Guest Blogger: French School Lunches

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:
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28 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: French School Lunches

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience! I have heard about French nursery schools having chefs prepare gourmet meals for the children – and they have the time as you say to sit down and enjoy it. They learn how not only what food should taste like, but social manners and etiquette. I would love to eat this way, too!

  2. Hi Belinda,
    We had heard about it too but couldn't believe it until we saw it! On their first day at lunch they were served individual chickens and chocolate mousse. My daughter was sold!
    Enjoy your day,

  3. Having been both student and teacher at several schools in France, I can say that "your mileage may vary." Some schools do serve cafeteria style, and while vegetables are served as vegetables, they were often boiled to death (which I found ironic, considering many of the comments I heard the French utter about British food.)

    However, the essentials are there. Students have time to eat; they are expected to eat whole, adult-style food (without extra colors or flavorings to make them "fun"); they are even expected to pass dishes to each other and clear up after themselves.

    It helps that the French school day often extends to 5:00, so there is more time to prepare and serve food. But that still doesn't explain why American kids are eating chemicals and drinking sugar.

  4. I love this! It seems to be exactly how food should be–a source of a sustenance and nutrition. When I was in elementary school, though the lunches may have been lacking, the lunch period was a half an hour long, followed by a 30 minute recess. It is unnerving that some elementary schools do not even have a recess now.

    As a (hopeful!) future elementary school teacher, I would love to see the United States following the good example of other countries–and acknowledge the importance of recess. Kids need to run around, and play. Without that, I do not believe they can adequately learn.

  5. Not all French school lunches are served at the table, my girls have to go through a line. But there is always a first and second course, plus dessert, bread and cheese. Twice a week, my girls' lunches are organic and once a week they are vegetarian. I'm really happy with the French school lunch system.

  6. That sounds wonderful and a great way to eat. I think it is unrealistic to think that the lunch here can ever be that way. There are certainly lessons that we can learn but society here is to different to ever think that we can devote two hours to eat. I love eating and I think two hours is way to long to eat. This is a great post to see how another country does school lunches but it is so far from what we can do. I am not sure it serves any real purpose in the discussion on how to fix American school lunches.

    I have recently taken over as cafeteria director for a small Catholic School in Dallas called Saint Pius X and it has been a wonderful experience. I think as a whole kids want to eat well and appreciate good food. They do not want processed food. They do not want canned food. I have made some small changes like fresh fruit, frozen vegetables instead of canned, and non processed meats. The kids have all loved the food. The thing is I have a lot more freedom (as well as training) and we have an incredible kitchen. It is still a struggle to get all the food out to the kids. It seems everyday I am running around to make sure we make it. It is exciting and feels like a restaurant but if I screw up kids don’t eat. I am just saying with the resources devoted to American school lunches a post like this is a pipe dream. But I guess we all need to dream sometimes.

  7. SPXD,
    I'm sad that you feel that way but if you're working in the field and see it day in and out you probably have a realistic view of it. And that's even sadder. I don't think the French schools are doing anything incredible or over and above here. To be clear, the lunch break is two hours but they only spend about 45 minutes max of that actually eating. The rest of the time is spent playing and tutoring if a student needs it.
    There's no reason why American schools can't offer four balanced courses even if the time is limited.
    What do you guys think?


  8. The menu looks great! I realize not everyone in France is Catholic, but I'm a little surprised at the offerings of hamburger, pork, and chicken for Fridays during Lent.

  9. I would love to have a two hour window devoted to nourishment in the middle of the day! My son is in 1st grade and at a Charter School, he has 30 minutes for lunch followed by 30 minutes for recess and the kids sit, family style, so there is plenty of time for socializing which is great. I think for America to adopt the French model we would have to make major changes to our school structure, the start and stop times being one and perhaps extending the school year (which i personally support) to be able to accomodate a large window for mealtime. I would be curious though to see the benefits-I think there would be a lot of them! Thanks for sharing your French experience!

  10. I personally think that a two hour window and a lunch similar to what is offered at that French School is quite civilized and would do the kids good. I shudder to think of what the kids at our High School would do though.

    I am guessing if they were raised with it, they might do better, but I cannot get my brain to wrap around trying to introduce it at the High School Level. So many of the kids do not even take a lunch period anymore which I think is sad and wrong.

    It looks like you have a very nice life Aidan 🙂

  11. Incredible! I am both amazed by this story and saddened that American schools are soooo industrialized, disappointing, and apathetic.

    Also, props to Aidan. This is an incredibly well-written piece. I loved the phrase, "grab a bag of calories." Insightful, humorous, and creative! 🙂

  12. Very interesting–real food for children, what a concept! Would you please comment on the cost for a meal?

  13. This is somewhat related and I'll explain why at the end:

    about a year ago I was watching some sort of house hunting show on HGTV, and this particular episode featured an american couple looking for a house in France with their two small kids. After going through a two-story house, the mother expressed hr biggest concern: the windows on the second floor all opened wide, and were un-screened. She was worried that the children might fall out.

