It's no accident that the French cook and eat some of the best food in the world. Table traditions and knowledge of food and eating are cultivated from the very youngest age.
In Paris, hot meals are prepared on the premises of each of the city's 270 public day care facilities. Nothing is mass produced, ingredients are more often fresh than frozen, and the chefs try to use organic products when they can. And the cost of the food is not exorbitant — only about $2 per meal per child.
At La Margeride day care, delicious smells waft out of the kitchen. By 9 a.m., the preparation of lunch is well under way. Chefs Elizabeth Morel and Martine Belaud have been happily working together for the past 14 years.
A giant pot of apples and clementines simmers away on the stovetop, and cauliflower au gratin bakes in the oven. While Morel cuts up garlic and onions to season the braised lamb in fresh rosemary, Belot peels tomato skins to fashion decorative roses for the pasta-salad appetizer.
Morel says it's worth decorating dishes for 2-year-olds.
"It builds their appetites, and they love when we decorate. Presentation is very important. Before tasting, you look. So when you see something nice, you want to eat it," she says.
The savory lamb is a big hit at La Margeride. Most of the kids eat nearly everything, and even if they don't, their delight in discovering the meal is obvious. While the food is delicious, the meal is clearly about more than what's on the plate. The tots are encouraged to use their silverware and are reminded to say please and thank you, and to sit up straight in their chairs.
Sandra Merle, a dietician for the Paris day care system, says it's important to start young to lay the foundations for a lifetime of healthy eating.
"These lunches help children develop the potential to enjoy a proper sit-down meal with an appetizer, main plate, cheese and a dessert while taking their time in a convivial atmosphere," she says.