Do French kids get the best school lunches in the world?

Sliced endive with basil, sautéed beef Charolais, and plenty of cheese... The food is fabulous at French schools, says Aussie expat Sam Goff, and it's hard to disagree.

Do French kids get the best school lunches in the world?
Photo: Sam Goff

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.

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.

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.

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?”

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. 

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French baguette gets UNESCO world heritage status

The French baguette - one of the country's most abiding images - was given world heritage status by UNESCO on Wednesday, the organisation announced.

French baguette gets UNESCO world heritage status

More than six billion baguettes are baked each year in France and the UN agency inscribed the tradition in its “intangible cultural heritage” list.

Reader question: How many baguettes does the average French person eat per day?

France voted on 2021 on whether to apply for the status for the baguette, for the distinctive grey zinc roofs of Paris or for the tradition of wine festivals – and baguettes were selected.

Now UNESCO has announced the latest addition to its intangible cultural heritage list, granting the status to the savoir-faire (known-how) behind the creation of the French bread and the culinary tradition that surrounds it.

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A true baguette – known as un tradition – has just four ingredients; flour, water, yeast and salt and is baked in a steam oven to give it the distinctive crispy crust and soft interior.

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The UN agency granted “intangible cultural heritage status” to the tradition of making the baguette and the lifestyle that surrounds them.

More than six billion are baked every year in France, according to the National Federation of French Bakeries — but the UNESCO status comes at a challenging time for the industry.

France has been losing some 400 artisanal bakeries per year since 1970, from 55,000 (one per 790 residents) to 35,000 today (one per 2,000).

The decline is due to the spread of industrial bakeries and out-of-town supermarkets in rural areas, while urbanites increasingly opt for sourdough, and swap their ham baguettes for burgers.

Still, it remains an entirely common sight to see people with a couple of sticks under their arm, ritually chewing off the warm end (the crouton) as they leave the boulangerie.

There are national competitions, during which the candidates are sliced down the middle to allow judges to evaluate the regularity of their honeycomb texture as well as the the colour of the interior, which should be cream.

But despite being a seemingly immortal fixture in French life, the baguette only officially got its name in 1920, when a new law specified its minimum weight (80 grams) and maximum length (40 centimetres).

“Initially, the baguette was considered a luxury product. The working classes ate rustic breads that kept better,” said Loic Bienassis, of the European Institute of Food History and Cultures, who helped prepare the UNESCO dossier.

“Then consumption became widespread, and the countryside was won over by baguettes in the 1960s and 70s,” he said.

Its earlier history is rather uncertain.

Some say long loaves were already common in the 18th century; others that it took the introduction of steam ovens by Austrian baker August Zang in the 1830s for its modern incarnation to take shape.

One popular tale is that Napoleon ordered bread to be made in thin sticks that could be more easily carried by soldiers.

Another links baguettes to the construction of the Paris metro in the late 19th century, and the idea that baguettes were easier to tear up and share, avoiding arguments between the workers and the need for knives

“It is a recognition for the community of artisanal bakers and patisserie chefs,” said Dominique Anract, president of bakeries federation in a statement.

“The baguette is flour, water, salt and yeast — and the savoir-faire of the artisan.”