10 Eating Rules French Children Know (But Most Americans Don’t)
How the French eat, age, dress, raise their children and live in general is a real talking point these days. So, as an American mother of three half-French kids, I figured I’d add my two cents to the conversation.
I lived in France before becoming a parent, but eventually it was my kids who taught me everything I need to know about eating like a French person: Eating, and staying slim and healthy, isn’t just about what you eat, but also how, when and why. Yes, French people enjoy junk food occasionally, and sometimes they eat between meals, but people don’t just let loose every day. There’s a code of conduct for food, for big people and little ones alike. Here, in 10 quick life lessons, is what my kids taught me about food.
1. Eat, but not all day long. Three meals a day, plus the children’s traditional after-school “gouter,” or snack, which might be a pain au chocolat, fruit or applesauce. When mealtimes roll around, you eat with real pleasure because you’re hungry.
2. Eat real foods and generous portions. Consuming three meals a day without grazing in between means you can eat well when you sit down at the table — and that includes a starter, main course, cheese and dessert. Portions are generous without going overboard. An example of yesterday’s lunch menu: Starter course: Lentil salad Main course: Roasted chicken, green beans Cheese course: Vanilla yogurt Dessert: Apple and orange slices … and that was in the public school cafeteria.
3. Choose water. Generally speaking, the French do not drink their calories. At mealtimes, water (whether still or sparkling) is the drink of choice. Adults might opt for a glass or two of wine, but the glasses aren’t the size of fishbowls.
4. Sit down. It’s rare to see people eating while walking or shopping. There are no cup holders on caddies, or even in most cars. You eat at the table, not in front of the TV or computer screen, then you leave the table and do something else.
5. Eat lighter at night. Lunchtime is the main event. Dinner is usually light: soups, salads, an omelet, a simple pasta dish. Dessert might be a yogurt or fruit. And you sleep so much better.
6. When the kitchen closes, it’s CLOSED. No grazing after dinner.
7. Know your limit, then stop. Set eating times help you tune in to when you are really hungry or full.
8. Taste your food, guess the ingredients. The French don’t just like to eat fabulous food and drink wonderful wine, they love to talk about it. Discussing how something tastes, its ingredients and how it was made heightens awareness; children love to join the conversation. They learn about real food and where it comes from.
9. Get cooking! Along with an interest in ingredients comes an interest in the actual process of cooking food. With a little coaching, my 2-year-old peeled the apples she picked with her class and happily joined in making a tart. Children love helping put fresh vegetables or pasta into the pot, or making a chocolate cake from scratch. Being part of the process heightens appreciation, and builds good habits for life.
10. Eating well is not a sin; it’s a pleasure. Eating great food — no matter how simple or how elaborate — is one of life’s great pleasures, not an endless guilt trip. Especially when it’s in moderation. Once, when we were visiting family in the US, a waitress asked my French husband if he was “done working on that,” referring to his plate of food. His reply: “Eating is a pleasure, mademoiselle, not work!”
What French Kids Eat For School Lunch (It Puts Americans To Shame!) I walked into the dining room to see tables of four already set — silverware, silver bread basket, off-white ceramic plates, cloth napkins, clear glasses and water pitchers laid out ready for lunch.
I was standing inside my children’s public elementary school cafeteria, or “cantine” as the French call it, in our local town near Annecy, France. As part of my research into why French kids aren’t fat, the local city council gave me a tour of the public school’s cantine and kitchen and let me ask any question that came to mind.
There are many theories as to why the French, and French children in particular, do not suffer from weight problems, obesity, diabetes, and hypertension like their American counterparts. Eating moderate quantities of fresh and freshly prepared food at set times of the day is definitely one of the most convincing reasons why they stay lean. Daily exercise, in the form of three recess periods (two 15-minute and one 60-minute recess every day) and walking or biking to and from school, is another.
So what do French kids eat at school? Menus are set up two months in advance by the cantine management staff, and then sent to a certified dietitian who makes small “corrections.” The dietitian might take out a small chocolate éclair and replace it with a kiwi for dessert if she thinks there’s too much sugar that week. Or she may modify suggested menus by adding more or fewer carbohydrates, vegetables, fruits, or protein to keep the balance right. Almost all foods are prepared right in the kitchen; they’re not ready-made frozen. This means mashed potatoes, most desserts, salads, soups, and certainly the main dishes are prepared daily. Treats are included — the occasional slice of tarte, a dollop of ice cream, a delicacy from the local pastry shop. Check out these photos of a school lunch being prepared on premises.
