously; these people don’t mess around and school lunches are no exception. While it’s certainly nothing fancy, the French would describe it as correct, which simply means that it’s well-balanced, affordable and perfectly fine to eat.

French children have the option of eating in the school cafeteria or going home for lunch. For those who decide to eat at the cantine, lunch lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, usually followed by a comparable amount of recess.

Cafeteria workers and other assistants are there to supervise the meal. They make sure that each child tries what is on his plate and that food does not go to waste unnecessarily. They’re also available to help younger children cut their meat or peel their fruit. For children ages 3-6, meals are served family style at small tables using real plates, glasses and silverware. Self serve cafeteria lines are generally reserved for older children, which allows for speedier service and more autonomy.  Everyone drinks water.

Lunch begins with the entrée, usually some sort of small salad or soup followed by the main dish. Typically you’ll have a protein source with a side of vegetables or carbohydrates. Dessert consists of fruit and yogurt more often than not. Treats such as cake, pastries and other sugary desserts only make their way to the table once a week at the cafeteria, though most French children enjoy some sort of cookie around 4:30 or 5:00 for their afternoon snack.

Since 2008, organic food has been making regular appearances at cafeterias here in Toulouse. 25,000 elementary school students currently enjoy meals that contain one organic item and organic bread is served daily. The idea is that students who eat lunch at school will have consumed the equivalent of one organic meal over the course of the week. Not bad! 

Families pay for their children’s lunches depending on their earnings and the number of children they’re supporting. For those earning less than €914 per month (after taxes), lunch is free. For families earning more than €4500 per month, lunch costs €3.45. For those whose earnings fall somewhere in between, they can expect to pay between €1.65 and €3.30. If you’re a teacher who would like to eat the school lunch, it costs €3.80. For prices to fall into these ranges, the meals are partially subsidized by the government.

The government is also very aware that American tastes are catching on over here –fast food, snacking, and soda are very popular. In an effort to curb these bad habits, vending machines have been banned from schools since 2005. An extensive ad campaign has also been in effect for several years now. Advertisements run on TV and radio reminding everyone to: eat five fruits and vegetables every day, to exercise regularly, to avoid snacking in between meals and to consume three dairy products. It gets in your head after a while. It’s surprisingly hard to ignore.

On television recently, I ran across a program that profiled middle school students and what they most liked to see on the cafeteria menu: pizza, quiche Lorraine and French fries were their favorites. No surprise there! But since these aren’t the healthiest choices, it is probably best that the kids are not the ones deciding. This is something I came across fairly frequently while perusing parenting blogs in French: even if your child complains about eating at the cafeteria, it’s important for him to get in the habit of eating what is being served. Food for thought…

And maybe that’s the biggest difference: there’s no pandering to children’s tastes around here. The expectation is that parents, and in this case schools, feed their children things that they too would eat. Both the preparation and the presentation send a clear message: we care about you; we want you to eat well, take your time and use good manners. Bon appétit!

I’ve included a sample menu below, does this look like something you’d want to eat?

A Sample Menu

Potato and leek soup
Salmon cubes in lemon butter
Vegetable galette
Plain organic yogurt

Green Salad
Roasted organic chicken
French fries and ketchup
Mixed fruit salad

Pumpkin soup
Croque Monsieur (a grilled ham and cheese sandwich)
Mixed baby greens
Plain organic yogurt
Marble cake 

Beet salad
Turkey skewers
Organic lentils
Camembert cheese

Mixed baby greens
Veal stew
Organic pasta with butter
Cantal cheese

**Thanks so much to our guest blogger from France! She shared the photos with me and I blocked out the kids’ faces due to privacy concerns.**
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64 thoughts on “Guest blogger: French School Lunches

  1. GOSH, I would kill for this kind of food for school lunch! Looks and sounds so fresh, healthy, and most importantly, YUMMY!

  2. funny thing about a croque monsieur–when prepared the traditional French way it, and its female counter part the croque madame, are not bad sandwiches. protein, dairy, bread. perfectly acceptable. one day, though, i was watching paula deen's show and saw her do some pretty unacceptable things to these two little sandwiches, things that i'm sure would make most french people disgusted. i think about that whenever i see those sandwiches. it really shows how different the two cultures are.
    just a little tangent.

  3. Can I come visit for lunch on Wednesday? I love that they use real china and silver. Leave it to the French!

  4. My kids go to one of the french schools in London – one of the things I really appreciate about the school is the way they feed the kids – just the way you mentioned – the little kids are supposed to try everything, it's part of the full education. They have a starter, main and dessert. Catering issues are taken *very* seriously, by kids, parents, and the administration!

