lundi 22 novembre 2010

Cafeterias and Canteens, Food and Eating

So, where do I start?

This is a subject that is fascinating to me... Before I came to France I had read quite a bit about why the French stay so thin and how they have better eating habits yadda yadda. One of the reasons for the French staying so thin (apparently) is that they never eat whilst standing or walking.

Hmm... I had to think about this for a while. I admit I do this quite often! Well, during my university days and when I'm shopping and in a hurry I tend to just buy something cheap and easy and eat it on the run (or on the walk). I know this is bad for your digestive system (or something) but so far it hasn't affected my weight so I never worried too much about it...

So then I landed in France and here I am in a boarding school. I eat in the school cafeteria almost every day (that's 'canteen' for the  British and 'cantine' in French). When I first arrived I was sooooo excited and people constantly asked me why. The reason why I was so happy and excited was because I'd always see students eating in one of these in American tv shows and movies.

However, this was a foreign concept to me as I never had one in my schools and as far as I know we don't have them in Australia! They may have them in the expensive private schools but for someone like me who went to a government/public school we had to eat outside... on the ground. Every day. I didn't like it. I hated sitting on the concrete ground when it was hot and ants would crawl up my skirt. I hated sitting outside when it was cold. If we were lucky we'd get to go inside if it was really cold or rainy. Still, I also hated eating whilst sitting cross-legged. This isn't really that great for digestion...

So at my school cantine (and I assume it's pretty much the same thing in the rest of France or any country which has one), you enter and pay by swiping your card (loaded with credit). Then you pick up your tray and cutlery and choose what you want to eat from the selection.

At my school we choose:
1 entrée (which is usually a salad of some sort),
1 main (with our choice of meat, veges and carbs depending on what's available such as fish/beef/pork/chicken, steamed or diced veges, and rice/couscous/pasta/potatos/mashed potato etc) and
2 desserts/cheeses (these vary a lot and can consist of yoghurt, various cakes, puddings, muffins, ice cream, fruit, cheese, yoghurt drinks, etc).
There is also bread and we can take as much as we want. I usually only take 1 or 2 pieces but I've seen some people take 4!


Since I live in the school I also have dinner there except Friday nights because it's closed.

After you finish your meal you put it on a conveyor belt for it to be washed by the kitchen staff. You have to put all the crockery and cutlery in a certain way so it makes it easier (and quicker) for the staff since there are literally hundreds and hundreds to wash. (my school has almost 2000 students).

It all sounds pretty basic and boring but for me it's still pretty fascinating. And the funniest thing is I don't mind the meals at all! They do rotate so by the time they've rotated, many weeks have passed and it always feels like we're eating something new and different so I never get sick of it. Plus the meals are quite big so I feel full and then I don't need to snack. This is funny because French people all think the worst food is found in a school cantine! All I hear from the students is "dégueulasse!" (disgusting/gross).

In Mireille Guiliano's book French women don't get fat she mentions in there something about how the French don't snack. Here is an interesting discussion (started by an Australian woman). When I first arrived in France I was constantly hungry because I wasn't eating well before I got here (more on that later in my ongoing diary saga...) and due to the time difference my body had no idea of the time so I just ate and ate and ate... my stomach felt bottomless.

Then, pretty soon I realised that the school had 2 breaks during the day. One at 10am and one at 3:30pm (they don't finish until 5:30pm!) During those breaks nobody eats!!! The teachers may have a cup of coffee or something but the kids just hang outside in the playground and talk.

At first I found this pretty hard to take but now I'm in the habit of not snacking anymore either. I find that if I make sure I am really really stuffed at each meal then I can easily last until the next one. I guess you could say I had to re-train my stomach, after way too many years of snacking throughout the day. However, I'm not perfect though and when it's cold and rainy, or when I'm on a long train journey I find I still need to snack. Luckily there are so many cheap and tasty things in the supermarket for me to snack on (such as muesli bars, biscuits and mini cake things).

So, to sum up:
* In schools in France they eat their meals inside, at a table.
* In schools in Australia, we eat our meals outside, sitting on the ground.

Now the second part of my post is this...

Food courts in shopping malls do not exist in France. Yes, it's worth writing that in bold. This infuriates me! It's as if tables and chairs cost a lot of money (or the ground they are resting on I guess). In a shopping mall (which is a rare beast in itself) you'll find all these little food stands (usually selling baguettes) and all around there will be nowhere to sit. I finally found where the people were going - they were sitting on the stairs! How stupid is this!

In a country that promotes good eating habits, you go to a LARGE (and I mean the Part Dieu shopping mall in Lyon which is huge) shopping mall and there is not one large space where everyone can eat. Now, in this particular mall (which I've become well acquainted with) there is a pizzeria/salad bar (buffet style), and a Quick (which is a French version of McDonalds, how ironic because it's not 'quick' at all...). They are mini-restaurants I guess you could call it so they do have tables/chairs inside but guess what? They are always always packed. I would never bother waiting that long.  And while I'm talking about packed, it seems anything that is classified as fast food and NOT French (ie a boulangerie) is packed at lunchtimes. This includes kebab shops, sushi bars, McDonalds, Subway or any other American chain, basically everything. I always see a big long queue of people and this is in several different cities.

This is really frustrating when I'm walking along and just want something quick to eat. I get so frustrated with waiting I always make sure I am carrying a snack of some sort (when I'm out and about) for those hunger pangs.

So my second finding is:
* In shopping malls in Australia, we have a large variety of food stalls and comfortable food courts for shoppers to eat at.
* In shopping malls in France, the food stalls are scattered about in different places and there is nowhere to sit to eat your food.

So don't say you don't learn anything from my blog! ;)

(Image from


emilie89 a dit…

Hello! That's an interesting article that you wrote!
But just one thing! about not eating in between the meals: maybe in France we don't do it as much as other countries, but still, lots of pupils eat some cookies, cereal bars... during the playime ;)

(I'm French and have always done so from the age of 7 till nowadays 23! :D)

Good luck for your blog writing!

P a dit…

Hi emilie89, Thanks for your comment.
Maybe it was just at my school then! Good to know that other French kids eat during the day :)

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