French children are some of the healthiest in the developed world, with the number of children overweight or obese under 20 per cent.
Comparing that to Australia’s most recent figures showing 25 per cent of children are overweight or obese, it might be worth looking at what the French do to keep their children healthy.
In France, children are taught about healthy eating from the time they start school at the age of three.
Primary school children sit down in the school’s ‘cantine’ for a four-course meal, which is normally served to them by older students.
The children begin with a salad course, then a hot main which includes protein and vegetables, a cheese course, and then a sweet which is usually a piece of fruit.
The only drink allowed at the table is water, and vending machines are banned from all school canteens.
Lunch time is typically an hour or longer, and includes enough time for the kids to go outside and play afterwards.
American mother Karen Le Billon discovered the unique way French schools serve lunch when she lived in France with her family, and noticed how it changed her daughters’ eating habits.
Le Billon, author of French Kids Eat Everything, says one of the first things she noticed about the difference in school lunches in France was the way schools and parents talked about food.
“The French example suggests that part of the answer to our obesity epidemic lies in food culture: the routines, rules, and rituals through which we teach our children how and why (as well as what) to eat,” Le Billon writes in her blog French Kids Don’t Get Fat: Why?
“French teachers and parents believe that children can be taught to eat—just like they are taught to read. And they believe that this is one of the most important skills acquired in early childhood,” Le Billion says.
She says there are a number of ways French children are taught healthy eating, both at home and at school.
“French parents ask their children: “Are you still hungry?” rather than “Are you full?” — a subtle, but important distinction,” says Le Billon.
School lunch menus are regulated by the French Ministry of Education, which dictates how frequently children are allowed fried foods (once a month) and also allows the occasional cake or pastry on the lunch menu.
Importantly Le Billon says the way schools approach nutrition helps parents teach their children healthy eating habits.
American expatriate Rebeca Plantier, who lives near Annecy in the south of France, was given a tour of her children’s school cafeteria to see exactly how they prepare the food.
Plantier says all the food is prepared fresh on site, and mostly from local ingredients.
Dany Cahuzac, the city counselor responsible for school matters including the cantine, explained to Plantier in her blog their school food philosophy.
“All our fruits, vegetables, fish and meat are sourced locally, some of them from local farms,” Cahuzac told Plantier.
In France, there is also no such thing as ‘kid’s food’, and children are expected to at least try everything even if they don’t like it at first.
“We do our best to vary our menus throughout the weeks and months, but sometimes children don’t like certain foods,” said 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,” Cahuzac continues.
“It helps them to digest food properly, avoid stomach aches and avoid sapped energy levels in the afternoon.”