    I love it that they serve things like radishes, and that the yogurts are served plain with sugar or honey on the side instead of the oversweetened kinds! There are some pizza and fish finger days, too, but they are not the majority1

    Here are some sample menus this month, which has an "english" canteen and gets criticism:

    Cucumber Batons (dressing available)
    Chicken a la King
    Natural Yogurt and Honey
    Selection of Fresh Fruit

    Tomato & Mozzarella Salad
    Steak Hache (like a burger patty)
    Yogurt and Biscuit
    Fresh Fruit

    Radish with Bread and Butter
    Pasta Bognaise
    Fresh Fruit Salad

    Melon Slice
    Lamb Tajine
    Vegetable Cous Cous

    Hoki Provencale (I think that's fish in a tomato and olive sauce)
    Saute potatoes
    Oven baked zucchini
    Yogurt with sugar

    The ones from the "french" cantine in South Kensington are even better!

  5. What a great post showing the culture of the school lunches as well as the practicalities! So interesting. Thankyou!

  6. Quel fantastique blog post! Merci beaucoup

    The pricing structure is really interesting. I feel we can really learn from that system.

  7. Those lunches look fantastic. Interesting about the TV campaigns on healthy eating- I see those none stop on TV here in the states. Hope they work better in France.

  8. What a fabulous week of lunches! Funny how these kids are getting a better variety for their lunch than my husband (who works in a hospital).

  9. Our menu today: pizza burger, cooked carrots, applesauce, milk. I'd much rather eat in France!!

  10. I lived in France for half a year in college and LOVED the food. I ate lunch in the school's cafeteria and cooked my own dinners with friends using French recipes and ingredients. The cafeteria food always tasted good and gave me some good ideas about what to cook myself. It was heavenly. This post makes me want to go back to France for a food tour.

  11. I wish there was a restaurant in my town that served that great a menu at an affordable price– wow!

    And it's nice to see the expectation that the kids will eat what is served, politely and with proper utensils….

  12. My favorite part of the post is the friendly looking lunch lady who is smiling! I feel like the kids are rushed through the lunch line like cattle here! The teachers eating with the children?! Great idea. I know teachers NEED the lunch break,(I was one!) what about parent volunteers to eat with the kids? Hmmm that might work!

  13. See it can work! While I wish we had that menu in our schools, the 2 things that stuck out most to me were the ad campaigns promoting healthy eating/exercise/no snacking and the fact that the teachers encourage the kids to try everything on their plate! Both common sense items that have somehow gotten lost in our society.

  14. It is amazing to me that they get 30 minutes to an hour to eat and then comparable time for recess. My daughter started kinder this year and she gets 20 minutes to eat her food and then 20 for recess. My husband and I have gone up to have lunch with her and you really have to stuff your face to finish in that amount of time. Plus the kids are all wanting to talk and socialize a bit. I am beginning to think part of the problem is that the school day is so short and they are just trying to cram things in. We go from 8:55 to 3:40pm. If we extended the school day until say 4:30, that would allow for more time during the day. Plus, wouldn't working parents like that more as they wouldn't have to pay for after school care? Sure that would cut into after school activities, but most of the kids I know are doing too much anyway. Kind of off the school lunch thread, but still food for thought.

  15. Awesome! I home school my daughter, but love this blog since I was a teacher for years. This French menu and the others people have offered in the comments are very much appreciated. We try to make lunch an exciting adventure. 😉 Mrs. Q. you rock!!!

  16. I firmly believe that since adults create the school menus in US public schools, it is ridiculous that the kids daily are served such unhealthy lunches. They will eat it if it is the only thing offered, in my experience. Our school district just won a dietary award, so I cannot imagine what is offered at other schools. I understand time/price/etc., but I think the current state of health we find our kids in demonstrates cause/effect in a very sad way. This also includes home meals, sadly.

  17. WOW! I would love to have good food like that offered. I can't imagine how much healthier we would be if schools here started serving that way… too much pressure on time constraints and not enough money.

  18. it just breaks my heart that our kids are being taught to eat the same same same bad food every day. and in my area it's horrible. i love to eat new things. Trying to get some one raised in my home town to eat anything other than chain restaurant or fast food is like pulling teeth. There are picky eaters and brain washed into corporate America eaters… unfortunately, i think most are the latter.

