The French haven’t earned their reputation as food lovers and great cooks without doing something right somewhere. But as I have explained before, there is a cultural aspect that transcends simply ‘doing as the natives do’. Food education starts in infancy.
The school canteen as an extension of Health Education
I’m sure that most children, as part of their school health education, learn about food groups and how to have a healthy lifestyle. In France, the theory about what constitutes a balanced and varied meal is directly applied to the school canteen menus, it’s the practical application of the curriculum. Often school menus are approved by the council for an entire town. Some schools display their school menus on their website; sometimes the food may be cooked on site, or it will just be warmed up there, but this doesn’t mean the food will be tasteless.
Children who attend the canteen will be exposed to many foods they may never eat at home. Menus include a starter (often raw vegetables in a seasoned salad, or a pâté served with bread) and a main dish of meat and a side of rice/pasta/potatoes. There may be cooked vegetables served as well, but it is not always the case if the starter is veggie. This will be followed by cheese (a different kind every day), fruit, yoghurt or more elaborate desserts. Here are a couple of menus from two different towns. Let me just say that the menus are as good as you get older; I have great memories of secondary school dinners apart from the dreaded Wednesdays when there was always some awful beef tongue or such horror and the smell permeated the canteen.
This menu is standard across all primary schools in Limoges:
Some weeks, menus will be created around a theme, like the last week of October in the menu displayed above, which is themed around Autumn. On one of the days, children will eat a slice of dry sausage and gherkin (typical French starter), roast chicken breast with poëllée forestière (a potato and mushroom fry-up), plain yoghurt and a walnut tart (both walnuts and mushrooms being autumnal). On another, they had melon, lamb tajine with couscous, garlic and herbs cheese and seasonal fruit. I don’t know about you, but I want to eat this!
This is the menu for kids in maternelle (pre-school ages 3-6) in Toulouse:
On a typical day, they are having a vegetable soup, turkey macaroni gratin, cheese and a chocolate mousse.
How many hot meals?
A number of people in England complain about the fact that hot meals are being served to their children at school for lunch. I can’t get my head around it. They argue that a sandwich lunch would be just as good, if not even healthier. As a sandwich, a bag of crisps and a piece of fruit is standard lunch fare across England for all ages, I’m not surprised by the argument, even if I think it is misguided. English children older than 6 years old bring their own packed lunch as there is no canteen food available for them unless they fall in the ‘in need’ bracket.
In France, you get two hot meals a day, at lunch and at dinner time, although adults are more and more tempted by the ‘quick lunch’ option that sandwiches offer.
For children, the benefits of having a hot meal served at school are manifold:
- it is an introduction to a variety of foods
- it is about developing taste buds and the palate
- it is about learning table manners and how to eat in public
- it is about not being at home; a child might behave differently and be more likely to try something if there is some peer pressure
- it is also about having energy for a long day at school, which you won’t convince me a sandwich and piece of fruit really provides.
- It is, at the end of the day, about value: the value the French place on food, not just as a means to live and mere subsistence but an event, about enjoyment and community, how to talk and eat and do life together.
Note: most French schools have a 2-hour lunch break and many children get picked up by their parents or carers and eat food at home rather than in the canteen.