French school children returning to their school.

French School Lunches

What do French schoolchildren eat for lunch?

French school lunches are very different from those in most other countries, especially those in the U.S.

French children are in school all day, even in the maternelle (roughly equivalent to U.S. kindergarden) and in the pre-school before that. Education covers life at large, including nutrition and meals. For the French, learning how to eat a meal and appreciate diverse foods is like learning how to read, write and do arithmetic.

Lunch is the main meal of the day for children. In French schools this meal has four courses:

  1. Vegetable starter: leafy green salad or sliced or grated vegetables.
  2. The warm main dish, which includes a vegetable side dish.
  3. Cheese course.
  4. Dessert is fresh fruit four times a week with a sweet treat on the fifth day.

The Ministry of National Education requires that the children sit at the lunch table for at least 30 minutes, in order to eat a civilized meal. The municipal government is responsible for operating the cantine, now more appropriately called the restaurant scolaire, and adhering to the national nutritional requirements which include:

Elementary school in Paris, formerly the 'École Communale de Garçons', in the 12th Arrondissement.

The municipal government can set prices within the constraints of the national law's maximum limit and sliding scale. The result is that, on average, a school lunch costs something like €2.30–2.80. The very wealthiest families might pay €5.40 per meal while those with the lowest of incomes pay €0.15 and free meals are available for those who can't pay.

Vending machines are prohibited in French schools. Parents are strongly discouraged from sending their children to school with sack lunches, and very few do.

All this comes from the Ministry of National Education, formally known as the Ministère de l'Éducation nationale, de la Jeunesse et de la Vie associative, indicating the sports and other physical activity are also considered a crucial part of French life.

At right here we see what was formerly l'École Communale de Garçons or the Public School for Boys in the 12th Arrondissement of Paris. It's along Avenue Daumesnil facing the Promenade Plantée, near Gare de Lyon.

The case to the left of the door has the week's menu posted, as I believe is required by law. Let's check it out. This school also lists its breakfasts.

Lundi 14 Mai Monday 14 May
  • Carottes râpées vinaigrette
  • Hachis parmentier de canard
  • Vache qui rit
  • Orange bio
  • Grated carrot vinaigrette
  • Duck shepherd's pie
  • Laughing Cow
  • Orange (certified organic)
  • Pompom chocolat
  • Lait nature
  • Chocolate pompom
  • Whole milk
Mardi 15 Mai Tuesday 15 May
  • Pizza bio aux 4 légumes (poivrons, courgettes, oignons et tomates)
  • Dos de colin sauce crème et champignons
    Petits pois aux oignons
  • Gouda
  • Kiwi
  • Pizza with 4 vegetables (green peppers, zucchini, onions and tomatoes, certified organic)
  • Filet of hake in cream sauce with mushrooms
  • Gouda
  • Kiwi
  • Baguette aux céréales / pâte à tartiner
  • Jus de pomme
  • Whole-grain bread with Nutella spread
  • Apple juice
Mercredi 16 Mai Wednesday 16 May
  • Concombres à la menthe
  • Tajine d'agneau aux abricots
    Blé bio
  • Yaourt nature bio
  • Cubes de pêches
  • Cucumbers with mint
  • Lamb tagine with apricots
    Organic wheat
  • Organic plain yogurt
  • Diced peaches
  • Baguette / confiture
  • Fruit cru
  • Bread and fruit jam
  • Raw fruit
Jeudi 17 Mai Thursday 17 May
Ferie Holiday (Ascension Day)
Vendredi 17 Mai Friday 17 May
  • Betteraves mimosa
  • Gratin de ravioli (boeuf: origine France) au basilic
  • Kiri
  • Pomme
  • Beets mimosa
  • Ravioli with basil (beef sourced from France)
  • Kiri
  • Apple
  • Gaufre parisienne
  • Jus d'orange
  • Parisian-style waffle
  • Apple
French school lunch menu.
French school lunch menu.
French school lunch menu.

This next school is in the 18th Arrondissement of Paris, going up the hill from the Pigalle Métro station toward Montmartre.

Elementary school in Paris, between Pigalle and Montmartre in the 18th Arrondissement.

The case near the entrance holds various announcements, including four weeks' of menus.

The dark plaque above is in memory of the students from this school who were deported by the Germans and killed in extermination camps, with the assistance of the Vichy puppet government. About 700 children from the 18th Arrondissement alone were killed in the German death camps.

