French cuisine and raising food enthusiasts
French cuisine is considered an art form: the aesthetics, the aromas, and of course, the flavours. To the French, the process of cooking is a leisurely one, where flavours simmer and merge together, where the physical act of stirring a pot of melted chocolate is appreciated and where the sizzle of canard à l’orange in the pan is music to the ears.
Preparing a table for a meal is called ‘dresser la table’, literally, ‘dressing the table’ and although the French are known for their gastronomic feasts, effort is put into every meal, no matter how small. In 2008, President Sarkozy called for French cuisine to be protected by UNESCO as part of the world’s cultural heritage, preserving the correct way to prepare traditional dishes such as foie gras and cheese soufflé. This was achieved in 2010.
In 1999 José Bové, a French farmer known for his agricultural activism, destroyed a McDonalds in France. He did so in protest against industrialised food production, extinction of small farmers and Americanisation. This is an extreme representation of a shared fear of losing French food culture to the arrival of American products in France and as a result, loss of national identity.
‘Mal-bouffe’ (bad food) is seen as damaging to French cuisine and culture, where traditionally, lunch is a two hour, three course meal, often complete with wine. Now, fewer people have time to go home for lunch, opting for fast food instead. Naturally, the French are keen on keeping their French cuisine and traditions and preserving the benefits of the French way of eating. But what are these benefits, and how is this to be done?
Raising a country of French cuisine enthusiasts
The French have a set of principles when it comes to teaching their children to enjoy traditional, nourishing food. Adults and children eat the same dishes, and everybody eats together. The table is a place of discussion, where children are encouraged to imitate adults’ table manners and learn to take part in conversation, arguing politely and letting others talk. They are expected to behave at the dinner table and often sit up late with the adults.
After moving from Britain to France myself as a young child, I soon got used to sitting up late at the table, listening to adult conversation. I would curl up by the fire or beneath the table when I became tired, until I was awoken just in time for dessert.
French children are required to taste everything, but not to necessarily finish if they truly dislike certain foods. The motto is that you cannot say you do not like something if you haven’t tasted it first. As a result, French children will happily eat a wide array of French cuisine: the smelliest cheese, mussels, snails, green salad and even tripe. They are taught to appreciate and discuss the taste of food.
A French friend of mine has been tasting wine since she was five, and can now hold a discussion about the bouquet of a mature wine that would impress any connoisseur! Snacking is rare in France and meal times are designated: breakfast, lunch, the gouté at 4pm and the evening meal. It is even common for babies to be fed on a strict schedule, every three hours.
French cuisine and food culture: a healthy way of eating
According to one study, France has the lowest child obsesity rate. In her book ‘French Kids Eat Everything’ Karen Le Billon recalls the food rules she encountered when her four year old started French school, instituted by the French National Ministry of Education: “Vegetables had to be served at every meal: raw one day, cooked the next. Fried food could only be served no more than once per week. Real fish had to be served at least once per week. Fruit was served for dessert every second meal, at a minimum; sugary desserts were allowed- but only once per week.”
A law adopted by the French National Assembly on 14 January 2016 states that 40% of the food served in public restaurants (school cafeterias, hospitals and nursing homes) must possess one of the official identification labels of quality and origin recognized by the French government. This means that food products must be produced in a way that is viable for preserving the environment, health and cultural diversity. 20% of the food products served must be organic.
There are health benefits to how the French eat. Lunch is traditionally a three course affair and the main meal, giving people the time to work off the food throughout the day. The French will eat a vegetable starter, served first when the children are hungriest. Meat with more vegetables usually follows, and sometimes cheese. Then a small dessert and perhaps coffee. Portions are small. The gouté, a healthy snack, tides children over until dinner, which is light.
In her book ‘French Women Don’t Get Fat’, Mireille Guiliano describes how French women drink wine, eat bread, pastries and regularly enjoy three course meals without putting on extra weight. The French believe in tout en modération, everything in moderation. A varied diet, including treats, but in small portions. The best of both worlds!
An education in French cuisine: the role of schools
Children in France either go home for lunch or eat at school—there are no packed lunches except in special circumstances. In the cantine, children eat together at big tables and the menu is the same for everybody. If you don’t eat, you go hungry. Table manners are learnt at school, where lunch is a time to chat over food. It’s treated as a social event, an opportunity to wind down with friends between lessons.
French schools serve balanced meals. On her website, Karen Le Billon started a ‘French Kids’ School Lunch Project’ where she posted the school lunch menu from a different village or town in France each week. Meals included lentil salad with tomatoes, olive bread, veal, hake fillet with dill-shallot sauce, Reblochon cheese and fruit cocktail. Fried food can only be served once a week- you’ll find no chicken nuggets here. Vending machines have been banned in French schools since 2005, in order to discourage snacking and reduce children’s access to junk food.
Teachers play a big role in teaching children about basic nutrition and hygiene, eating habits and French cuisine and heritage. La semaine du gout happens once a year in France, where schools dedicate a week to food: the taste and diversity of food, origins and production, careers in food and nutrition. Children taste new foods, take part in cooking workshops and are taught to see eating as a positive experience. I think this is a wonderful way to nurture a healthy interaction with food.
One thing for sure is, the French eat for pleasure. Instead of looking at food with guilt, they see it as something to share with others. Not only are there health benefits to the French way of eating, but family ties are strengthened as French children eat regular meals with their families. Organic, local produce is favoured over fast food, small farmers are (for the most part) respected and children are taught to savour food and respect where it comes from.
Surely this is the best way to eat! Sarkozy’s suggestion that French cuisine be awarded a spot on UNESCO’s World Heritage List was first met with controversy—but it was not just the food he was referring to. The entire French approach to food and how to eat is unique and deserves to be preserved. I, for one, will be following in the footsteps of the French: treating food as a delicious sensory experience and not a guilty pleasure.
What do you think of the French way of eating? Should it be encouraged in other countries? Let us know in the comments below!
- Cuisine ‘trois étoiles’ by Unknown via Wikipedia Commons.
- Unknown by Dept of Energy Solar Decathlon via Flickr.
- Unknown by Vikvarga via Pixabay.
- Unknown by U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr.
- Escargots by Stocksnap via Pixabay.