A Normal School Lunch in France Proves How Picky American Kids Really Are

American kids are famously picky eaters. Whether you have kids or grandkids at home, you’ve probably fielded demands for pizza or French fries. And you may have failed to get your charges to try a new vegetable or a different preparation of chicken. But the problem isn’t universal. In fact, it may be uniquely American. Need some evidence? Just look at the foods served at French daycares and schools. There, teachers serve their students four-course school lunches each day.

In France, even the smallest children regularly try — and enjoy — sophisticated foods. Below, check out some of the most amazing things that even tiny children will eat in France.

French children eat four-course meals at daycare, including a cheese course

School Lunches France

There’s no dinosaur shaped nuggets to be found. | Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

Pamela Druckerman wrote — in her book Bringing Up Bébé and in The Huffington Post — that even toddlers eat a four-course meal at French daycares. “A typical lunch started with carrot salad and moved on to salmon in lemon-dill sauce with a side of pureed broccoli. This was followed by goat’s milk cheese and baked organic apples,” she explains. And surprisingly enough, “the toddlers — mine included — actually ate these gourmet lunches, often with gusto. When I sat in on one meal, the kids had made it to the cheese course, and were earnestly debating the merits of Roquefort.” 

They don’t snack, so they eat their vegetables at school and at home

School Lunch

They eat at designated times. | Mychele Daniau/AFP/Getty Images

One way the French sidestep the problem of picky eaters? According to Druckerman, they avoid letting children snack during the day. French children usually eat at mealtimes. And they can eat at the official afternoon snack time. “That’s it,” Druckerman notes. “Parents don’t panic if their kids get a little bit hungry.” So, when hungry kids sit down to lunch, they often want to eat whatever’s in front of them. At the daycare, teachers serve vegetables first. “So if you have a hungry child faced with a bowl of steamed green beans or cut-up carrots, he will probably eat it.”

When they try something new, French kids just have to taste it

School Lunch france

They are required to at least try new things. | Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

Of course, French children don’t magically love everything that lands on their plate. But Druckerman reports that “the most scared French food rule” posits that “you just have to taste it.” Kids just have to take a bite of a new food. She explains, “Kids don’t like a lot of new foods simply because the foods are unfamiliar (we grown-ups are often the same way). By taking a bite — even just one — that fear dissipates a bit.” French parents consider it their responsibility to gradually shape their children’s tastes. Thus, they ensure that their children repeatedly try each new food in order to slowly learn to like them. 

France doesn’t spend more on school lunches than we do, but French children eat better

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Karen Le Billon, a Rhodes scholar and the author of French Kids Eat Everything, concedes that French school lunches aren’t perfect. But they do demonstrate a French priority on teaching children to love healthy food. The public school system provides three and four-course lunches to more than 6 million French children each day. These meals cost about $3 per child. (Not much higher than the cost of school lunches in the United States.) As Le Billon explains, “the French don’t spend much more than we do, yet their kids eat seem to eat, on average, better than ours do — even in the smallest villages and poorest towns of France.” 

There aren’t ‘kid foods’ in France

France school lunch

They drink water not chocolate milk. | Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

Le Billon adds that one of the most striking things when you read the menus for French school lunches is what’s missing: the kind of “kid foods” that we serve all the time in the U.S. French schools don’t serve flavored milk. (Instead, students drink water.) They allow ketchup only once per week, and only with dishes like steak. They serve little fried food. In fact, the Ministry of Education only lets schools serve fried foods a few times per month. So what do French children eat instead of kid foods? Pretty much everything else. 

School lunch menus offer only one choice

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Le Billon notes that children only have one choice of lunch at school. (They can’t opt out of entrees that they think sound icky!) Starting when they’re three years old, they eat four courses. They get a vegetable starter, such as a grated carrot salad or beet salad. Then, they get a warm main course served with a side of grains or vegetables. Next comes cheese. And then there’s dessert, usually fresh fruit. Schools also serve baguettes. And children always drink water. Teachers serve school lunches to the children at the table. And according to Le Billion, “the French Ministry of National Education sets a minimum time requirement for children to sit at the table: 30 minutes.”

American school lunches don’t even compare to French school lunches

American school lunch

American lunches are hardly balanced meals. | Tim Boyle/Getty Images

During a typical week in 2015, Quartz compared the menu at a school in New York City with the menu at a school in Paris. The American kids ate macaroni and cheese, vegetable pizzas, egg rolls, and kale salads. But their French counterparts ate pork rib in dijon sauce. They tried veal sautéed in olives and broccoli. They sampled a tomato, onion, and coriander salad. And of course, throughout the week, they ate numerous kinds of European cheese. The French children also ate goat cheese, cucumber salad with crème fraîche, salmon spaghetti, and a French dessert called gâteau de semoule fait maison au caramel.

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