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Kathy, Charley and Kelly's Best of Provence

Kathy, Charley and Kelly Wood recently spent six-and-a-half months living in Provence, in a farmhouse in the famous Luberon area, between the villages of Bonnieux and Lacoste.  Kelly (then age 11) attended the village school in Bonnieux. In this series of travel notes, the Wood family shares their favorite places and experiences in Provence.

Food for Children and Families

Kathy Wood (Kaydee)

Like many American kids, our daughter Kelly is a selective eater, so eating out on our European trips has always been a challenge for our family. Charley and I like to try regional specialties, and we seek out reasonably-priced restaurants that offer an authentic local experience, not necessarily the most exquisite gourmet meal. Kelly, on the other hand, prefers to eat somewhere where she can get a good meal involving familiar food. She's usually cautious about trying new things.

French children eat differently than American kids, and eating out in Provence (or anywhere in France) can be a difficult experience for an American family, especially if your child is "selective" like Kelly. French children regularly eat many things children in America don't (or won't) eat: lamb, veal, rabbit, duck, all kinds of fish, all kinds of cheeses, all kinds of unique vegetables. Perhaps your child will be open to try some of these new things. Kelly wanted absolutely nothing to do with goat cheese; and although she tried lamb and veal, she'd rather not eat them again. We're sure that, like us, when she gets older, she'll be more open to different kinds of food.

Sidewalk cafe in Avignon, waiting for pizza

Sidewalk cafe in Avignon, waiting for pizza

Some restaurants and cafes do have a "menu enfant," but many do not. If there's a separate children's menu, it's normally reasonably priced and is similar to what you might find in America: a choice of frozen chicken nuggets or pasta bolognaise, sometimes followed by a dish of ice cream or a frozen dessert. The chicken nuggets are usually very unappealing.

You may also be able to get a scaled down version of something on the regular menu, a "portion enfant." Some restaurants will be flexible to do something special for a child - perhaps omit the sauce on a meat dish or serve a sauce on the side. The friendlier you and your child are, big smiles, not demanding, lots of courtesy, and a few French words, the more likely the owner and staff will be to deviate from their normal menu to find something that works for your child.

France now has an assortment of American fast food chains. You'll find McDonalds in the larger towns in Provence (Cavaillon, Apt, Isle sur la Sorgue, Avignon). Avignon even has a KFC. (We think the French hamburger chain called "Quick" is the best of the fast food options.) Sometimes it may be tempting to stop at one of these places to get your child a burger and some fries. If you do give into your child's plea for McDonalds, unless you speak fluent French, we highly recommend going inside to order instead of trying to use the drive-through option. You'll be able to communicate much more effectively in person.

You don't have to go to McDonalds to find something for your child, but we do suggest focusing on the simpler, less-expensive cafes with a broad menu. They will be more likely to be flexible and family-friendly, and the parents can still enjoy an authentic meal. Menus are normally posted outside the front door, so the whole family can see what is available and choose a place that has something for everyone.

We think the best option for a family is to eat a good lunch at midday and make that your main meal. Dinner is served late in Provence, and many restaurants don't even open for their evening meal until 7:30 or 8:00pm. Dinner is also a more drawn-out affair of multiple courses extending two hours or more, and not a meal to be rushed. The timing and the length of the meal may not work for children. Just keep this in mind when making your plans for eating out.

Best Types of Restaurant Foods for Children

You will find some familiar types of foods that your kids will be comfortable with in Provence. Here are some things that worked for us.

Pasta

Pasta is found on many menus, either with a bolognaise (meat) sauce or a marinara sauce. Our daughter really liked the spaghetti carbonara at some restaurants, though occasionally it is served with a cracked-open raw egg that you mix in yourself. (Kelly never quite realized, and we never told her, that spaghetti carbonara has egg in the creamy sauce.)

Pizza

Southern France has some Italian influences in its cuisine, and you'll be able to find pizza on some menus. Look for a place that has an assortment of pizzas that are freshly made on site. Provencal pizza has a thin crust and a different mix of toppings than you typically find at American restaurants. There's no pepperoni and the standard cheese is not mozzarella. You'll find pizza trucks at most of the markets, where you can usually buy cheese pizza by the slice. On Fridays we often bought two whole pizzas at the Bonnieux market and ate these for a take-away lunch.

Chicken

Chicken (poulet) is available, but it's not as popular a main dish as we're used to in America, probably because the French eat a much wider variety of meats and poultry. Sometimes you'll find roast chicken (poulet roti) on a cafe menu, and this would be a good choice. Your child will likely be served a leg and thigh portion, unless a half-chicken is ordered. The bigger markets usually have roast chicken trucks with big rotisseries. A roast chicken is something else that you can buy at a market and then take home for a delicious picnic lunch.

