Friday, 6 May 2016

What do Young French People Eat (and Drink)?


French children are actively encouraged to try food and sit at the table with adults, mimicking their behaviour and manners. They will happily eat snails, tripe, smelly cheese and salad, sometimes all in the one meal. Some restaurants will have children's menus, but it can just indicate smaller portions and simpler dishes and I know one restaurant which includes snails on the childrens menu. Children are also allowed to have a sip of wine or liqueur from a very early age (6 or 7 would not be unusual). The adults will spend much of the meal discussing the food -- where it comes from, how it is prepared and so on. The children naturally absorb all of this. They will also be encouraged to smell the food before putting it in their mouths as the first stage of a thoroughly pleasurable experience.

French kids are not given the opportunity to snack endlessly. Their parents don't do it and it's considered a bit weird. Food is not just for stuffing in your face at any and all opportunities. It is to be savoured and that's what meal times are for. The table is 'dressed' and everyone sits and eats and talks. Breakfast isn't very important, a drink and a quick bite, but lunch and dinner are serious, two to four courses, and are taken at set times (12.30 pm for lunch, around 8 pm for dinner). Mid-afternoon, around 4 pm, many people, and especially children, have a snack known as le goûter. It is quite common for babies to be fed not on demand but on a strict schedule. French people don't see anything wrong with being a bit hungry. It makes you appreciate the meal to come all the more.

A typical primary school menu.

Virtually every school age child has their lunch in the school cantine. There are strict rules about what can be served. Vegetables must be served with every meal and the kitchens alternate cooked and raw. Fried food can only be served once a week. Real fish must appear on the tables at least once a week. Dessert is fruit at least half the time, and sweet dessert portions are small. All this is fairly straightforward best practice in schools in the Western world. What is more interesting is that 40% of the food served must be sourced from produce with an official certification that guarantees its geographic origins and sustainable, traditional production methods, and 20% of the food served must be certified organic.

The same meal is served to everyone. If a child doesn't like one of the courses on the day they simply don't eat it (although recently a vegetarian choice for main course has been introduced to avoid problems when pork is served). Vending machines have been banned in French schools for over ten years, to discourage snacking and reduce access to junk food.

Another typical school menu.

Table manners, food hygiene, and food appreciation and heritage are taught at school. Food is presented both at home and at school as a positive pleasure, and associated with relaxing with friends and a way of reinforcing bonds within the family, within the school class and later within the workplace as work colleagues regularly eat communally. Careers in the food industry at all levels, from farmer to restaurateur, are encouraged and kids can go to specialist high schools if they want to embark on a life in agriculture or catering.

So what happens when these kids grow up a bit and go off to university? Recently I read an amusingly honest article where a number of French students were interviewed about the contents of their fridge.

Organic snails, ready to cook.

The first student says he eats a bit of everything. Unusually for a French person he eats a big breakfast and no lunch. He's worked out he can save money needed for books by doing this. He has a glass of red wine every evening with dinner and doesn't drink spirits.

The second spends €30 a week on food, mostly rice, chicken and steak (he makes his own sushi and chicken curry). He spends €40-€50 a week on beer and a bottle of gin once a month.

 A catering student doing work experience serves us cheese in a restaurant.

The third one cooks every day. She is vegan and likes Indian food. She thinks she spends about €55 a week on food, which includes €20 for booze.

The fourth also spends €55 a week including alcohol. She buys a lot of ready prepared stuff, beer for 'chilling' in the evenings and wine for drinking with meals. She likes Mexican food.

The fifth is vegetarian and spends about €50 euros a week. That doesn't include alcohol, but he doesn't drink much or spend much on that.

The sixth says she shops once a fortnight and spends €40. She shops cannily and buys stuff on special wherever she can. The interviewer spots some beers in her fridge and she says 'Carrefour supermarket own brand. They are the cheapest I could find but they are quite drinkable even so.'

The seventh says she never eats meat. Not because she is vegetarian but because she can't afford ethically raised meat and won't eat industrially farmed meat. She doesn't do pasta either because she thinks it is such a cliché of student diets. She spends about €35 per week and tries to shop at the end of trading at the Sunday market when there are lots of bargains. She eats a lot of fresh vegetables and will have a glass of wine with dinner. She skips breakfast to save money.

In summary, all of these students cook a bit (some more than others) in their clearly miniscule Paris kitchens. All of them care about food and avoid living on pasta and kebabs, but none of them is contemplating a career in the food industry. Not all of them care about drinking, and only one spends more on alcohol than he does on food.  Beer is drunk with mates at the end of the day to relax, wine is drunk with meals. A surprising number (for French people) are vegetarian. Of course some of the biases of the data say more about the location and resources of the interviewer than the students, but even so it is interesting to see what people really do.

9 comments:

  1. Interesting post.

    In my family, breakfast was more copious than you indicate and always included bread, such as rôties, toasts with butter, possibly jam and mild coffee, with or without milk. The mid-afternoon snack should rhyme with déjeuner and dîner, so it is le goûter. As children our goûter always included bread, jam and/or pain d'épices, gingerbread, and some sort of cookies.

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    1. Gah! I didn't think gouté looked right...

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  2. I've known many French families where children did not eat dinner at the table with their parents. The children were served separately and earlier, and their food was often much more simply prepared and served than the parents' dinner. I think habits and customs around food and meals have changed drastically over the past 50 years.

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    1. Looking at what the students are really eating it seems clear that things have/are changing.

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  3. My elderly neighbours in the country started the day with the veg soup made the night before with yesterday's bread torn into it and soaked until edible. Jolly good, too.

    The frozen food companies proliferated....you saw their delivery vans everywhere, not just catering to couples where both parents worked.

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    1. The frozen food companies pester one endlessly here, but in fact I don't think many people use them. Certainly I haven't noticed many deliveries. What people do use now is the supermarket online ordering where you drive to the depot to pick up your ready packed order.

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    2. That was before my time, but friends now use it.
      It must have been our area, but those vans did a good trade - there were three companies in the field, all doing well.

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  4. My 3 yr old Biarritz grandson eats all sorts of things. He especially likes Camembert. His school menu is amazing and healthy like you said. I must confess I love the convenience of Picard things when there's a starving toddler waiting for dinner. The kid meals at restaurants are beautifully presented and he always loves esp the fish with sauce

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    1. I agree about Picard. They are fab. We don't live close enough to one to use their products at home, but I'm always pleased when we stay in Paris near one.

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