  19. Very neat! I'd eat there!! My kindergartener wouldn't, but I would lol. My kindergartener wasn't picky about anything until he started school and witnessed other children not eating what was being given to them. Now, he's picky about EVERYTHING. We've always demonstrated eating a little of everything but that only went as far as school. I like the French concept of having aides walk around assisting children to TRY everything.

  20. I am packing my bags and moving immediately. The very idea that we would expect our children to eat what we eat and not pander to them? Wow! Pleased to say my kids would be in lunch heaven!

  21. Wow, now I wish I went to school in France. The lunches sound appetizing, and they all sound like healthful choices. This is what America should be doing, following the example of countries like Japan and France in the way we feed kids at school.

  22. That's amazing! Someone definitely has the right idea. We need them to hook us up!!!

  23. Wow, expensive. At the current conversion rate the cost of the teacher lunch (€3.80) is $5.17 US. Contrast that with the cost of lunch at the High School in my town, $2.75.

  24. Wow! What a difference in attitudes, beliefs, and approaches to feeding children. They make lunch an event to be enjoyed. It seems like they have found a healthy balance between offering foods children want and healthy, nutritious foods they need. I also like how the school staff eat with the children and model good eating habits and manners. Eating isn't just about the food. It is also about the experience. What are we teaching our children by shuffling them through a line, sitting them at tables without much supervision, and expecting the whole meal (standing in line, choosing and paying for food, finding a seat, eating, and cleaning up) to take 15-20 minutes. Students have no choice but to cram packaged, processed food into their mouths or not eat enough. There is a lot we need to change, but it can be done – baby steps!

  25. Amy- But it's still comparable to a fast food lunch, and much healthier and tastier.

    Ann- Wonderful post! I spent a little over a week in France, and I agree that the food is wonderful!

  26. These selections look wonderful. I really do wish we'd have a stricter dietary concern in schools. I agree it should be part of the whole learning process to learn good dietary habits and new foods.

    My grandmother was a school cafeteria manager for many years. I remember going to her school with my mother to meet with her for lunch (it was before I started school) and none of her foods were frozen or processed in advance, except maybe the meat such as hamburgers or fried fish would come frozen. They had huge institutional sized pots and pans and heated, seasoned then spooned all the food out to the students plates. It was always a meat, veggie, starch…etc. All the rolls were made fresh. If my grandmother saw what they served now prepackaged containers, I think she'd roll over in her grave.

  27. This is absolutely marvelous! I am so sick and tired of the myth that "kids only like kid food" (meaning essentially hamburgers, hotdogs, grilled cheese, and pizza.) Give a two year old a food to try and she will try it (she'll require a little convincing, sometimes, but not a lot), and 8 or 9 times out of 10 she will like it!

    One of my proudest parenting moments came last year when my daughter was 4-1/2 and we took our first family vacation. We sat down at a seafood restaurant in Monterey, and the kids' menu included an 8 oz steak served with fries or broccoli, in addition to fried calamari and the usual chicken strips and grilled cheese sandwiches. My daughter chose the steak with broccoli, and while she didn't eat it all, she ate a healthy amount of both foods for her age and size.

    Thanks for this wonderful post!

  28. OH, I would also like to ask Ann — how much time do children have to get and eat lunch where you are? In my experience it's quite common for kids in our schools to have only about 25 minutes to purchase and consume their lunches, and in my opinion this is a big problem that needs to be addressed in the schools.

    Thanks again.

  29. I would eat anything on that French school lunch menu except the beet salad. And look — not a chicken finger to be seen!

  30. I love France. I've been 3 times and have never had a bad meal. I think part of the difference is the attitude the French parents have about food. Children are taught at home to eat a healthy variety of foods. In the US we're all about the quick and easy, burgers, fries, pizzas. We don't have the love and appreciation of good food that the French have. What a shame.

  31. The timing is similar in high schools, I believe. I went to high school in Toulouse (the city mentioned by the original poster) and we had an hour and a half everyday for lunch. You could leave class and go straight for the cantine and then lay around on the quad for a while, or in reverse order. Never rushed. It was wonderful.

  32. I'll happily take Monday's lunch. Imagine what would happen if we served salmon to kids here? Half the parents would try to sue for allergy concerns that probably don't exist.

  33. What a contrast!!

    I really really hope that people with the power to change policy are following this post – and like the brave and wonderful Mrs Q , are thinking " yes, we have to shake this up!!"

    I have posted a couple of comments before…I have been a school canteen manager in Perth ,Western Australia,for 10 years.OUR big shakeup started about 5 years ago.

    We now have a much better system where all soft drinks ( soda), confectionary, deep fried foods, and most other unhealthy foods are banned from sale in all public schools.Lots of non Government schools have also made the move….

