For many years, people have regarded French eating habits as an enigma – a country where people can devote a lot of time of thought to eating without gaining significant weight. However, in recent years, France has started struggling with obesity and overweight, especially among children, much like other western countries. The popularity of fast-food is constantly on the rise, and child obesity has grown by 17 percent each year.
French authorities have placed the struggle against obesity high on their priorities list, posing limitations on advertising of snacks and banning vending machines in schools. But it is important to note that even with child obesity on the rise, it is estimated that the country will not reach the magnitude of the phenomenon that the United States faces (where 65 percent of the population suffers from overweight or obesity) before 2020.
France's recent problems of overweight and obesity are unfortunate – but how did the country manage to largely avoid these concerns for so long? As in other countries (we have discussed Japan in a previous article) there is no magic at work here – it is simply a matter of tradition, teaching the population proper eating habits, and doing so from an early age.
The best way to examine the uniqueness of child nutrition in France is through school meals. These meals reflect the dietary expectations from children in France, notably getting used from an early age to adult eating habits. School meals include dishes that are common to adult meals, such as a wide variety of vegetables (including radishes, grated carrots and others), different kinds of fish and special cheeses. The rationale behind the introduction of this rich variety of foods at an early age is avoiding "boredom" of taste among children, which can lead to overeating.
France became famous for its long lunch breaks, and schools are no exception. Lunch breaks for school children are long, allowing them to eat at their own pace, without rushing through the meal – which is another way of educating children to eat properly, not just in terms of what they eat but also how they eat.
Though school meals at French schools offer large dishes, several less nutritious ingredients are rarely included or completely left out. Sweetened drinks are in this second category – children in French schools drink water. This is a simple and very useful nutritional habit that unfortunately is not taught to children in many other western countries. Snacks are added to French school meals only once a week, and throughout the rest of the week, the sweet desert that accompanies the meal is fruit (again, a different kind of fruit each day).
These steps for nutritional education in France have long been supplemented by further education on the subject by parents. While large meals were served at schools, dinners at home were mostly modest affairs. Children were also taught that the refrigerator is "off limits" outside scheduled meal times.
One of the factors behind the current wave of overweight and obesity among French children is the collapse of many traditional practices such as family dinners and, as noted above, the wider availability of fast-food. But even so, the basic nutritional principals that French children are taught at their schools and homes can and should serve as an example.