Below are photos and a description of one week’s worth of school menus, taken during the last few weeks of this school year in June. French elementary school students don’t go to school on Wednesdays, so that’s why there are only four meals!
First course: Cucumber and tomato salad Main course: Veal marinated with mushrooms, broccoli Cheese Dessert: Apple tart
First course: Cabbage and tomato salad Main course: Roast beef, potatoes, baked tomatoes with herbs Cheese Dessert: Kiwi
First course: Tabouleh (made with bulgur) Main course: Sausages, zucchini Dessert: Ice cream, apple
First course: Potato and pickle salad Main course: Breaded fish, cauliflower Cheese Dessert: Peach Where does the food come from? “All our fruits, vegetables, fish and meat are sourced locally, some of them from local farms,” according to Dany Cahuzac, the city counselor in charge of school matters, including the cantine. The local bakery delivers bread, a staple of every French meal, fresh every morning. And every two days, there is at least one organic item on the menu. Once a month, an entirely organic meal is served. The only drink offered at lunchtime is filtered tap water, served in glass pitchers. Just as important: how the kids eat.
As the children come streaming into the cantine, they sit down at tables of four that are already set and wait for older student volunteers to bring the first course to their table. The child who sits at the designated “red” chair is the only one who is allowed to get up to fetch more water in the pitcher, extra bread for the bread basket, or to ask for extra food for the table. After finishing the first course (often a salad), volunteers bring the main course platter to the table and the children serve themselves. A cheese course follows (often a yogurt or small piece of Camembert, for example), and then dessert (more often than not, fresh fruit).
“We do our best to vary our menus throughout the weeks and months, but sometimes children don’t like certain foods,” explains Cahuzac. “We ask children to at least to taste everything and have a few bites before they give up on a food they don’t like.”
“Eating a balanced meal while sitting down calmly is important in the development of a healthy child,” adds Cahuzac. “It helps them to digest food properly, avoid stomachaches and avoid sapped energy levels in the afternoon.”
What about exercise? What the French specialize in is moving all the time, not just during a bi-weekly gym class. For example, elementary-aged students throughout the country have three set recess periods during the day: a 15-minute run-around in the morning, a 60-minute recess after lunch, and another 15-minute break in the afternoon. On top of these designated times, children are encouraged to walk and bike to school, although this depends largely on the proximity of home to school. Bicycle parking spaces are usually all used up in the morning at our local school, and while younger students ride to school next to an adult, the older 5th graders often cycle on their own.
Aside from two hourlong periods of gym during the week, kids often walk during school outings and field trips (which can include anything from an hour to the local library, a visit to local farms, to the lakeside for paddleboard lessons, or a hike up a local mountain). Walking is emphasized in even younger ages, indeed 3- and 4-year-olds in preschool will walk up to 2 kilometers in an afternoon to go visit the local library. Sometimes they walk to the local retirement home to sing songs for the elderly.
“Even the youngest children in preschool walk together every week, “ explains Cahuzac. “Those who want to complain usually just follow the pack, and eventually get in the habit of walking.”
Elementary-aged school children in the big French cities walk just as much, it’s often easier for them because of sidewalks. Or they use a trottinette (micro-scooter). “My first-grader loves his so much, his father went and bought one for himself,” says Tina Isaac-Goizé. “It gives him another reason to like going to school, plus it is exercise although it takes only half the time of walking.”
Making the French attitude work for us, too. So what can we do to promote better eating and moving habits for our children stateside?
It all starts at home: We know what healthy foods are, and we need to use our positive influence to feed our kids healthier foods and and teach healthy eating and exercise habits by example. Home-cooked meals based on plenty of fresh produce, and a weekly family walk, hike or game of tag are simple lifestyle habits that make a difference in a child’s life over time.
What about school? Two suggestions: If healthy options are not available in your school, get in the habit of packing a healthy lunch for your child and boycott the cafeteria’s fast foods. Then, reach out to local, state and national elected officials and demand better nutrition in your school. To learn how to take specific action for better food at your child’s school, visit the official website of Fed Up, a documentary about America’s sugar addiction and obesity epidemic.
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