Message board at an elementary school in Paris, between Pigalle and Montmartre in the 18th Arrondissement.
Lundi 7 Mai Monday 7 May
  • Braise de dinde LBR a l'ananas
  • Sauté de dinde LBR sauce au maïs
  • Pointe de Brie
  • Fruit annuel au choix
  • Fire-roasted turkey with pineapple
  • Turkey stir-fried in a corn sauce
  • Point of Brie
  • Choice of fruit
Mardi 8 Mai Tuesday 8 May
Ferie Holiday — V-E Day, German troops agree to an unconditional surrender on this day in 1944.
Mercredi 9 Mai Wednesday 9 May
  • Salade de betteraves rouges
  • Saucisse de volaille façon chipolatas
    Purée de courgettes
  • Emmental
  • Fruit annuel
  • Beetroot salad
  • Poultry sausage "chipolatas" style
    Zucchini purée
  • Emmental
  • Fruit
Jeudi 10 Mai Thursday 10 May
  • Dés de poisson sauce citron
  • Filet de hoki sauce tomate
    Printanière de légumes
    Chou fleur et pommes de terre
  • Coulommiers
    Carré du Poitou
  • Fruits rouges
  • Diced fish with lemon sauce
  • Hake fillet with tomato sauce
    Spring vegetables
    Cauliflower and potatoes
  • Coulommiers
    Square of Poitou
  • Red fruit (strawberries, raspberries, etc)
Vendredi 11 Mai Friday 11 May
  • Salade coleslaw (carotte, chou blanc, oignon, mayonaisse)
  • Sauté de boeuf printanier
  • Boulgour
  • Yaourt nature
  • Purée de pommes
  • Coleslaw salad (carrot, white cabbage, onion, mayonaisse
  • Sautéed beef springtime style
    Bulgur wheat
  • Plain yogurt
  • Applesauce

The second week's menu is too hard to read in my picture, it was behind some old tape and I didn't notice it at the time. Let's move on to the next one.

Elementary school menu in Paris, between Pigalle and Montmartre in the 18th Arrondissement.
Elementary school menu in Paris, between Pigalle and Montmartre in the 18th Arrondissement.
Lundi 21 Mai Monday 21 May
  • Sauté de boeuf
    Champignons noirs
    Haricots verts
  • Yaourt è la vanille
  • Fruit exotique
  • Beef stir-fry with black mushrooms
    Green beans
  • Vanilla yogurt
  • Blé
  • Exotic fruit
Mardi 22 Mai Tuesday 22 May
  • Carottes à la chermoula
  • Quenelle de brochet sauce nantua
    Quenelle de volaille au curry
  • Coulommiers
    Carré du Poitou
  • Fruit de saison au choix
  • Carrots and chermoula
  • Pike finely diced in nantua sauce
    Chopped chicked curry
  • Coulommiers
    Square of Poitou
  • Choice of seasonal fruit
Mercredi 23 Mai Wednesday 23 May
  • Concombre en rondelles
  • Rôti de dinde
    Sauce vierge à la menthe
  • Saint Nectaire AOC
  • Ile flottante
  • Sliced cucumber
  • Roast turkey with mint sauce
  • Saint Nectaire AOC
  • "Floating island" (merinque floating on vanilla custard)
Jeudi 24 Mai Thursday 24 May
  • Salade de tomates
    Salade iceberg vitaminée et mozzarella vinaigrette aux herbes
  • Sauté de porc sauce caramel
    Jardinière de légumes
    Haricots beurre
  • Gâteau maison façon cheesecake
  • Tomato salad with iceberg lettuce, mozzarella and herb vinaigrette
  • Sautéed pork with caramel sauce
    Mixed vegetables
  • Homemade cheesecake
Vendredi 25 Mai Friday 25 May
  • Salade coleslaw
    Celeri rémolade
  • Pavé de merlu sauce coco et citron vert
  • Petit suisse nature sucré
    Petit suisse nature aromatisé
  • Dessert tous fruit
    Dessert de pommes et bananes
  • Coleslaw salad
    Celery remoulade
  • Hake steak with coconut and lime sauce
  • Small swiss cheeses, sweet and smoked
  • All fruit dessert: apples and bananas
Elementary school menu in Paris, between Pigalle and Montmartre in the 18th Arrondissement.
Lundi 28 Mai Monday 28 May
Holiday Holiday
Mardi 29 Mai Tuesday 29 May
  • Salade verte vinaigrette à la ciboulette
  • Sauté de boeuf sauce tomate origan
  • Yaourt nature
  • Purée de pommes
  • Green salad with chive vinaigrette
  • Sautéed beef with tomato and oregano sauce
  • Plain yogurt
  • Applesauce
Mercredi 30 Mai Wednesday 30 May
  • Radis roses
  • Poulet rôti
    Pommes noisettes
  • Pointe de Brie
  • Mousse au chocolat au lait
  • Radishes
  • Roast chicken
    Hazelnut potatoes
  • Point of Brie
  • Milk chocolate mousse
Jeudi 31 Mai Thursday 31 May
  • Nuggets de volaille
  • Cordon bleu
    Purée Crécy
    Purée de céleri
  • Cantal AOC
    Comté AOC
  • Fruit annuel
  • Chicken nuggets
  • Cordon bleu Crécy purée with celery
  • Cantal AOC
    County AOC
  • Fruit
Vendredi 1 Juin Friday 1 June
  • Filet de hoki sauce niçoise
  • Pavé de colin sauce citron
    Pommes de terre persillées
  • Edam
    Fourme d'ambert
  • Fruits rouge
  • Hoki filet in niçoise sauce
  • Colin steak with lemon sauce
    Parsley potatoes
  • Edam
    Fourme d'Ambert
  • Red fruit (strawberries, raspberries, etc)
Elementary school menu in Paris, between Pigalle and Montmartre in the 18th Arrondissement.
Elementary school in Briare.

