Vegetable soup, followed by chicken in white sauce with green beans and potatoes, and a portion of cheese and fruit to finish.
That’s what was served in the crèche beside my local mairie for lunch recently. I know because they post the menus at the gate, like at all schools across the country. It is supposed to allow families to plan and avoid serving the same dishes that evening.
But that’s not all. These tots range from nine months to three years old but eat outside on the veranda, where I can see them sitting on plastic chairs around plastic tables, with place settings and a bread basket in the middle.
Each one has a bib, a spoon and a fork, a sippy cup and a napkin. Not all of them manage to manipulate these items expertly, but by 18 months old they are making a reasonable stab. Proper meals carry on throughout the education system.
Even in collège and later lycée, the concept of a child going without a hot meal at midday is anathema. Packed lunches are simply not an option. Pupils go home for lunch or eat in the canteen – and children with special dietary requirements are not excepted from the rule.
Parents on low incomes can get help to cover the cost of a child “en demi-pension”.
To ensure pupils are ready for lunch and a proper meal, parents are discouraged from tucking snacks into satchels. La collation matinale (the milk and biscuits once served at 10am) has been dismissed by the Education Ministry as unjustified, and staff are instructed not to let children eat anything for at least two hours before lunch.
The old vending machines have disappeared, so it is no longer possible to pick up a chocolate bar or a sugary fizzy drink between lessons.
In their place is the EU-backed “School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme”. It funds 76% of the cost of the Un fruit pour la récré programme (fruit at break time) which gives fruit away up to six times per term.
The idea is to help youngsters form life-long healthy-eating habits and avoid gaining excess weight, with the health issues that follow.
Rather than letting children graze, cutting the costs of school meals and hoping parents will make packed lunches, as in the UK, France promotes gastronomic and nutritional education.
Every October, chefs visit schools to teach cooking skills and let children sample different dishes as part of the aptly named nationwide Semaine du Goût (week of tasting).
Because the education system takes food seriously, children behave well in restaurants.
It’s also no wonder that French adults are among the slimmest in Europe, and the supermarkets are stocked with fabulous fresh food.
It all starts young, with those toddlers learning to sit at a table and eat a proper meal.