    The French real-estate agent's response was CLASSIC, and one I will never forget. She looked coolly at the woman and casually replied "I don't know about Americans, but French children generally do not make a habit of jumping out windows."

    I thought I was going to die laughing.

    Why am I sharing this story? Because it so PERFECTLY illustrated the one radical difference between american and european families: we americans coddle our kids far too much. Europeans treat their children like small adults. They are expected to have good manners, to try new foods, to be intelligent human beings. Americans, for some reason, treat their kids like they'll break if you look at them funny, will starve to death if the food isn't dyed red, and can't think for themselves or they will self-destruct.

    French children don't make a habit of jumping out of windows. It's high time we started expecting the same from our own kids.

  14. Children can hold a real knife and not stab themselves or someone else?? Dessert – real dessert, not fat-free chemical-ized products – can be part of a healthy diet?? Blasphemy!

    (And by this, I mean, thank you very much for your post – I agree wholeheartedly with your position and thoughts, even if I have not had the honor of experiencing France's approach to food myself. We could learn a lot from the rest of the world.)

  15. Excellent post Aidan. It makes me think of the beginning of school when my first grader, Julia, was throwing out her healthy, balanced, organic (and expensive!) packed lunches from home and buying "Lunchables" and "Snack Mix" at school. I wasn't even aware of it until I got the cafeteria bill. It just goes to show you, even when parents are modeling good food choices, the lure of processed, packaged foods can be overwhelming to children. Especially when that is what everyone else at the table is eating.

  16. Really terrific comments, you guys! I really want to visit France now (well, I wanted to before, but now I must).

    Regarding whether or not this is possible in the US. I don't have the answer to that. At first I agreed with the commenter who said that maybe this wasn't possible. But one thing that this blog has brought into my life is the plain and simple idea that anything is possible. Anything.

    Imagine if the kids did get a two hour break in the middle of the day to eat and to run around outside. It seems luxurious. Two hours? Two hours of free kid time? How much more focused and ready to learn would they be after that? They'd be played out. They would be way less fidgety.

    Here's what I think: we should ask for some ridiculously long amount of time (like two hours) and see what we get. Like when Slow Food asked for a full $1.00 per meal increase in the school food reimbursement rate. What did we get? $0.06. So if we ask for a two hour lunch and recess time (well, recess first, then lunch per the research), maybe we'll end up with a total 45 minutes. Maybe an hour, if we're lucky.

    Just thinking out loud as usual! 🙂

  17. Thanks everyone for the interest and thoughtful comments.
    As far as the cost of lunches here, well it's based on your income to some extent and it comes to around 4 euro a meal for my kids. A month of 6 meals a week runs me less than 100 euro.
    It's not only the lunches that are different in school here but that's a whole other story. If you're interested email me and I can give you more detail.
    I think Mrs Q is right, start big and then you'll get something tolerable. I was a teacher when before we had children and remember having to stuff down my food during the break, it's not good for us either.
    And a question…where does the money from the vending machines go? And how much does it cost to bring them in?
    It was lovely to wake up to your comments this morning, France time.

  18. I think the idea is good healthy food for children. Our reforms have been introduced in Hungary. It is true anywhere is not observed. Formally, there could be unhealthy things to sell. Chips, candy, etc.. I think it is the best solution is to put the more interesting dishes. The sandwich is boring, but with a little ingenuity can do it funny figures.

  19. I loved this post, as I am from France and grew up having 2-hour lunches as well. You don't spend 2 hours eating…but you slowly eat, then you do other things!! (go to the library, go home and play, join a lunch club, run outdoors, or get some tutoring) I do believe you are more inclined to listening and learning after such a break! I always cringe when I go in Canadian schools and see how fast the kids have to gobble up their food..and it's often very questionnable food (a bag of candy? really??) I also like what the commenter shared re. children being treated like small adults..that's exactly it! But how can you change something as big as a CULTURAL DIFFERENCE???? it's not just school lunch that needs to be fixed…

  20. First, I have to say that children are not small adults. That is not to say children should be treated as less than or as if they are stupid, they just aren't adults.

    Second, our school is an extended day charter school and the kids still only have 20-30 minutes to eat. And, some days, we don't have much more for dinner, due to activities and homework and such.

    A big thing I hear is kids don't eat as much lunch because they are socializing with friends. Why is this a bad thing? Why can't there be enough time to eat and socialize?

