My daughter started school primary school this week and their school menu is fabulous.
Everything is so varied, well balanced, and so very mature - as in, they don't just serve "kid" food - it's adult food in small portions.
There's endives, tuna steak, pork sautée, salads, vegetable bakes, beef steak, omelettes, chicken and rice, zucchini, and carrots and even fish stews - and all of it rounded off with delicious French cheese, yoghurt and fruits. They get an afternoon snack too; with baguette, fruit or sometimes biscuits. If I could, I'd eat there every day.
Another closer look at the menu.
And this is nothing new. As an Australian mother with an American husband, our first experience with food in a collective sense was through the creche (daycare).
Every day we would drool over the menu posted outside the entrance - fish at least three times a week, vegetables, fruits, and most importantly - cheese. It really amazed me that these 1-3 year olds were eating cheeses such as brie and camembert. My palate was not as developed at their age; we used to eat Kraft cheese slices and thought that was special.
School staff took so much pride in explaining that they had their own chef, that he selected bio foods where possible and everything was home made. And this was a public creche - where I paid less than €10 a day for food, childcare and all the rest. I couldn't believe it.
Children at a school in northern France's Caen. Photo: AFP
All the kids sit down together to eat - they teach them table manners, routine, setting the table and eating properly so early. And my daughter eats absolutely everything; in fact, when we go to the market, she is the one who asks to get broccoli.
And I think the best part is that they teach kids to appreciate food - and sitting down at a table to eat. It's all very civilised. The 3 year olds set their own tables, pour the water into glasses (they don't drink out of water fountains like I did) and they eat with knives and forks. They have three courses, starting with salad (crudités) and raw vegetables, then their main meal, followed by dessert. And they always let us know if they eat well and what foods they've tried.
The above selection from the school's August menu includes everything from white bean salads to sautéed beef Charolais.
My daughter loves it. She eats everything they have to offer; because she started eating vegetables and balanced meals here so early - it's totally normal for her. Whereas, I had some friends over visiting from Australia recently - and their son would only eat ramen noodles and chips. Not that I judge that though - kids can be picky eaters, it's true. But I think there's a certain amount of "peer encouragement" that goes on here with food at school.
When a kid doesn't like eating a particular food, the staff will encourage him/her to try it, usually with a full chorus encouragement from all the other kids. So it's a kind of "positive peer pressure". I wonder sometimes if I wouldn't have discovered earlier in my life how much I love spinach, for example, if we had that same system when I was growing up - so much lost time that I could have been eating spinach earlier.
Another thing I noticed among my daughter's friends and their families is how little they eat out also. We took her to McDonald's for the second time in her life during the holidays - and she didn't eat a thing. But when she got home, she asked "Mum, can I have some broccoli and couscous please?"
Another selection shows everything from duck to fillet of hake with lemon sauce.
I realised at that moment how glad I am that my kid is going to school and developing her taste buds and palate here in France - it really is the gastronomy capital of the world. Not just for their famous recipes, such as Beef Bourginon and veal stew, but more so for their love of food, their reverence for taking the time to sit and eat properly, balanced meals.
I had some French Mums tell me "ah, the canteen at school is not that great" and screw their noses up at it. But I don't think they actually realise just how lucky they are. They compare it to their own cooking; but when compared to what is on offer in other countries - we're really spoiled here. They can't even imagine the Vegemite sandwiches of my childhood in Australia.
When I was at school as a child, we always had to take our own lunch box. There was a tiny little "hole in the wall" style tuck shop that sold chips, soft drinks, salad rolls, lollies and pies - but we always had a lunch box because it was cheaper for my parents I guess.
My husband, who is American - explained that at his school, you placed your lunch order in the morning with different fast food shops - such as pizza hut, subway, sloppy joes etc. Everyone ate junk food everyday. So it's even worse.
French kids don't even realize how lucky they have it.