School Dinners: a Labour of Love

I was casting around wondering what to post for this week’s Lens-Artists Challenge, Labour of Love.  And I remembered a wonderful experience I had when I lived in France, when I was part of a small team invited to cook an English school dinner for a local primary school.  Truly, the experience was a Labour of Love, as it was for the charismatic school cook, each and every day. My memories of this special day are entirely positive and happy.

September 26th 2012

‘School dinners, school dinners….


‘School dinners, school dinners.

Iron beans, iron beans.

Sloppy semolina, sloppy semolina –

I feel sick, get a bowl quick.’*

Do you remember this cheery ditty from your days eating school dinners?  Only if you’re British, I suppose.  And most right-thinking French men women and children would be quite prepared to believe that all English food is just like that.

Not the mayor of Villeneuve d’Olmes, where Découverte de Terres Lointaines has taken its Yorkshire exhibition this week.  Back at the planning stage, he’d told us about their school caterer, M. Feliu, who uses almost entirely organic or local ingredients, and who likes to introduce the children to the cooking of other countries every time the excuse arises.

We met M. Feliu at La Freychède.  We worked together to produce a menu (Cheap. Tempting to the young French palate. Three courses that work with the kitchen facilities to hand.  Conforming to nutritional standards).

The school kitchen.

This is what we came up with:

Crudités with beetroot chutney 

Macaroni cheese with green salad

Blackberry and apple Betty with custard.

Yesterday was the day.  I turned up at 10.00 with my English friend and colleague Susie to find the work almost done.  All we had left was to churn out batons of carrot, black radish and cucumber for the first course, which was not, let’s face it, Awfully British.  But it had to fit in with other considerations as above.

11.00: The prepared and cooked food was heaved into insulated containers, and transported by van to one of the local schools.

11.30. Ditto with van number 2.  This batch was sent off to Villeneuve d’Olmes, with me following.

12.00. Children arrived at the canteen.  One of the helpers, Pascale, spoke good English.  ‘What’s your name?’ she’d say to each child in English.  When she had her reply, they could go in, and sit down at one of the circular tables, tinies in one room, and juniors in another.  I joined a table of lively 7 year olds.

One of the staff told me the rules that the children expect to follow:

  • Take turns to serve the dishes of food to everyone at table.
  • Wait till everyone’s served before beginning to eat.
  • Try everything.
  • You can have the portion size you choose.  Once it’s on your plate though, you have to eat it.

Everyone accepts this and we all sat together, eating and chatting.  The children chomped their way through all the crudités, they even enjoyed the chutney, whose sweet and sour taste is not an automatic choice round here.

Once cleared away, bread appeared on the table – this is France after all.

Two more children served the macaroni cheese and the salad.  Most of us came back for seconds.

We sang ‘Happy Birthday’ – in English – to a birthday girl.

I gave an impromptu talk on the food on offer.

The blackberry and apple Betty was served.  Yum! How could it fail?  Gently cooked fruit with a crunchy crust of soft breadcrumbs crisped in golden syrup and butter, with obligatory custard, of course.

Then the children cleared their tables, stacking dirty plates and glasses neatly for washing up, before going off to play.

I was so impressed.  The children here learn that the midday meal is so much more than a pit-stop.  The expectations, reinforced daily, are that this is a moment to spend with friends, a time to share, to think about the needs of others, and to appreciate the food on offer.  The occasion lasted well over an hour.

The view from the kitchen door.
Another view from Villeneuve.

* To the tune of Frère Jacques

Lens-Artists Photo Challenge #113: A Labour of Love

Author: margaret21

I'm retired and living in North Yorkshire, where I walk as often as I can, write, volunteer, and travel as often as I can.

51 thoughts on “School Dinners: a Labour of Love”

  1. I enjoyed that meal vicarously. Surprised at the interesting chutney right at the start, followed by a simple basic and filling course, and the nice dessert. I can imagine my nieces loving a meal like this when they were that age.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know. We really struggled to produce an English first course.within budget But the crudites fitted the bill, and the (Anglo-style) chutney fitted the bill. But yes, comfort-food like this has wide appeal.


  2. If school dinners had only been like this in my memory, instead of lumpy mash with battered fish. I do remember beetroot as a highlight, but not the posh chutney version, Margaret. Sounds like an ideal world. 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I tried to avoid them but a certain person who never stayed for school meals reckons there’s nothing wrong with spam fritters. Nutrition isn’t a high priority of his 😑


      1. I know they have…I have read many articles on that. When I began school we sat on the window sills eating our own sandwiches taken from home. Then when I was 10-11 school dining started.


  3. This is wonderful, Margaret. I would have loved to be involved in a project like this! The menu is simple enough and familiar enough that kids would like it. Great planning!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I,too, am impressed!!! Those children would be a delight to serve! Thanks for sharing the whole experience — from the menu, to the set-up and clean-up, and a special birthday song in English! This was a delightful labor of love both in the doing of it as well as the reading of it! Thanks so much for sharing it for this challenge!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. How lovely. And civilised. At the grammar we sat at tables like this and the older pupils served. There wasn’t much I enjoyed though, but it was a less rushed experience than today and taught valuable lessons about sharing and being polite.


  6. A marvellous post Margaret. A real learning opportunity for the children, and for you. I will not start to compare diets, child education, manners, social skills etc, because I would then start to get annoyed, and I don’t like to do that. Suffice to say that I loved living in Germany and visiting continental countries and was shocked and horrified when we moved back to the UK!


    1. I know. We had a young German volunteer working with us when I was an education volunteer at Fountains. She was shocked beyond belief at the low quality of the packed meals the children brought with them, particularly that every child ALWAYS had crisps.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What a wonderful experience Margaret – I’m so happy you had images to share with us! I loved the post from start to finish. It must have been SUCH a fun experience!!


  8. What a fabulous thing to do. And, also good memorable times all round for you, the other cooks and all the children. I wonder what children here would make of a traditional French lunch and indeed, lunchtime?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The other cooks? It was me, Susie, and M. Feliu. Normally, it was just him! Cooking for two schools worth of children! He was inspirational, as were the staff of the happy school where we dined with them all.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. You know, that was truly one of our best French ‘lessons’ too. We saw so many families with kids in restaurants, they were ALWAYS, w/o fail, behaving at their very best, they ate what they wanted ordered…. amazing. And honestly, when we got the monthly brochure of our town with all the school lunches i, my mouth watered regularly. They had organic food, colours of veggies matched, beautiful constellations of brilliant food ‘parcels’ – I was so envious!!!

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: