Before we came to France, one of the things I was most curious about was the eating habits of French people. I had read that French people have better health outcomes than Americans overall, despite eating crazy amounts of cheese, bread, wine, and chocolate. I wanted in on this sorcery!
When it comes to food and eating, I have been carefully watching the French for months. I have noted differences in behaviors and I have tried to adopt some of them to see how things would go for me.
01 Focus on Local, Fresh, High Quality
One of the things I noticed right away when shopping was that the French seemed very focused on food that was local and fresh in a way that we aren’t as Americans. There is a great preference for locally produced items, and not only is the country or region where it came from noted in the sales displays, but in many cases it specifies which exact farm. Freshness is paramount, and the French go to the store more often than Americans do to to pick up fresh food.
Americans seem to want to know if things are “low calorie” or “fat free” or “dairy free”–or at least that’s what our marketers have decided we want to know. Labels like this don’t seem to be much of a thing in France. It is all about QUALITY, and definitely quality over quantity. What I like about this approach is that it seems to be much more focused on what the food IS, rather than what the food ISN’T.
02 Meals, Not Snacks
Another cultural difference that I noticed right away was that mealtime is a sacred space in France. Nothing is more important–not work, not extracurriculars . . . nothing. Breakfast is usually a simple affair involving a pastry and a warm drink in the morning. Lunch is served from 12 until 2, and yes, most things will shut down during this time. Dinner is served at 7 PM and will take several hours. There is actually a law preventing companies from requiring you to respond to emails after hours, most likely so that people can enjoy their long dinners.
I noticed that as I settled in to eating my meals at these times, and could count on having real meals regularly, I stopped snacking. At home I was doing a lot of grazing because I wasn’t making time for meals, specifically breakfast and lunch. I was running around forgetting to eat until I was absolutely ravenous, and then I would find whatever was fast, which usually wasn’t the best choice. When I started taking time to eat real meals at regular intervals, I wasn’t hungry for snacks and I stopped grazing.
03 Take Your Time
The rhythms of French mealtimes took a little getting used to, especially since I have been used to a “grab and go” lifestyle that I think is common for a lot of Americans. At home, if I did sit down to eat lunch, it was a 20-minute affair, not a 90-minute situation. Our family sat down for dinner together most nights, but again, it was super quick (30 minutes AT MOST).
I had heard that French people eat slower than Americans, and in my observation, this is 1000% true. They not only savor their food, but just seem to enjoy the overall experience of eating.
Slowing down our meals wasn’t super easy for our family, especially when eating out. At first, we would all eat at our normal fast pace and then sit there not quite sure what to do with ourselves until the waiter noticed we were done, which could take well over 45 minutes, and then another 45 minutes to settle the check.
Over time, we slowed down. We learned the art of family conversation at mealtimes, and our pace slowed for all meals, not just restaurant meals. Honestly, the slow pace of meals and the resulting conversations has been incredibly important in fostering the closeness we have developed as a family, which brings me to my next point!
04 A Shared Experience
A very important aspect of meals in France is that it is an experience to be shared with other people. In the U.S., everyone can kind of do their own thing–and it is really common to adopt an individual diet–vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free. In France, the idea of sharing and having a communal experience is a key part of the meal, which I think is really beautiful. A downside is that it can feel kind of rigid at social gatherings if you have a dietary need that doesn’t fit with the main group. But overall, I love that mealtimes are nurturing and feed both hunger and a need for connection.
Eating in a lovely setting is also important in France, and not just at fancy restaurants. Even for a simple meal or a coffee, the French have a knack for finding a bit of ambiance–a table in a garden, a seat on a terrace, a cozy table in a warmly-lit restaurant, or on the street basking in the evening sun.
06 Pleasure over Guilt
At home, it is really common for people to talk about food with a high level of shame. Whether it is talking about all the things we shouldn’t be eating, describing food not as food but as “fuel,” or jumping on a diet that severely limits calories, eliminates entire food groups, or maybe restricts eating to a few hours of the day–Americans are really good at food guilt. I have spent a lot of time in the ballroom dance community where disordered eating is normalized, so I acknowledge that my experience might be a little more extreme than most people’s.
The French, on the other hand, talk about food in terms of pleasure, not guilt, and this has been so refreshing. I love hearing food described in vivid detail and with a high degree of enthusiasm. People get excited about food as an experience, at it’s so joyful! Food is one of life’s great pleasures, and I have learned a lot living in a culture that deeply appreciates that.
What I’m Taking Home
Before I came, I thought maybe I would learn what French people secretly don’t eat in order to stay skinny. But what I have discovered instead is an attitude towards food that is radically different than what I have been conditioned to have. Instead of a long list of “should nots,” I have found a short list of “shoulds.” The secret is making more time and space for food and friends in my life, not less. It is about abundance and joyful sharing, not scarcity, isolation, and deprivation. This has all been a delightful surprise, and one that I hope transforms my life forever.
Need more food inspiration? Check out 25 Reflections: Learning New Recipes.