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French and American School Lunch Meals Face to Face: Who Wins?


Does it really matter what kids eat for school lunch in other countries?

Two years ago on BrightonYourHealth I did a 30 meal school lunch nutrition and taste comparison between French and American school lunch menus. At that time the American Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010 was in its finishing stages but was not yet a legal obligation. Now in both France and America, governmental laws have mandated stricter school lunch nutritional guidelines for the meals served in our children’s school lunch cafeterias.

If you are American, does it really matter what French kids eat for lunch? And vice versa? Couldn’t looking at what works well in one country’s lunch system culturally translate to another? In every country worldwide, child malnutrition and over-nutrition  is an important topic on everyone’s agenda. Because the school lunch program is a key area where our children get their nutrition, why not look how other countries successfully feed their kids in the school lunch program as examples to use for improvement. Do you agree?

How have American and French school lunch meals changed over the last two years?

In America, the main nutritional changes in the school lunch program have looked at meal standards to be based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This means increases in the availability of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in the school menu. There is also a focus on decreasing the amounts fat and in particular saturated fat in meals.

In France the child nutritional targets have been less defined but in general the goal is to have one additional calcium rich food at each lunch, less condiments at the table (salt, mayonnaise and ketchup) and portion sizes according to age.

You can read details on the changes in both countries here:


Healthy, Hungry Act of 2010

USDA Fact Sheet on School Lunch Program


BrightonYourHealth, “Changes to French School Lunch Program, Will French Kids Eat Better?”

French School Nutrition Changes, September 30, 2011

How have these school lunch meal changes been received by children who eat in the school cafeteria?

For American children what I have heard and read from here (over the big pond) is that the echos have not have been 100% positive. The biggest critics have been the children as Jon Stewart from Comedy Central pointed out,

“Well, the food under new health guidelines tastes bad.  Stewart jokes, “News flash! Extry extry! School lunches suck!” And students are still hungry after they eat it. “So you hate the food and you want more of it.”

Message here: low-fat or non-fat food can mean low-taste or no-taste.

In France, the school lunch program changes were implemented quickly and without much publicity. One year later the French children seem to be taking the new cantine menus as normal. However, the changes in the French school lunch menus were minor compared to the American changes.

Back to looking at the American and French school lunch meals.

In 2010 I took similar sized towns in America and France and compared their school lunch menus for that day. I looked at American menus from: Ames, Iowa; Toms River, New Jersey, Irving, Texas; and Fort Collins,Colorado. French menus were from: Poitiers, Pau, Nantes, and Albi.

Here are these menus compared again, two years later; the same American towns to the same French towns. Let me know what you think.

Nota: American children have choices for the dishes. French children do not have a choice-they must eat what is offered that day, exceptions for allergies and religious reasons. While American kids can bring a packed lunch, French kids are not allowed; they must eat what is offered on the menu if they eat at school. Otherwise a parent/caregiver picks them up for their two-hour lunch break. Milk is a staple on the American school lunch program. This is not true for France-milk is not offered but cheese and yogurt is. French kids drink water and are allowed bread (usually sliced baguette pieces) on demand.

There is no school for French elementary schoolchildren on Wednesdays, so no French menu for Wednesday, November 28.

Hope these menus bring you bon appetit!

A Week of French School Lunch Menus Compared To American School Lunch Menus

Monday, November 26, 2012

Ames, Iowa versus Poitiers France

Ames, Iowa

Whole Grain Chicken Nuggets OR Yogurt/American Cheese/Crackers/Crackers Fun Lunch

Mashed Potatoes OR Jicama Slices w/ Lite Dressing

Orange Wedges OR Pineapple Tidbits

Poitiers, France

 Radishes with Butter

Daube Marseillaise (Beef Stew with tomatoes, olives, onions and green pepper) with Rice

Emmental cheese, Applesauce

November 27, 2012 (note: for Albi, France November 27 menu not available as of publishing date-using November 20, 2012)

Fort Collins, Colorado versus Albi, France

Fort Collins

Veggie Lasagne OR Cheeseburger OR Uncrustable PB&J

Green Beans

Albi, France 

Green salad with Avocado, Surimi, Endives, Grapefruit with a vinaigrette

Chicken sausages

Aligot cheese and Whole apple

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Irving, Texas versus Nantes, France

Irving, Texas

Spaghetti w/Meat Sauce & Bread OR Stix or Turkey Ham OR Deli Turkey Sandwich OR Chef/Veg. Chef Salad w/Bread Stix,

Green Beans

Tossed Salad, Peachy Pear

Nantes, France

Organic shredded beets

Breaded fish

Cauliflower with Béchamel sauce

Tomme cheese and Chocolate eclair

Friday, November 30, 2012

Toms River, New Jersey versus Pau, France

Toms River, NJ

Domino’s Pizza OR Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Tossed Salad

Baked Apples w/Cinnamon

Pau, France

Lentil Salad

Fish Casserole

Butter Beans

Basque Cake

Now, your thoughts? Who wins for taste? Nutrition? Food diversity?

