French-style food education for children {day twenty-six}


{day twenty-six} French-style Food Education for Children

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.

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French people don’t jump queues {day twenty-four}

{day twenty-four} French people don't jump queues

French people don’t jump queues. They don’t tend to, and if they do, it is not well received and will likely result in the queue-jumper being passive-aggressively or directly rebuffed and sent to the back of the queue.

What happens however, if that apart from clear instances where queueing is inevitable, like at the post office or anywhere with a guichet (counter), the French do not see the need for queues in the first place. We don’t! Queues are all well and good and, you know, so civilised, but we just don’t care that much for such a level of required order. We know we’re all going to get there in the end, that there is nothing so urgent that queueing is going to resolve. What British people (and other, also very ordered, nations) see as chaos really does not seem that way to us. We like to be able to stand wherever we choose without risking being tutted at by some precious old biddy. And that is exactly how it looks to us: petty and a bit precious, just looking to make a big deal out of a non-event. Life’s too short to care about this sort of thing.

Take the bus queue: I have never been so bemused in my life than when I saw my first bus queue in my early days in England. Here’s my (very French) thought process when I see a bus queue: ‘What’s the point? There’s rarely so many people waiting for the bus, we know we’re all going to get in. Is having a choice of seats really such a big deal? What’s the worst that could happen?’ It’s even more ridiculous when there is a strike in London, and you see queues for the bus going round street corners, instead of people huddling closer to the bus stop. Is it because people are so selfish, they think everyone else are bound to elbow in at any cost and mitigate it with a nice orderly queue? Is it that people really care about who arrived first and who gets to take the window seat? As I said, French people don’t really see the need, or they don’t care that much.

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Sleep like The French {day twenty-two}

{day twenty-two} Sleep like the French

This blog post idea comes courtesy of my husband Badgerman, who said “surely you should write a post about sleep, after all the moaning you do about it and British windows”. He’s heard me complain often enough about blinds and windows and poxy cream curtains that let all the light in to know my sleep is important to me and that I cannot fathom why shutters don’t come as standard on British houses.

The best way to get a good night sleep, according to the French and SCIENCE, is to have a very dark bedroom. It doesn’t need to be completely pitch-back but it should be as close to it as possible. It’s a known fact that the darker the room the more profound the sleep.

Typical French shutters in the background
Typical French shutters in the background

French people understand this so all houses and flats come with shutters as standard. Some have painted wooden ones and some have the more old-fashioned metal ones on the outside of windows. More modern constructions may have electric shutters but that’s not a statement of wealth, just practical.

Typical English shutters: bespoke, affordable only to the wealthy, and installed inside the window (in case they get stolen?)

I cannot get my head around why shutters are not standard everywhere. They are common sense for so many reasons, not just because they create a darker and more suitable environment for a good night sleep but also because:

1. If you live in a hot country (or just for hot summer days), you can half shut them to protect your house and yourself from overheating but you can keep your windows open and get the benefit of the outside air instead of just being shut inside in a hot house.

But for this to work, you would need windows that actually open widely, and these are not to be found in England (another cultural shock for me!).

2. The flip coin is that in winter, closing your shutters helps keep the heat in and the cold out, you are immediately better insulated. So, you know, you save money on heating.

3. It is added safety; robbers have an extra job trying to get in. It’s just common sense!

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Children’s education: a comparison of England and France {day twenty-one}

{day twenty-one} UK-France comparison of children's education

There are quite a few books popularising the idea that French parents have great ideas about education that lead to better-behaved children than the rest of the world. The way that French parents educate their children may have a different emphasis to other countries and some of the suggestions, whilst common-sense to a French person, might be revolutionary elsewhere, but there is no magic wand for creating well-behaved children. The broad brush that is painted in books like ‘French Children Don’t Throw Food’ might sell books, but it’s a load of old bollocks I have had thoughts about this ludicrous idea before (and they’re my two most popular posts on the blog, so read on and have a laugh).

