Guess what French schoolkids eat for lunch? Pas du pizza. Pas du hot dog. Pas des frites. They actually eat a lot better than most of us will eat at dinner. Why? The government mandates it. Today for lunch in, say, Saint-Cloud (a tony Paris suburb), children ages 4-12 will be served a five-course meal — yes, served, as in “plates are brought to them” — consisting of an hors d’oeuvre or salad, an entree, an actual vegetable, cheese or yogurt and a composed dessert. Thursday’s menu, for example:
- Cabbage salad with remoulade
- Sauteed chicken with mustard sauce
- Shell pasta
- Coulommier cheese (predecessor to brie)
- Île Flottante (meringue floating on custard)
Tomorrow, Friday, is fish day (duh), so here’s what they’ll be enjoying:
- Radish salad with vinaigrette
- Grilled fish with lemon sauce
- Stewed carrots
- Emmental cheese
- Apple tart
As a lifelong Francophile — for the longest time as a kid I was convinced that my “French name” was Jemappelle — I can’t help but wonder what on earth could be so different between our two cultures that a pair of potential pen pals have such strikingly different lunch periods. Little Joey has 18 minutes to hoover a styrofoam tray of reheated chicken nuggets, tots and peaches in heavy syrup (if he doesn’t chuck them out). Little Jean-Michel, on the other hand, settles himself in for a full hour of using cutlery to slice his whole, unadulterated chicken thigh (once he and everyone else has finished their salads). Little Jean-Michel then aids his digestion (because it will help him concentrate better) by spreading his Coulommier on a slice of freshly-baked baguette, while Little Joey chugs a blue Powerade from the vending machine on the way to social studies.
The French don’t need to be told they’re obsessed with food culture — they practically invented it. In order to preserve this centuries-old tradition, France recently began rationing out ketchup (1 packet per kid) to discourage students from dipping their fries. What’s more, the French government provides not only the month’s lunch menu to parents, but suggests what kids should eat for dinner to round out the day’s nutrition. For instance, if a child had carrot salad, turkey schnitzel, green beans, Comte and a Nutella-covered waffle for lunch, France might suggest a slice of pâté, pasta with tomato sauce, steamed broccoli, Gouda and fruit salad for dinner. (Little Joey, to nobody’s surprise, doesn’t want the lasagna you made because it’s “gross.”)
It should also be noted that French kids are started on “eau rougie,” or watered down wine (or wined-up water, it depends on the parent) in the late single digits or so. Probably not in school, however, which is a shame because reading “Le Petit Prince” with half a buzz on definitely got me through high school 7th period on more than one occasion.