To make it even more interesting, I am going to take the next step up and look at the menu for that American and French town two years ago and compare it to the menus these school lunch cafeterias are serving this month in November 2012. This next step will be through five articles in the days to come, so stay tuned. You’ll also hear my opinion on these menus presented today.

But would love to hear your thoughts. Drop us a comment in the ‘Leave a Reply’ section below.

If you like to know more about the French culture and want to be informed when a new article is published? Why not subscribe to BrightonYourHealth? You can do this by clicking here and then download your free E-report on international health tips.

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5 Responses to French and American School Lunch Meals Face to Face: Who Wins?

  1. phildange November 23, 2012 at 20:12 #

    There are two reasons explaining why it is not allowed to bring middays meals from home, an old one and a modern one .
    Free and compulsory schooling for all was brought in France by the revolutionary spirit . Children were taught to be good citizens beside reading and such . Ideas of equality and secularism were spread in the same time . From 1880 to the last 60s, there were really poor people in France, so it was unthinkable for French teachers and politicians to let rich kids with rich food eating just beside poor kids eating very few . This was the old reason, like compulsory uniforms .
    Now in modern times, the “white trash” and other completely uneducated people don’t even try to educate their children, in no way . They spent their time on videos, games, advertisements, and you know how easily kids go towards what is mediatized, how easily they get addict to the deliberately addictive substances the big agrobusiness trusts put in their “food” . Just look how the pharmaceutical taste of Coca-Cola has been skipped by generations of teen-agers, due to massive ads .
    It’s become a hard work nowadays to make kids appreciate vegetables and any real food . If you let kids bring their own food, you’ll find the majority will eat like the abandoned American children . By abandoned, I mean not submitted to what children need : education and long range care from the adults, respect and obedience to the adults . It’s getting really bad in France under that aspect, but some places of resistance still stand, the obligation of eating 4 rather balanced meals, the same for all, at school to compensate the junk they eat at home is one of the last memories of “Frenchness” .

    • mbrighton November 24, 2012 at 22:50 #

      Bienvenue phildange, Thank you very much for taking the time to explain the reason behind the obligatory and ‘everyone eats the same’ hot lunches. Your explanation makes things more clear for me (and the readers). Merci beaucoup!

  2. mbrighton November 16, 2012 at 01:38 #

    AMEN Lady in Red! My heart out to your daughter . She would benefit from some whole milk instead of not being allowed this ‘luxury.’
    I do not know why the French do not allow pack lunches. I do not agree with this and do not know why there is this standard.
    Prices for French lunch are subsidized by the city: 2.20 euros (about 2.90 $) for an elementary school lunch. In private schools you pay double this.
    THANKS ALWAYS for your insightful input! Greatly appreciated.

  3. ~ The Lady in Red ~ November 16, 2012 at 01:22 #

    The French put more thought and care into the ingredients and preparation of their meals as exemplified by these menus. The meals take more time to prepare in France (stew vs. frozen pizza or PB&J in the U.S.); and there is attention paid to quality (the offering of organic produce). By the way, I wish I lived in Fort Collins – there are people where I live (NJ) that ban peanuts in any form in elementary schools here because of allergies, even though there are precautions taken to have those with nut allergies sit at a separate table so they are not affected.

    American school lunches have no taste because minimal effort is put into their preparation. The French diet is infused with fresh fruits and vegetables. There are no pre-packaged apples laced with preservatives served as a side dish, as is done in many American schools. (Why not use fresh produce?) Organic is not a word you would find on a public school lunch menu in the U.S. where “cheaper is better” seems to be the theme. I wouldn’t mind paying more for a school lunch (I am a U.S. citizen), if it meant my daughter would be getting a better quality and more tasteful meal.

    Americans are too focused on eliminating natural fats from children’s diets, too. Natural fats in dairy products help the body absorb vitamins and do provide a useful digestive function. My daughter won’t drink the milk served at school now because it’s 1% and is so watered down. There is no other choice. She can’t buy whole milk at school, which, I believe, based upon personal research, is not bad for you. So now, when she buys lunch, she’s forgoing the benefits of the 1% milk altogether and opting for water or juice because she can’t stand the watered down version of milk that is offered by the cafeteria.

    Obviously this is a rather sensitive issue to me because I hate to see my child disappointed by school lunches. She does bring lunch from home sometimes, but other times, especially during the winter months, she enjoys having a hot meal served to her to “warm up”.

    I”m surprised that the French do not allow children to bring food from home to eat, though. What is the reasoning behind that?

    Maybe I should move to France. *sigh*


  1. Mary Brighton - November 15, 2012

    {New Article} Is it true what I hear about tasteless American school lunches? Quoting from Comedy Central's Jon…

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