  21. As of this post the equivalent of 4 Euros is $5.58. I could do a great lunch for that . In today’s hard times that is $140 a month per kid. I know even with a perfect lunch some of my kids will bag their lunches purely because of economic reasons. That is almost double on what we spend as Americans. I know I sound like a doomsayer but like in the book Free for All, when you get into the nuts and bolts of the American lunch system it gets overwhelming. I am very lucky because I have more freedom in my cafeteria then most of the public schools. My kids to get 30 minutes for lunch and 30 minutes for recess and if they feel they need tutoring or more time for lunch they just use their recess time. We also have an hour of PE everyday with a wonderful PE teacher. I am just thinking about the problems as it pertains to a majority of the kids and districts out there like Mrs. Q’s lunches and district.

    All that negativity aside I think balanced tasty lunches for kids are doable and a must if we are to see our kids into the future. It just takes some passion and creativity. There are at least 4 culinary schools in the Dallas area and over 1000 culinary students enrolled at any time. Instead of paying lunch ladies minimum wage we could hire a chef per district or even school that has the training and know how to make things work more efficiently. Run the cafeterias like a restaurant and use everything. My leftover veggies go into soup for staff meals. We should ask for more money for lunches. I think the post was a great post I just want to keep my eye on the prize and asking for two hour lunches and doubling the budget is unreasonable. But man I could do a lot with $5.58, I really could.

  22. Apart from the direct conversion of euros into dollars, we should also make sure to compare income and purchasing power in both countries before drawing conclusions. Aidan, could you shed some light on this? Would you say 100 euros a month for school lunch is a significant part of an average salary in your region?

  23. This opens an entirely different conversation, which is fascinating but highlights cultural and governmental differences. For one thing, France is a socialist country and we pay higher taxes than any American. But for that money everyone has health and dental paid for based on income, the price of school lunches are based on income, child care is based on income, etc. It's a matter of where the money goes and France puts a lot of it into health and family. You'd be shocked at the maternity leave, amount of vacation and prescription drug prices. It is not America. Gas is much more expensive here as is a Big Mac and a lot of other goods like toys, computer games, clothes. It is difficult to compare the two countries because the government is so different. Does this help?

  24. @Momof3

    Because eating is important…? Wouldn't it be nice if the kids could socialize AND eat a balanced meal during lunch?

  25. I think another point to add to the cultural distinctions is that Americans spend a very low percentage of their income on food in general compared to other countries. We want cheap food and unfortunately we get it. But like all cheap products, the true cost is hidden.

  26. I see that school lunch menu design is the same the world over, though – comic sans, clip art…

    The difference is that in France, the art is in the kitchen. In my school district, the comic sans-laden print menu is probably the most artistic (and, for that matter, nutritious, if you print it) part of the lunch offering.

  27. I still keep being shocked over children not being given knives when eating school lunch in the U.S. Jamie Oliver's face when he was told the school doesn't have knives is still fresh in my mind, as it mirrored my own, when I first realised it through this blog last year.

    There are children's silver sets intended for small toddlers, that'd be fully acceptable by U.S. "safety" standards, I think, since the knife is about as blunt as the spoon is. Only the "baby set"-packages leave out the knife. The point is, a child needs to learn to use even the "hazardous" tools at some point, and they need the practice… I understand schools don't want the responsibility of someone hurting themselves, but if there are families where "finger food" is the norm, someone has to teach them! (My fiancé was 30, when he started learning the "European" way of eating with a knife involved for something else than just rough cutting of a steak… And he had never seen or heard of a fish knife, which I knew of before I consciously remember it.) These don't look *so* dangerous, do they?

    In Finland, children on average have 45 minutes for lunch and recess between age 6 and 16. The school where I worked for several years as a substitute teacher and teaching assistant for special needs children had a rule that once everyone were seated, there was a minimum of 15 minutes devoted to the food, after which the students could ask for permission to leave the table. Some children didn't mind staying by the table and eating until the bell rang for the next lesson if they were hungry (I used to eat like a horse and stay underweight, so I know how it felt).

    Later, the "lunch breaks" seem to be shortened, and at the equivalent of a senior high school, we had 30 minutes to eat, if I remember correctly. The common "lunch break" length in most professions in Finland is fixed at 30 minutes, so the hour long lunch breaks my hubby gets from work really mean a lot as mutual time goes for us, since he works a lot of overtime.

    I'm an oddball in that my food upbringing is more French, so food is to be enjoyed, and is a social event. We usually clock 45 minutes at my grandmother's place, when we eat dinner with a starter (often salad, since I'm the "designated salad chef" at family dinners), main course, cheese and a dessert.

    That's a typical meal, as my grandparents have modeled their meal times after some French general whose life they admire (can't remember his name to save my life). Most of that 2 hours for a school lunch isn't just eating. It's also play time, a chance to finish homework assignments ahead of schedule, or sneaking a peek at your exam books before you go in to write exams in the afternoon.

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