French school lunches at elementary schools are usually about 40 minutes long, with an extra 40-50 minutes for recess outdoors. The mid-day break in a typical French school is long compared to many other countries. One reason is because the French eat their sit-down lunches at school in several courses (first course, main course, cheese, dessert). But there are several other reasons the French invest so much time and energy into the school lunch.
Reinforced cultural norm
One of the most important wellbeing habits in France is sitting down at a table to eat a full meal. The French organise tables for small groups of children (usually 4 to 8). In fact, cafeterias look like a restaurant. Cafeterias serve French school lunches in courses, making the meal last longer than a picnic-style packed lunch. Furthermore, each child eats the same meal as there a fixed menu every day (barring allergies or medical issues). Children learn to eat as though they are at an actual restaurant. They do not take out wrapped cookies or sandwiches from a paper bag to eat in a hurry before recess.
Food is education
The following is a French government text from 2001 outlining the need for education in the school lunchroom: “One can often neglect or forget the educational aspect of the meal. It is worthwhile highlighting children’s capacity to acquire basic knowledge of the main food groups at the same time as adopting good eating behaviors. Indeed children learn eating habits at an early age. It is therefore important to start nutrition education while behaviors and attitudes have not already been established.
The school has an important role to play, especially in raising the pupil’s awareness of the sense of taste. In conjunction with families, we can help children to learn to make educated food choices without being influenced by trends and media; while at the same time teaching them the effects of diet on their health.”
Socializing is important
The French believe strongly that meals are an important time of the day to eat and to socialize with others. The two go hand in hand. The French do not treat meals as a quick grab for necessary calories. Again from the same government text: “Lunchtime is not only the intake of calories. It is also a moment when students, after having worked all morning in class, can relax and exchange socially with one another. Eating is necessary physiologically; indispensable to wellbeing and good health. Eating is a privileged moment of discovery and must always remain a pleasurable moment.”
A necessary pause in a hectic day
School and education in France is strict, academic and compared to the anglophone countries, not what one would consider “fun”. The school year is crammed full and the school day is long (8 to noon; 1:30-4:30 pm). The midday break for lunch plus a long recess is necessary to provide a real break and an opportunity for physical activity.
Allowing all children to eat well
Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of the French school lunch program is that its high standards are placed on every school cafeteria in all public elementary schools in the country. So even in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods and school districts in the country, children at the primary level will be eating four-course, sit-down meals with nourishing food (50% of which will be organic and or local). The French are adamant that all children eat well and learn to expand their palate of tastes.
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Photo credit Manon Girardin