Briare is a town with a population of about 5,660, about an hour by regional train south of Paris, on the Loire River.

The municipal school in Briare is in a rather uninteresting building. I believe it is housed in former warehouses along the Briare Canal.

The canal's construction started in 1604, and it opened for transport in 1642. It was the first European summit level canal built with pound locks. Those are the now-standard locks with gates at both ends controlling the water level within the pound, the enclosed space between the gates. The design was first constructed by the Chinese engineer and government official Qiao Weiyo in 984. In Europe, the design first appeared in the Netherlands.

This World War I monument is along the canal, the school is in the background directly behind.

Lundi 14 Mai Monday 14 May
  • Crêpe au fromage
  • Steak haché de volaille au jus
  • Coeur de dame
  • Kiwi
  • Cheese crepes
  • Chopped chicken steak
  • "Lady's Heart" cheese
  • Kiwi
Mardi 15 Mai Tuesday 15 May
  • Tomates persilées
  • Goulash de boeuf
  • Camembert
  • Flan vanille
  • Tomatoes with parsley
  • Beef goulash
  • Camembert
  • Vanilla flan
Mercredi 16 Mai Wednesday 16 May
  • Saucisson à l'ail cornichon
  • Filet de poisson sauce crustacé
  • Fromage frais aux fruits
  • Poire
  • Garlic sausage pickle
  • Filet of fish with shellfish sauce
  • Cottage cheese with fruit
  • Pear
Jeudi 17 Mai Thursday 17 May
Ascension Ascension
Vendredi 17 Mai Friday 17 May
  • Salade vert vinaigrette
  • Beignets de poisson citron
    Purée de pommes de terre
  • Chantailou ail et fines herbes
  • Pomme
  • Green salad vinaigrette
  • Fish filet with lemon
    Mashed potatoes
  • Chantailou with garlic and herbs
  • Apple
Elementary school menu in Briare.
Cathedral district in Nevers.

There is a school very close to the large cathedral in the old city of Nevers.

Elementary school menu in Nevers.
Elementary school menu in Nevers.
Elementary school menu in Nevers.

The École Jean Paul Riopelle is the elementary school in Vétheuil along the Seine river between Paris and Rouen. The school group shown at the top of this page was returning to here for their lunch.

