Back in our hometown of Richmond, Virginia, Oliver attended a public elementary school where lunch was a quick, no-frills affair. The menu rotated through a brief selection of “kid-friendly” foods like hamburgers, chicken nuggets, hot dogs and pizza, with sides like French fries, fruit cups and baby carrots in plastic bags. The meals were served on disposable trays with plastic plates and cutlery, all of which were tossed in the trash at the end of each meal. Oliver described the lunchroom scene as loud and chaotic, with the lunch monitors struggling to maintain order. He would often come home famished and frustrated, complaining that lunch was his least favorite part of the school day. 

And then we moved to France in late 2023 as a sort of grown-up gap year. We enrolled 7-year-old Oliver in a small private école élémentaire in the city center that was recommended by a local friend. Although he was nervous about attending the fully French school, he was won over by the fact that there is no class on Wednesdays (not uncommon in France), and the lunch break is an hour-and-a-half long. Kids can choose to stay at school for dejeuner (lunch) or return home to eat with their families. Oliver opted to come home for the first few weeks, then started staying once he felt more comfortable at school.

The cantine at the school is a cozy yellow room where the students sit at tables with eight place settings. The meal is served on real plates with real cutlery, which are washed and reused the following day. A pitcher of water sits on each table, which students pour into their own glasses and refill themselves when more is needed. 

The meal is prepared by a catering company off-site in the morning at the main school complex and transported to the school each day. Local, seasonal ingredients are prioritized, including sustainable seafood and organic produce. The meal is served in courses, with a starter, a main course, a dairy course (yogurt or cheese), and dessert. A recent Friday lunch was salade de lentilles (lentil salad), aiguillettes de saumon meuniere (butter-fried salmon) with ratatouille, emmental for the cheese course, and organic fruit salad for dessert. Other days featured tajine with olives, vegetarian Cantonese rice and homemade peach milk cake. 

Students are asked whether they want a full portion or a small amount to taste first, but they’re encouraged to at least try everything offered. If they want more, they can ask for another serving. Lunch lasts about 40 minutes, after which the students clear the tables themselves, scraping any uneaten food into a bowl to be composted. They spend the rest of their break on the playground.

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