First course: Potato and pickle salad
Main course: Breaded fish, cauliflower
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.
Lead Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com
Photos of food: Carine Duflos