This weekend I had the chance to chat with Karen LeBillon, author of French Kids Eat Everything. One of the things that we talked about is how we approach school lunches in North America as compared to France. Just as one example, Karen catalogued the lunch menu from a French preschool in Boulogne-Billancourt this week. Here’s what the children ate yesterday:
Monday, March 26, 2012
Beef tongue mironton with bulgur wheat
Dessert: Fruit compote
These school lunches are prepared by real chefs, and no fast food, flavoured milk or ketchup is allowed. This is serious cuisine for young children. I’ll be sharing our discussion in an upcoming podcast, if you want to hear more about how the French get their kids to eat beef tongue, or if you’re skeptical that this is actually real. But the main point here is that, as you can imagine looking at this menu, lunch is not rushed in French schools. The children get a minimum of 30 minutes to eat, and often up to an hour, as they consume their four courses.
In contrast, my daughter gets 15 minutes to eat her school lunch. Karen LeBillon’s daughter gets only 10 minutes at her Vancouver school. Here in Canada elementary school children typically bring their lunch from home and eat at their desks. There’s no cafeteria at my daughter’s school. You can buy lunch through a third-party service, but very few people do, and it’s prepared off-site and delivered to the classroom. This means that kids don’t have to get through a cafeteria line-up or bus their trays during their 10 or 15 minute lunch period, but it’s still very short for many young children.
The situation I’m describing doesn’t seem to be unique to Canada. School lunch periods are getting shorter in the US, too. The reasons for a short school lunch period seem to be similar on both sides of the border. School budgets, teachers’ schedules, a drive to fit more instructional time into the day and even the way that many children themselves rush through lunch all seem to factor into the equation.
I’ve run into issues with the short lunch period with my own daughter. She comes home at 3:00pm complaining of hunger, but I see that her lunch was barely touched. I quickly learned not to send treats to school, as well, even though my kiddo says everyone else’s parents do. When a kid is in a rush to eat, they’re going to choose the tastiest things first, which means that the cookies get eaten and the sandwich gets left behind. It often takes longer to eat healthier foods, as well, which is another factor in the debate over what gets served in school cafeterias in the US. When you only have a few minutes to serve and eat lunch, chicken nuggets are just easier.
One school in Berkeley, California changed its approach to school lunches in a simple way that had a big impact. They moved lunch recess so that it happened before the kids ate, and then lengthened the amount of time they allocated for both outdoor play and eating. The result is that lunch stopped being something to just “get through” before the real fun of heading out to the playground. The other result is that with more time to eat, the kids ate better.
At the Berkeley school, teachers spend the last 10 minutes of lunch in the cafeteria with their students, and it’s counted as instructional time. This lets the school meet its educational requirements without lengthening the school day. It overcomes one objection that would naturally come with increasing the time that kids get to eat, which is that you would either lose teaching time or you’d have to keep the kids at school longer. Both of those outcomes have their downside, for sure. Plus, having teachers sit down to eat with their students provides additional lessons about the concept of the shared table, which is lost when kids are sitting at their desks.
Speaking as a parent, if tacking 10 or 15 minutes on to the school day meant that my child got more time to eat and to play outside, I would be willing to make that switch. I would also be willing to accept some kind of compromise position, like they reached in Berkeley. Quite honestly, I think that even shaving a few minutes of instructional time off the day would probably be okay. Does adding or removing 10 minutes from the school day of a seven-year-old dramatically impact how much information they take in? I would guess not.
I think that many parents agree that our kids need more time to eat. Speaking with Karen LeBillon only cemented my opinion, because I saw that it doesn’t have to be this way. We really can do better. Will it cure the dreaded childhood obesity? I don’t know. I doubt it – at least not on its own. But I do know that rushing through meals isn’t really good for anyone, so why are we teaching our kids to do just that?
I wonder what you think. How long do your kids get to eat lunch? Do you think it’s long enough? How would you like to see lunchtime changed at school? I’d love to hear!