The Importance of School Lunches in France

Edmund's bagged lunch. The Kindergarten teacher pulled me aside in September and informed me that I must send an entrée (salad or soup), a main course (some meat/fish dish), and a dessert. I try not to send sandwiches. In the picture above, I sent rice pudding as a dessert (a cup of yogurt works too). Sometimes I send cheese to satisfy the cheese dish requirement.

Written by Jenn

“Monsieur, you send your son to school with a sandwich?!” an offended canteen staff spat disbelievingly from his cultured French collar. Judging my husband as ignorantly uncivilized with her incredulous expression, the atmosphere grew guillotine tense.

In France, school lunches are decapitatingly serious business.

Last September, our Canadian family of six began an educational immersion year in Southern France. My husband, Brian, was summoned to meet with the kindergarten teacher, principal, nurse, and canteen staff to discuss our youngest son’s severe peanut allergy. For safety precautions, a bagged lunch was deemed necessary. School policy instructs that meals brought in must be accompanied by a written menu and be properly dated.

“If I send my son to school with a sandwich my wife prepared that morning, must I still label the date?” Brian asked in clarification with his Anglophone French. Perhaps something was lost in translation, because his innocent question, somehow interpreted as absurd, was as if he insisted on serving our child Dr. Seuss’ green eggs and ham. We didn’t understand why this was such a big deal.

For most Canadians, school lunches bring up memories of crinkled brown bag sandwiches. Ham and cheese with mayo slapped between two pieces of bread holds the norm; and for the older generation, before nut-free schools shelled out, the delightful peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Put in a juice box and fruit like an apple, banana, or orange to counter the snack treat of a bag of chips or chocolate bar, and you’re set. For the really health conscious parent, perhaps organic vegetables and multigrain bread, along with 100% pure fruit juice would do the trick.

In France, however, the customary two-hour noon break dictates a right to conviviality. Many children go home, and the ones who stay must eat the 4-5 course hot meal provided at the school canteen. Homemade lunches are not allowed. Unfortunately, we unsuspecting Canadians didn’t know that, and sent our kids with a Ziploc (I could not find any brown paper bags anywhere!) full of sandwich goodies on the first day of class.

Normally, sandwiches are eaten during picnics or school field trips. Many students prefer to eat their lunch at home because the food served at the canteen is not as good. Sadly, that is not the case for my children. They prefer eating the school’s gourmet hot meals with unlimited servings of bread. At our house, they’d receive our staple soup and sandwich… Tim Horton’s style.

We knew then that we were in for a steep learning curve when it came to digging deeper into understanding the French culture. Originally, we lived in France to acquire the language (well okay, the nice weather and beaches attracted us too), and now we found ourselves on top of the spaghetti all covered with cheese education on the French mentality of food and health.

In the past 25 years, the obesity rate in children has tripled. According to the Canadian Childhood Obesity Foundation, 1 in 4 Canadian children between the ages of 2-17 are currently obese or overweight. As a result, schools nationwide increased their classroom physical activity and switched to healthier hot lunch options.

Nevertheless, the problem continues to grow. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development contrasts Canada’s statistics with France, where childhood obesity has remained relatively low over the past twenty years at less than 10 %. Could France’s deeply ingrained cultural savoir faire on the art of food preparation and consumption answer the predicament of Canada’s obesity woes?

Canteen menus post a month in advance, easily accessible by parents and staff through the internet. A weekly restaurant menu tucked behind a glass encased message board greet parents as they enter the school. Children are encouraged to take a little of everything offered and taste their food. Our children feasted on green salad for their entrée, fish with cream sauce and herbs as their main course, zucchinis and potatoes for their vegetable dish, camembert cheese to fulfil their dairy requirements, and milk chocolate mousse for dessert. With a menu like that, no wonder my Canadian kids prefer to eat at school instead of the boring sandwiches thrown together at home.

France’s Agriculture and Food Minister Bruno Le Marie, told Journal du Dimanche earlier this October that he believes his country “should be an example to the world in the quality of its food, starting with its children.” A national decree passed this October to improve the canteens’ nutritional quality of dishes served to the 6 million primary students who eat there every day. It specifies that 4 or 5 courses should be offered, with more milk products, salads and vegetables, and more fruit for dessert. Chips, salt, ketchup, and fried foods have been drastically limited, with a balance served between meat and fish during the week. Our children have benefited from this recent change, breathlessly bragging the delicious feast with a “Mom, guess what we ate today!” This appealingly healthy variety would make a Canadian mom like me blush with envy as I spoon for another helping of chicken nuggets with ketchup. Frankly, I wish I could eat there too.