French and English Education

Whilst it would be fair to assume that educational standards are broadly similar across the world (at least if we were to compare first-world countries), this does not mean that children’s schooling experience is the same. Despite the fact that most children finish high school with a range of abilities and knowledge that enables them to attend university anywhere in the world, they will most certainly have had a very different day-to-day to each other and may not have been taught in the same way at all.

1. In England, school days run from Monday to Friday. In France, they also run Monday to Friday but only in the morning on Wednesday; in some places, Wednesdays will be off and there will be lessons on Saturday morning instead.

2. An English primary school day starts around 8.50 am and finishes at 3.15 pm or thereabouts. French school days run from 8.30-9am until 4 or 5 pm, with a 2 hour lunch break in the middle (usually 12-2pm).

3. A year or so ago, I experienced a nice bit of culture shock whilst trying to organise Little Girl’s pre-school place, a problem that would never have happened in France.

4. Homeschooling exists in England (although not in the same way that it does in the US) and it is not at all common in France. Whilst it’s technically and legally possible to homeschool in France, hardly anyone does it and there are rules that must be followed to the letter. The French government is very strict about accountability due to their (quite rightly in my opinion) concerns about cults and possible brain-washing, and what constitutes good education. Homeschooled children must be able to compete with their peers every step of the way. This article says that there are 500 homeschooling families registered in France.

A typical French classroom (image from Wikipedia)

5. France is really crap at caring for SEN pupils. The best thing you can do for your child with SEN is to get a diagnostic from your doctor as soon as possible and see if your child can attend a special school. This is because there is ZERO provision for SEN children in ‘normal’ schools in France. There is so little provision, so little training for teachers and so little understanding by the educational providers that even children suffering with something as common as dyslexia, whether diagnosed or undiagnosed, may be spoken about (or spoken to) by their teacher as ‘stupid’ and offered no support whatsoever. Instead, as is common in France, they may be made to re-do their year if they have failed significantly in one or more areas of study. French schooling has a ‘one size fits all’ approach and it is a parent’s responsibility to battle with the authorities to get the best for their child.

On the other hand, in England, the government encourages, as much as possible, SEN pupils to be integrated into the ‘normal’ schools. This is because they want non-SEN children to learn to accept differences in each other without discrimination and to help special-needs children to adapt to their circumstances. In many cases, this works very well. SEN pupils may be assigned one-to-one support with trained support workers. Obviously, if the learning difficulties are too intense or disruptive, children may be referred to special schools but this is not the first point of call.

6. There are no uniforms in France. In England, where they wear uniforms in primary and secondary school, there is a strong argument that it reduces bullying and helps children to give them a sense of ‘belonging’ to the school they attend. I don’t believe this for a moment. I tend to think that people who want to bully others will find something to pick on, and if not clothes, it will be something else. My sister was bullied for being small, and I was bullied for being top of the class (and skinny and awkward and shy).

How Children are Taught

In France: The norm is still to learn by rote, with desks facing the front from 6 years old, and being expected to be still for hours; the emphasis is on writing skills with pencil and pen including joined-up writing, learning multiplication tables by heart, with daily ‘dictées’ (dictations) to enforce spelling ability. French grammar is taught from 6 years old onwards all the way to high school.

In England: the emphasis is on creativity and learning in practical ways using different approaches. Throughout most of primary schools, desks are organised in clusters of round tables. Whilst some work obviously requires sitting down at a desk, listening and being still, it is interspersed with group activities where walking around and talking is permitted. This culture of engaging creatively is also clear in the number of outings organised by the school and regular dress-up days (unheard of in France as far as I know), Christmas plays and other creative displays, as well as the large number of after-school and in-school clubs that exist.

It is not more evident that in the way that children learn to write. A friend of mine who moved from France to the UK a year ago told me this story: her eldest, who is 7 or 8, learnt to read and write in France. When she started school in England last year, she struggled initially to adjust to the new style of learning. She was asked to write a story that she had invented herself and found using her own imagination to create her own story really difficult to do initially. In France she had always been told what to write.

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