Beef

The French also don't eat as much beef as we're used to at home. Some cafes serve a simple entrecote steak with fries (frites) or you might occasionally find something like a hamburger steak (steak hache). Read the menu carefully, as sometimes a hamburger steak might be served with a fried egg on the top. (The menu would say something about oeufs or cheval - eggs on horseback. You can always specify "sans oeufs.")

The fries are normally wonderful, and you'll get a lot of them. You might even find a bottle of ketchup, though don't be disappointed if none if available. (It's an American thing.) One of Kelly's favorite dishes in France was "beef burgundy." In Provence, a similar dish is "beef daube," kind of a beef stew in a rich sauce.

Cafe lunch at Le Terrail in Bonnieux (Kelly eating entrecte steak with fries)

Cafe lunch at Le Terrail in Bonnieux (Kelly eating entrecote steak with fries)

Sandwiches

You might be able to order a sandwich, though it will usually be served on a baguette roll. When all else fails, a baguette avec fromage is a good choice. The fromage is normally emmentaler (a mild swiss-type cheese). Many American kids, and less adventurous parents, also enjoy the French croque monsieur sandwich, a toasted ham and cheese sandwich made with sliced sandwich bread.

Alpine Specialities

The French Alps are not far away, and some fun alpine dishes are available in some cafes in Provence. We really enjoyed a lunch at a fondue restaurant in Avignon, Restaurant la Salicorne near Les Halles market. Kelly and Charley had the beef (Bourguignonne) fondue, and I had the cheese (fromage) fondue.

Kelly likes the beef fondue and cooking her own bits of meat in the hot oil. I also like a dish, really a style of meal, called raclette, which is also fun for kids. You melt hot cheese on a raclette machine and then pour it over potatoes, slices of meat, pickles or vegetables. Another good alpine dish is tartiflette, a yummy potato, ham and cheese casserole.

Crepes

Crepes are another traditional French meal that children should enjoy. Kids will enjoy simple fillings like fromage or jambon, but more adventurous parents should experiment with other fillings involving fish, meat, cheese, and vegetables. Dessert crepes are especially wonderful: think oozing chocolate, luscious berries, lots of whipped toppings. We had lunch one day at a creperie in Apt called Le Chant de l'Heure, right on the main pedestrian street near the cathedral. In Arles we enjoyed crepes at Le Grillon, located behind the arena.

Bread

You'll almost always get fresh bread with lunch or dinner. The bread is excellent, of course, though never served with butter. You'll only get butter (and jam) in the morning, and even then you might have to ask for it. Many places won't even have butter on hand, since most of the cooking is done using olive oil.

Desserts

The desserts are absolutely wonderful. We loved the Carte d'Or ice cream. Kelly always ordered some kind of ice cream after dinner, and especially liked the various kinds of fruit sorbets. Ice cream desserts are often served with whipped cream (chantilly). Chocolate mousse is another great dessert choice for kids.

Beverages

Soft drinks are very expensive in France, actually in all of Europe. You may end up paying three euro for a coke, served in a small glass with no ice. And there aren't any free refills. Kelly normally ordered something called a sirop, water with a fruit syrup that you mix in yourself, kind of like Kool-Aid. This was cheaper than a soft drink and usually very good.

Or you can always order water. The French would normally order mineral water. Unless you like the carbonated water, be sure to specify non gazeuse when you order bottled water. Charley and I typically order wine, and we then ask for a pitcher of tap water (free); "une carafe d'eau, s'il vous plait." Don't expect it to come with ice!

Food at the Markets and Grocery Stores

We love food shopping at the outdoor markets. In addition to pizza and roast chicken, we've seen oriental food stands set up at several of the bigger markets. They cook big pans of something similar to lo mein and fried rice, and they have egg rolls and other finger foods.

We also enjoy the big French supermarkets like Leclerc or Auchan. It's fun just to see what kinds of foods are available for French families; some familiar and some not familiar!

At the market and the grocery store you can pick up fruit juice, fresh fruit, and other snacks to have on hand at your B&B or rental place, just to supplement your child's restaurant meals.

Resources

Woods Family Grand Tour of Europe: List of articles and photo albums by Kathy Wood

Slow Travel France - Restaurants: Basics of restaurants and cafes in France

Slow Travel France - Restaurants: French Menu/Food Glossary


The Wood family from Knoxville, Tennessee are veteran travelers who successfully pursued their dream of living and traveling in Europe. Kathy, Charley and daughter Kelly (then 10 years old) began their fourteen-month "Grand Tour of Europe" in June 2004 and returned home in August 2005. Their trip focused on four major areas: France (33 weeks including 6+ months living in Provence), Great Britain (11 weeks), Italy (11 weeks), and the German/Austrian/Swiss Alps (6 weeks). Kathy is a regular Slow Travel contributor and maintained an extensive blog during their travels - Our Grand Tour of Europe.

Kathy is a former Human Resources executive who now works as a consultant and part-time college professor. She and Charley also lead The Luberon Experience (www.luberonexperience.com), a week-long, small-group trip based in Provence.

© Kathy Wood, 2005

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