École Jean Paul Riopelle, an elementary school in Vétheuil.
Mardi 29 Mai Tuesday 29 May
  • Melon
  • Émincés de poulet sauce à l'indienne
  • Emmental
  • Flan goût vanille nappé caramel
  • Melon
  • Minced chicken in Indian curry sauce
  • Emmental
  • Vanilla flan with caramel
Jeudi 31 Mai Thursday 31 May
  • Couscous
    Tomates, pois chiche sauce curry
    Boulettes au mouton et merguez
    Semoule et légumes couscous
  • Yaourt brassé sucré aux fruits mixés
  • Moelleux aux amandes
    Jus d'orange
  • Couscous (a dish from French North Africa):
    Tomatoes and chickpeas in curry sauce
    Meatballs of mutton and spicy sausage
    Semolina and vegetables in couscous sauce
  • Stirred yogurt sweetened with mixed fruit
  • Almond smoothie
    Orange juice
Vendredi 1 Juin Friday 1 June
  • Salade pépinette printanière
  • Colin d'alaska pané et citron
    Carottes au jos
  • Spécialité fromagière
  • Fruit frais de saison
  • Pépinette spring salad
  • Breaded Alaskan pollock with lemon
  • Carrots
  • Special cheese
  • Fresh seasonal fruit
Elementary school menu in V#x00e9;theuil.
Lundi 4 Juin Monday 4 June
  • Radis beurre
  • Rôti de porc sauce paprika
    Petits pois forestiers
  • Coulommiers
  • Spécialité pomme fraise
  • Radish with butter
  • Pork roast with paprika sauce
    Forest peas
  • Coulommiers
  • Apple-strawberry special
Mardi 5 Juin Mardi 5 June
  • Betteraves vinaigrette
  • Nuggets de volaile
    Chou fleur au gratin
  • Yaourt sucré
  • Fruit frais de saison
  • Beet vinaigrette
  • Chicken nuggets
    Cauliflower gratin
  • Sweetened yogurt
  • Fresh seasonal fruit
Mercredi 6 Juin Wednesday 6 June
Holiday The anniversary of the D-Day landings in 1944 are a national holiday in France.
Jeudi 7 Juin Thursday 7 June
  • Concombres vinaigrette
  • Sauté de boeuf à l'estragon
    Mezze penne
  • Tome
  • Banane
  • Cucumber vinaigrette
  • Sautéed beef with tarragon
    Mezze penne
  • Tome
  • Banana
Vendredi 8 Juin Friday 8 June
  • Carottes râpées
  • Omelette au fromage
    Purée épinards pomme de terre
  • Suisse sucré
  • Tarte aux pommes
  • Grated carrots
  • Cheese omelette
    Mashed potatoes with spinach
  • Swiss
  • Apple pie
Elementary school menu in V#x00e9;theuil.

In the U.S., Time magazine's "School Lunches in France: Nursery-School Gourmets" seems to have been one of the articles that drew significant attention to this.

Related to this, see the CBS News story "Why my child will be your child's boss", which explained how Swiss school children are regularly taken into the forest and allowed — no, required — to use saws.

Lenore Skenzay's book Free-Range Kids describes how a U.S. high school principal threatened to suspend a group of seniors (that is, 18 years old, in their final year of school) for the "dangerous act" of riding their bicycles to school, and a group of parents protested because their 17- and 18-year old children were sent home from school on a train without an adult supervisor. Meanwhile Swiss children as young as three are given saws to play with, and their kindergarten system advises parents to let 4- and 5-year-old children walk to school alone.

Then there are American school lunches and their concept of ketchup as a vegetable and frozen pizza as a vegetable.

French school children cross a street in Avignon.

A French school group crosses the main street through the center of Avignon's old town. They are managing to cross the road without the aid of multiple adults in reflective vests stopping traffic. Incroyable!

Ronald Reagan's FY1982 budget proposed US$57 billion in spending cuts, This budget was modified and passed as the Gramm-Latta Budget, cutting US$1 billion from the school lunch program while significantly increasing military spending.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture or USDA was then tasked with the impossible task of maintaining nutritional requirements for school lunches despite the loss of a billion dollars in funding.

On September 3, 1981, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture announced a joint proposal by the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration to reclassify ketchup and pickle relish as vegetables. Public outrage led to the eventual retirement of this specific proposal. However...

By 2011, USDA standards accepted just two tablespoons or 30 ml of tomato paste as counting for a full serving of vegetables. This allows a slice of cheese and meat pizza to also count as a full serving of vegetables.

The USDA wanted to change this to require at least a half-cup or 118 ml of tomato paste before counting it as a full serving of vegetables, also requiring more green vegetables and limiting the amount of potatoes served to one cup per week and thus significantly cutting back on the amount of French fries.* 

* "Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs", USDA Proposed Rule, Federal Register vol 76 no 9, January 13, 2011.

The U.S. Congress would have nothing to do with that healthy nonsense, and quickly passed a bill barring the USDA from changing its existing nutritional guidelines.

This was an enormous victory for manufacturers of pre-processed French fries and frozen pizza. The American Frozen Food Institute is a trade association that lobbied heavily and successfully on behalf of frozen pizza manufacturers including ConAgra and Schwan Food Company, and French fry manufacturers McCain Foods Ltd and J.R. Simplot Company, the last of which was already a supplier to McDonald's. Meanwhile the actual French people, including their school children, eat only a tiny fraction of the amount of "French fries" consumed by their American equivalents.