Lucy Corry’s Blog: Boxing on

Lucy Corry revisits her time abroad in France — where mornings were blissfully free of school lunch preparation.

Do you hear that sound? It’s the silent scream of parents all across Aotearoa as we collectively brace ourselves for another year of school lunch making. When you see the weepy parents of new entrants this week, they won’t be crying because their babies are growing up. They’ll be tearing up at the thought of having to come up with a packed lunch every day for the foreseeable future.

Like everything to do with parenting, there’s a lot of unnecessary pressure these days on getting it right. Social media showing how to be the kind of mother (let’s not pretend otherwise, fathers just don’t face the same barrage) who makes sandwiches resemble origami or Lego or manga characters doesn’t help.

When I was deep in the lunchbox trenches, three things got me through. One was remembering that my favourite lunch (luncheon sausage and tomato sauce sandwiches) sustained me through many days at Atiamuri Primary. Two, was that any creativity on my mother’s part was not always appreciated. I can still recall going to the staffroom in tears when I was five, believing she had put a used teabag in my lunchbox.

Further investigation by the kind Mrs Wilson revealed that it was in fact a dried fig. The third thing was realising that Other Parents are crap at school lunches too. Learning that a scary tiger mother-type in my daughter’s class sent her kids to school with jam sandwiches made me feel a whole lot better about my shortcomings.

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While living in France in 2019 I saw how life could be different. For the princely sum of about two euros a day, our then 10-year-old daughter received a multi-course cooked lunch every day at school.

The new menu for the week would be stuck to the noticeboard outside the school’s wire fence on Mondays, but we always tried to resist looking at it so we didn’t rob ourselves of the joy of asking her what they’d eaten.

We were so entranced by this system that when we discovered that we could buy ‘tickets’ to eat at school too, we couldn’t get there fast enough. Rogier, a fellow parent who’d befriended us on the first day at the school gates, came with us.

French school lunches vary between regions, but most are subsidised (and organised) by the local council. Feeding children at scale on a tight budget requires a fair amount of pragmatism (forget any romantic notions of red and white checked tablecloths or cuisine) but overall we were hugely impressed.

The children lined up, youngest to oldest, and filed into the large, airy canteen. After washing their hands, each gathered a tray and picked up a vegetable starter (avocado vinaigrette), a main course (we laughed heartily to see that the ‘batonnets de morue’ were in fact, fish fingers) with beans and peas, a salad with blue cheese, fruit compote and yoghurt for dessert, and pieces of baguette.

There were plenty of ratbags in our daughter’s class, but the kids were all really well-behaved (and only about half of them spilt water on the table).  Crucially, they also ate just about everything (a sign on the wall reminded them that no one was allowed to say ‘I don’t like that’ in case it negatively influenced their peers).

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At the end of the meal, they all picked up their trays and deposited the dishes in various places as per the rules. Then they filed back to the playground and ran around like kids everywhere. We did the requisite amount of hand-shaking of various teachers, promised Rogier that the next time we shouted him lunch we’d do better than fish fingers, and strolled home.

French school lunches weren’t perfect, but they had a lot going for them. First, they made sure that all the children were fed (extra financial support was available for parents who needed it).

Second, they were reasonably well balanced under the circumstances. And thirdly, they taught children how to eat together, not waste food and tidy up afterwards. The fact that they also meant that we didn’t have to make lunches was the icing on the gateau.

This week our daughter starts high school. She promises that she’ll be making her own lunches now and we’re hopeful that she’ll remember some of the lessons we’ve learned in the last seven years. We are watching on with interest.


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