    It is compulsory for schools to comply with a minimum 60% "green" component on their menus.

    This means things like plain water,unsweetened friut juice, white unflavoured milk, lots and lots of fresh fruit and veges, ( which I go and buy from the markets twice a week) all wholegrain and multigrain breads ( about 6 different types ), homemade soups and pizza, leans meats,chicken, eggs, beans,cheese.

    We do have burgers and hot dogs one day a week each, but they are low fat low sodium varieties and they come on wholemeal buns with salad. ( the burgers, not the hot dogs – some things never change! )

    We don't have free lunches or reduced lunches here.You would be looking at $2.00 – $5.00 Australian dollars for a lunch depending on what you purchased. I guess that is slightly less in US dollars.

    We make a small profit each year.

    One thing that strikes me is the lack of time that is always mentioned…Our school day goes from 8.45 to 3.10. Recess is 20 minutes and lunch is 45 minutes. Everyone has a couple of periods of physical education each week.Learning still gets done.

    Kids have to run around a bit, and have time to eat. I don't know the whole story obviously,and I am sure lots of places are different, but why are most of the lunch times so short in America. Why no recess?

    Anyway, that is kind of how we do it here now, and I am glad.

    The French post also shows a basic rule of good parenting…WE are the adults! WE are in charge ! As my mother used to say.."Eat what is on your plate!"

    I know that a lot of kids don't have the luxury of a stern but loving parent providing nutritious home cooked meals. Doesn't that make the school even more important? Show them what an apple tastes like?

    In my experience, kids will eat ANYTHING if that is all there is and they are hungry…and it does not have to be expensive or packaged in 17 layers of plastic.

    This site is starting to show it's true power by showing us all what is out there, and what is possible.

    Mrs Q, thankyou.

  34. My son has never been offered anything except what was served on the adults' plates. From the time he began table food, he tried everything I cooked. Sure, there was times that he tried to be "picky"…I sent him away from the table hungry if he refused to eat. Yes, it was difficult, but it taught him to eat what was served because there would be no alternative offered. Today he enjoys all types of fish and meat, ethnic cuisines, fruits and vegetables including Brussels sprouts, asparagus, zucchini, berries and tofu…many, many things that his little friends' parents claim their children "refuse" to eat. Bravo to the adults in France who impose a culture of no nonsense when it comes to nutrition and their children.

  35. Umm, I'm in the military and I am forced to eat in the galley everyday, the grown up version of school lunches. I would give anything to have my galley make food this amazing. Today we had meat loaf pattys and chicken cordon blue. All processed! Yuck.

  36. There really is something to say about teaching kids to eat what they are served. I think that is part of our job as school nutrition professionals (I work in a school foodservice department). It's time the adults start making the decisions about school lunch. Unfortunately, it's easier said than done. I know the biggest fear from my department when I push change is that we will lose money, because the kids won't like what we serve and simply want chicken tenders, burgers, etc. I think school foodservice departments need to take the risk, and realize yes, participation might drop at first when removing popular items and introducing healthier foods, but with time, the kids will get hungry and learn to like what they are served!

  37. Oh my goodness! That is a SCHOOL menu? The menu reads like a high-falutin fancy restaurant to me.
    I wish that American kids in the public school system had access to such a menu. They may not like the looks of it, but I can guarantee they'd love the taste of all of that delicious food.
    Translating the euros to usd and the highest price of lunch is still cheaper than a fast food lunch from McDonald's (once you take into effect tax and enough food to make you feel full and soda). Its so much healthier, too. All that protein and fiber from healthy foods would make those kids full and stay full until supper time.
    I am jealous! This was a wonderful post.

  38. Um…do you think I'd look out of place in that lunch line? Because I would SO eat there every day. I work at a resort sporting both a 5 star steakhouse and a banquet department that employs chefs with only the highest education and the finest tastes. All manner of fine cheeses, fresh meats and fish, and organic fruits and veggies line our refrigerators and pantries. But the Employee Dining Room serves the equivalent of most American school lunches. Burgers, chicken tenders, grilled sandwiches laden with butter and processed cheese slices. And the prices average $4 per meal. It is curious that fresh veggies aren't an option, and the only fruit that is offered comes from a can of mostly HFCS. This is tragic, seeing as how so much of all that AMAZING food goes to waste every week. When I asked the chefs about this, they said, we serve what most people are willing to pay for. I sure as hell don't pay for that crap, I don't eat it if it's free! Now give me some fresh kiwi, Gouda, lentils, grilled fish, or anything else on this menu, and I would GLADLY pay the $4 a plate for their food. What America needs is a mass reform of the taste buds. Teach people that salty and sweet aren't the only two "tastes" out there, and grilling and baking are indeed acceptable methods of food preparation.

