This Is How French School Lunches Are Different from American Ones

The French have a reputation for excellent cuisine. No surprise, then, that French school lunches are something special, too.

I’m nostalgic for my school lunches. Chicken nuggets. Walking tacos. Pizza! But most of the foods I remember have more in common with fast food than with a balanced meal. The menu looks a bit different in France.

French school lunches emphasize health and balance (and they often include foods that American kids might try to hide under their napkins).

What’s on a Typical French Lunch Menu?

First difference? French lunches have multiple courses! They start with a vegetable, such as a leafy lettuce salad, a cucumber tomato salad or beets. Next up is a warm main dish, which almost always includes another veggie. Think sliced roast beef with baked potatoes, veal with mushrooms and broccoli or breaded fish with cauliflower. Sliced bread and butter come on the side, as well as one or two pieces of cheese. (Can cheese be healthy? We investigate.)

Then, in an unexpected twist, the lunch ends with a dessert. Often, this means a piece of fruit, like a kiwi or peach. However, sweet treats like apple tart or ice cream also appear. The menu isn’t about dieting or restriction—it’s about balance, and taking pleasure in food.

If this seems like a hefty meal, it is! The lunch provides about 40% of students’ calories for the day. Most French children also eat a breakfast, small after-school snack and a dinner rather late, around 7:00 or 8:00 p.m.

Find a healthy school lunch to pack your fussiest child.

What Else Do French Schools Do Differently?

Up until students are about 12, French schools are called “restaurant schools.” They have cooks on-site, as well as servers who will even cut up kids’ food if needed. Local food is used whenever possible. Plus, a dietitian reviews menus in advance and makes substitutions as needed (swapping a dessert for a piece of fruit, for example).

The kids get at least 30 minutes to eat, and they’re meant to take their time and enjoy the food. Oh, and water is the beverage of choice versus juice or milk.

Why Are French Lunches So Different?

First, the French culture emphasizes the importance of food, especially local foods and well-prepared dishes. While American parents might think it’s normal to serve a fussy child bland foods like chicken tenders, French parents usually insist that their children eat like the grown-ups do, considering it a positive for them to be exposed to many flavors and textures at a young age.

Psst: We’ve got secret weapons for feeding fussy eaters.

Second is way school lunches are organized. French school lunches are put together by local communities, rather than being dictated by a national program. That gives schools more flexibility to source local foods and arrange for cooking.

How Much Does a French School Lunch Cost?

Drumroll, please… The average price a student pays for lunch is roughly $3.50. Be right back, moving to France!

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Kelsey Rae Dimberg
A former in-house editor at Taste of Home, Kelsey now writes, cooks and travels from her home base of Chicago. After going gluten-free over a decade ago, Kelsey turned to home cooking and baking as a way to recreate her favorite foods. Her specialties include gluten-free sourdough bread, pizza and pastry. When not wrangling her toddler, she enjoys reading, watching old movies and writing. Her debut novel, Girl in the Rearview Mirror, was published by William Morrow in 2019, and her second is forthcoming.