Everything you need to know about the France school lunches

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Taste and eating well and healthy is considered as a skill that we learn in France. It’s something mainly taught at home but also reinforced during the school lunches. I believe the regulations, the organisation, the school cooks and the teachers all work with the same objective of providing healthy food habits to children in France. You may have heard about the France school lunches but you don’t know what to expect for this rentrée for your children or even how to get them registered, the French school canteen is explained here.

What do kids eat at French public schools?

Throwback to my childhood

As a French adult when I think back about the school lunch break, I can still visualise this plate of spinach with béchamel sauce and hard-boiled egg, the grated carrot salad and the chocolate mousse as a dessert! For me, the food was OK, in the sense that I could eat everything but I was not impressed, as I was spoiled at home.

My mum is a good cook, mainly for the savoury dishes, not so much the dessert though (I hope she won’t read this post…). So I’ve learnt to appreciate good food and also to eat everything as I always had to finish my plate before I could leave the dinner table.

So, school lunch food was regular and even sometimes not so good compared to my mum’s cooking. But when I spent 3 months in Canada as a teenager and went to school there, I realised how good the food could be in French schools. I apologise in advance to any Canadian readers here, but I really didn’t like the high school canteen food there. To me, it was tasteless and really fat

We could bring our own food, but the main option I had in my host family was to bring sandwiches, which for me as a typical French girl is more like a picnic, not an everyday meal. I loved my host family, they were just so kind to me and I discovered so many things about Canadian culture I really like, but I have to admit food was not the best part, with the exception of breakfast and the amazing pancakes with maple syrup and crispy bacon!

School lunch in France
Karen Le Billon

Today’s France public school lunches

Food is a major element of French culture and is taken very seriously by French authorities when it comes to children’s diet both in terms of public health prevention and educating children on the French food culture.

As per national law, the France school lunches must include:

  • a main course
  • a side dish
  • a dairy product
  • a starter and/or a dessert

Unlimited water should be provided, no other beverage is served.

I was actually shocked to find sodas available at school in Canada. At home, I never drank sodas and at school either, so I never got used to drinking such sweet drinks with food. I feel that it covers the taste of the dish…

Salt and sauces are served but not with unlimited access. However, bread is given with no limit! French bread is essential to a good meal, right?

The menu preparation is the town’s responsibility and parents can usually access the menu on the town’s website. Alternatively, they are directly provided by the school. This is an example of a menu provided by the city of Lyon (where I’m from) in the month of June 2020.

Depending on the school facilities, the meals are directly prepared on-site the same day.

In case of allergies or specific diet due to medical reasons, the school can arrange a specific menu via the PAI organisation. This should be checked directly with the school. The parents are authorised to provide their child with a lunchbox.

École Jules Ferry – Nevers

Reform of the French institutional catering

In 2018, there was a reform of French institutional catering with the objective among others of increasing the organic and local products served in French schools and administration canteens. By 2022, 50% of the products served in the public sector must be sustainable and local. And a minimum of 20% should be organic!

In addition, from November 2019, schools should serve at least one vegetarian meal per week as part of 2-year experiment to promote vegetal protein and limit food waste. If this experimentation is a success it may be maintained.

How are the France school lunches organised?

The school schedule will vary whether it is an elementary school or a secondary school and lycee. However, the law requires a minimum time to sit at the table of 30 minutes for the lunch break

It is very common to have a one or two-hour lunch break at school. Of course, the children will not stay the whole time in the canteen but they will have time to eat, play and let off steam before going back to class.

Secondary schools and lycee have to give access to a canteen to their pupils, however elementary schools do not. This will depend on the town policy for elementary schools. You can have the information when registering your child at City Hall.

How to register your child for France school lunches?

Where to go?

The canteen registration can either be done with the city hall at the same time as the school matriculation or directly with the school depending on the city and if you are renewing the registration.

Can everyone access this service?

When the school lunch is provided (for the elementary schools), every child matriculated in the school can access the school lunch service.

The situation of the family or the child cannot prevent access to the canteen lunch services. For example, when one or both parents do not work, it is illegal for the school to reject the child canteen registration.

École Jules Ferry – Nevers

How much do the France school lunches cost?

The lunch price is decided by the local authority in charge of the schools. The elementary schools are managed by the city, the secondary schools by the department and the lycee by the region.

The local authority can decide to apply a benefit entitlement code (quotient familial) taking into account the income and family size to give discount lunch prices depending on the family situation. When matriculating at city hall, ask if a quotient familial is applied. You will need to provide your CAF quotient familial attestation if you are already registered with CAF. If not, you will need to provide the previous year French tax notice (avis d’imposition) and your child’s birth certificate.

If you have recently arrived in France and have never filed a French tax return, the City hall may ask you to get your quotient familial calculated by the CCAS, a local administration in charge of the canteen allowances. Make sure you bring all the documentation proving your income for the past year to allow them to make the calculation.

Families with children in secondary school can also get a financial allowance. The school secretary or social worker is the contact to request this allowance based on specific conditions.

As you can see, the school participates in perpetuating a French food culture with several course meals but also healthy eating habits. Michael Moore even documented French canteens a few years ago and his comments about France school lunches bring me back to my Canadian experience!

If you have children attending the school canteen in France, are your children liking it? Let your fellow expats know below in the comment section.

One Comment

  • Lara Tabatabai

    School lunch are great in French school and they are very economical too because largely subsidized by the state. In my daughter’s college (high school) there are two options either you eat in in La Cantine or you eat out (at home). My daughter loves the cantine and would not miss it for my cuisine 😂 The meals are prepared fresh by a chef and even though she is vegetarian and there is no official vegetarian menu in the cantine in her school, we live in a small town and like in many places in France, things “s’arrangent”, they get fixed in a natural way by good people’s good will without the necessity of writing a decree about it. In her case, the lovely chef bakes vegetarian pie or prepares vegetarian dishes just for her (even though she is the only vegetarian among 300 pupils) or gives her additional portion of other stuff and this is a very nice touch ! I am very grateful that they place such a high importance on food and eating well in France !

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