Mirreille Guiliano, author of French Women Don’t Get Fat, shares that the quintessential French practice in balance and pleasure with food begins at an early age. This approach to healthy living as equilibrium becomes second nature when children reach adulthood. On the same note, Clotaire Rapaille compares the American and French approach to nourishment in his book The Culture Code. He writes that Americans invented fast food, generally eating everything served on their plates, whereas the French take pride in their slow food and significantly smaller portions. Americans end a meal by saying, “I’m full.” While the French finish by saying, “That was delicious.”

Our sandwich faux-pas opened our eyes to see food as wholesome nourishment and conviviality. We’re preparing meals together, focusing on balanced nutrition, smaller portions, drastically reduced consumption of fast foods, and exposing our palates to different dishes. When we return to Canada, we’re not only taking home a Mediterranean tan and a second language, but a French education on healthy living.

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13 Responses to The Importance of School Lunches in France

  1. Tammy Young says:

    So true! I love the food in France and the French attitude towards food and meal times. We’ve recently travelled to France, and our kids tried lots of new foods (our five year old ordered escargot and loved it!). The French lunchtime is so relaxed – there’s no rush – and I think this helps with the feeling of ‘fullness’ after the meal, because the servings aren’t huge. As to fresh food – we drove around the Normandy/Brittany countryside for a week and stopped a couple of times to pick fresh wild blackberries! Delicious!

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  4. What have I got my family into? Isabella will start school in France next fall. With her Celiac diet, she will stick out like a sore thumb. Plus, my Panini sandwiches are her favorite lunch….

    • bruleeblog says:

      Peter, I’ve seen the photos of Isabella’s lunches that you post and I’m sure you will adjust perfectly fine. (And that she will love them! Paninis could be the entree, I’m sure….

  5. Renee says:

    Fantastic, Jenn, simply fantastic. How tragic that multi-course lunches aren’t required in North America as well. Thanks for writing about the school and canteen. I always enjoy it.

  6. Lisa says:

    Great article Jenn. Perhaps you can pass along knowledge like this and help change the system here 😉 What ever did they say about the pancake sandwich btw? lol

  7. Dolores says:

    Jenn, what a great article! This one I will be sharing with our children & grandchildren. Hearing the words from your mouth could be a very refreshing approach for them.

  8. Fascinating article. It was a HUGE transition to move to Costa Rica from the states and using at least 1 “boxed food” item for every meal. Since making a change to more whole foods, I’ve noticed that the children eat more fruit willingly and my skin looks better. The children have fewer headaches (something that plagued them before). It is a HUGE difference to not be so concerned with being “full” but enjoying the meal. I think we do need to chew more slowly, eat less and more slowly and hopefully reap healthy results!

  9. Tobias says:

    Very nice article, Jenn! I wish more people (especcially North americans 😉 would think a bit more on what they put in their mouth – and the size of it! The “Forks over knives” was good inspiration too!

    • So true Tobias! When it came to food, we held the typical North American view until we stumbled upon the “Forks over Knives” movie and watched “Food Inc”. Seeing those movies could not have come at such a perfect time while we lived in France. Changing our eating habits to a healthier lifestyle is so much easier for us in France. I’m really grateful for our year away from all the extra-LARGE portion sizes there, and the lifestyle of fast food. We haven’t eaten out at a fast food restaurant since September!

      Even with food shopping back home, we were so used to buying HUGE family-pack sizes of meat. When we moved to France, it made me so curious why their “family” meat packs were half the size of our family-packs in Canada. That’s when I realized how grossly warped our view on portion size is as North Americans. Now, we’ve decreased our meat and dairy considerably and increased our fruit/veggie/grain/bean consumption . Next we will have to work on decreasing our sugar intake.

      As a continent, we are over-eating ourselves to death, and putting highly processed, nutrient-poor foods into our bodies. No wonder we were ALWAYS sick when we lived in Edmonton. Contrast that to our health while we travelled and now live in France. We are definitely healthier now than we’ve ever been. – Jenn

  10. Dave Wilson says:

    Very enlightening article Jenn! Thanks for writing it. I think this one might get a lot of hits from Canada.

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