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Even the youngest kids bring an appetite to the table, and French teachers believe it's never too early to refine children's palates. Reporter Eleanor Beardsley explains in a letter from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: When I drop two-year-old Maxime off at his public day care near our apartment in the (unintelligible) of Paris, delicious smells are wafting out of the kitchen. By 9:00 AM, the preparation of today's lunch is well underway. Chefs Elizabeth Morel and Martine Belaud have been happily cooking here together for the last 14 years. A giant pot of apples and clementines simmers away on the stovetop, and cauliflower au gratin bakes in the over. While Morel cuts up garlic and onions to season the braised lamb in fresh rosemary, Belaud peels tomato skins to fashion decorative roses for the pasta salad appetizer.

Ms. ELIZABETH MOREL (Chef at La Margeride Day Care): (Through translator) It builds an appetite, and they love when we decorate.

BEARDSLEY: Presentation's very important. Before tasting, you look, so when you see something nice, you want to eat it.

Ms. MOREL: (Through translator) We're trying to use colors, too, white pasta, red tomatoes, green parsley. It's lovely.

BEARDSLEY: The quality of the meals here can be quite a shock for an American. One day I picked Maxime up after he'd been sick, and his teacher told me he didn't touch his leg of lamb or green beans. The thought of such a meal for a toddler made me smile. I remember talking to a French friend who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. She told me with great disgust that her preschool-aged daughter was served frozen, crustless, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

(Soundbite of children laughing)

BEARDSLEY: In Paris, hot meals are prepared on the premises of each of the 270 public daycare facilities in the city. Nothing is mass produced. Ingredients are more often fresh than frozen, and the chefs try to use organic products when they can. Back at Maxime's daycare, the lunch cart is wheeled out of the kitchen to the tiny tables where my son and his classmates are neatly seated, wearing colorful terry cloth bibs.

(Soundbite of children chattering)

BEARDSLEY: Teacher Virgines Lagon(ph) takes the tin foil off the braised lamb and shows it to the children.

Ms. VIRGINES LAGON (Teacher): (Through translator) We serve each course separately so they can see what they're eating. Today, the main course is lamb and the cauliflower au gratin. I'll cut the meat in front of them while they're having their appetizer.

BEARDSLEY: There's a general consensus today that the black olives in the pasta salad are not bon, but everyone gets a kick out of tasting a sprig of fresh parsley. Lagon encourages them to gout, or taste.

Ms. LAGON: Gout, gout.

BEARDSLEY: The savory lamb is a big hit. Most of the kids eat nearly everything, and even if they don't, they're delight in discovering the meal is obvious.

MAXIME: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: More carrots, says Maxime. While the food is delicious, the meal is clearly about more than what's on the plate.

Ms. LAGON: (French spoken)

When Ismael(ph) wants to get up from the table, Lagon reminds him that everyone stays seated until lunch is over. The tots are encouraged to use their silverware, reminded to say please and thank you and to sit up straight in their chairs. Sandra Merle is a dietitian for the Paris daycare system. She says it's important to start this young if you want to lay the foundations for a lifetime of healthy eating.

Ms. SANDRA MERLE (Dietitian for Paris Daycare System): (Through translator) 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.

BEARDSLEY: Merle says children who have learned to take pleasure at the dinner table and follow the rhythm of a meal are less likely to become obese. As for Maxime, thank heavens for those preschool lunches, because thanks to his older brothers at home, he's already discovered Coca-Cola.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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