  39. Hi all, thanks for the positive feedback, I'm glad everyone seems to be enjoying the post!

    Kristi, to clarify your question about timing, the lunch break usually lasts an hour and a half -roughly 45 minutes for lunch + 45 minutes of recess/free time. If a child picks at his food to try to get to recess early, one of the lunch ladies will typically ask him to sit back down and finish.

    My husband was excited to see the proposed menus for elementary schools in Toulouse, and told me about some of the gross things he had to try back when he was in school: horse liver (beurk!), and he's still traumatized by cauliflower…

    Another thing I probably should've pointed out is that on days when pork is served, an alternative option is available for students who don't eat pork (usualy for religious reasons). You won't find vegetarian options, as it's assumed that everyone is omnivorous. Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever met a French vegetarian. The only vegetarians I know over here are foreign!

    As far as food preparation goes, schools usually go one of two routes. First, if the kitchen is fully equipped, a chef and nutritionist work together to design a menu that is both balanced and budget friendly. Food is then ordered and prepared on site every day.

    If the school does not have a fully equipped kitchen, it will receive pre-made meals daily from a "kitchen headquarters" that supplies many area schools. Upon delivery, dishes are either reheated or refrigerated until lunch time. Full disclosure: the menu I translated is for the mass-produced meals coming from the "cuisine central."

    I've never eaten at an elementary school cafeteria, but at the university I was able to eat something comparable to this menu for less than 3 euro. I'll be honest, it wasn't as good as going out to eat or cooking for myself at home, but it was healthy and cheap!

    Also, when I go to the grocery store in Toulouse, I see kids from a nearby middle school who wander in late in the afternoon counting their centimes to buy Haribo gummy bears and Kinder chocolates. Kids will be kids!

    However, there's a McDonalds in the very same parking lot and I hardly see any of the kids going there. Believe me, it's not because the French don't eat at McDonalds, because they do. They might criticize the establishment ad nauseum but it's still the #1 private employer in the country. Most kids simply can't afford to eat there on a regular basis: a combo meal can easily cost 8 euros. That'll make you reconsider eating at the cafeteria!

    Please don't hesitate to ask any other questions you may have in the comments section -I'll do my best to answer.

    Hats off again to Mrs. Q for her inspiring project, and as the French would say, "bonne continuation"!

  40. Anonymous at 9:10 AM on April 14 commented about the time available for students to eat (lack of time at her student's school compared to France). She thought it might be "off the school lunch thread", but I would say it is actually an important part of the big picture.

    But, extending the meal periods would mean extending the school day (or less educational time, which I think is also set by regulations), which leads to changes in transportation/bus schedules, likely teacher and other staff contracts, class schedules if the cafeteria is a multi-purpose space (study hall, gym, etc.). Like so many things, seems easy on the surface.

    Still, as anonymous said (and Mrs. Q's title) it's food for thought.

  41. I work in a high school in France, and the cafeteria system is so much better than anything I experienced in the states. When you walk in, there are sinks with soap dispensers to wash your hands, and also hand sanitizer dispensers. Then you line up, swipe your card (everyone pre-pays for their meals in the school office) and take a tray. There are two lines that you can go through-the hot lunch line or the "brasserie" line, which is more fast food-type options. Everyone gets silverware and a piece of bread, then goes through and selects their food.

    In our cafeteria, if you go through the hot lunch line, you pick out either yogurt or cheese, then pick your dessert (yogurt, pudding-type thing, or fruit usually, occasionally pastries). Then you pick your main meal. There are usually 2 or 3 meats and 2 or 3 veggies, with one being a starch. There's no finger food. Its roasted chicken, pork chops, fish, or beef usually in a sauce.

    Once you pick these things you get a glass for water, then go out into the cafeteria where there is a buffet of starters, usually about 15 different types of veggies and salads, and you can take as much as you want.

    The more fast-food side has offered things like hot dogs (no bun, just the sausages, because you are already getting a mini-baguette) and fries, omelets, or other things like that.

    Real food aside, it is amazing to me that these students eat off of real plates with real silverware and drink from glasses, not plastic cups or milk cartons. Lunch at my school lasts for an hour and a half but students are free to come and go as they please.

    Lastly, as a teacher, I pay 3,15€ for my lunch, and am completely stuffed when I leave!

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