Minimalist yet fashionable and effortlessly chic the French girl removes her Chanel sunglasses from her Prada bag and artfully messy but somehow also coiffed hair streaming behind her heads out for her two hour lunch break at a nearby café. At four she might stop for a quick pastry and coffee, and all these meals would be incomplete without wine and cheese. And yet she fits easily into a size two feminine suit. How does she do it?
Well, I’m afraid to bust your bubble fellow fat Americans, but she doesn’t. There’s a few things about the French girl stereotype we have right, but not a lot. French do tend to have a lower BMI than Americans. French do consume a lot more wine than Americans. And French are experts at taking long lunches whilst maintaining productivity. But as with all things, it’s a bit more complicated than the movies might suggest.
As with a Japanese diet, French tend to eat a greater variety of foods than Americans. There is a higher volume of vegetables in the French diet and soup is quite common. Unlike with the Japanese diet I don’t think an American would be able to successfully adopt the French diet for weight loss, but let me try to demystify a few points.
Before we get into this I just want to note that “petit déjeuner” cracks me up because it means “little lunch.” Why France? Why?
I’m always a little shocked waking up in France one because how the hell did I get here but two because I don’t eat until I’m put together and ready for the day. And this is not at all how French people behave. There used to be a court tradition where ladies would invite friends to their chambers to gossip and eat and drink hot cocoa while she put herself together and I mention it because that is evidently still a thing. French people tend to eat before they’re fully ready for the day. I couldn’t tell you if it’s all French or just some, but it is definitely a thing which happens and for me it was culture shock.
In some families there will be one person who goes out to the local bakery and buys fresh bread and pastry for the morning meal and it’s not entirely unheard of for someone to buy a croissant on their way to work. But more commonly French people take their breakfast at home as a sit down meal. Breakfast often includes bread and croissant with butter or jam depending on your taste. Cereal and milk is often eaten and it is not uncommon to eat yoghurt at breakfast. But a French breakfast usually does not include egg or meat. This was for me super problematic because I need loads of protein in the morning. A French breakfast is carby and does include milk, butter, and possibly yoghurt, but for me that’s not enough protein.
This could work for you, but for me it does not. But let’s carry on.
This, I believe is where you can start taking direction from French culture on how to behave. But again I need to share an anecdote. You’ve heard this song:
Pretty early on she says she doesn’t want to eat lunch and plans to go smoke and forget. So … no. Don’t skip lunch and just have a cigarette, that’s not my point at all. But a lot of people seem to think that this song illustrates normal French behaviour. There’s even a whole running joke in a TV show — which I won’t link or name because it’s terrible — about a young woman trying to get her French boss to come with her for lunch and being rebuffed when she says she’ll just smoke later.
I think there’s probably less smoking in France now than there may have been in past generations, but they do still smoke. Nevertheless they absolutely do not skip lunch. That would be the exact opposite of being French.
French are exceptionally good at lunch. I didn’t know lunch was a skill line but evidently it is and French have maxed it out. Firstly, the lunch break is holy. You do not stay at your desk or at your job during lunch. You either go home if you live close enough or you go to a café or restaurant and enjoy a nice sit down meal sometimes with multiple courses. And this is normal. It’s pretty typical for French people to get from about noon to 2pm for their lunch break because it is expected that they will leave work, go to a place, eat slowly, and then come back. And by doing this I think they recharge and are able to maintain a pretty decent level of productivity, so I would absolutely recommend it to Americans.
But okay I need to explain what a French lunch is. It’s actually pretty substantial. In fact I get the impression that the biggest meal of the day often is lunch. When they’re doing multiple courses they’ll have soup or pâté or some other thing that you can have just a small taste of for the entrée.* The main course will be more substantial and will involve a protein, starches and vegetables. And finally there’s salad, cheese, and possibly a sweet dish to finish up on.
*I don’t know how it got confused but in French, entrée means appetizer. Only in English does it signify a main dish.
I think it’s a bit less common to do a multi-course lunch on a workday but it does happen. Crucial though is that in no case will your plate be lacking in vegetables. French eat a lot of meat and rather enjoy it, but they have a number of vegetables prepared in all different ways. So if you’re going to eat a French style lunch be certain that your main dish especially is mostly vegetable with a perfectly prepared protein.
This is a snack eaten at about 4pm and is usually only for children. It’s very small and can be either a pastry, some fruit, or a bit of yoghurt. If you’re quite peckish it’s a good way of maintaining yourself until the evening meal.
Repas du soir
The evening meal is not usually huge, but it is an affair. If there are small children in the house they usually eat in the early evening. Adults though can expect dinner around 7 or 8 at night and it lasts several hours.
Perhaps this is due to me only visiting around holidays but there’s usually aperitif which consists of a — usually alcoholic drink — and small little nibbles. French supermarkets are replete with easily prepared food stuffs for aperitif because it’s more or less required for entertaining even in a casual setting. Chips and pretzels are okay, but usually it will be a bit more involved than that. My mother-in-law will prepare for guests endives with a curry and yoghurt filling, tiny slices of toast with taramasalata, or a creamed fish, and she will often request I make sushi rolls. When I went to see my partner’s grandparents his grandmother had artfully spread pâté on crackers and added a tiny dollop of pickled onion at the centre of each.
If there are guests there may be once again multiple courses. As with lunch there will be an entrée. Around Christmas this often will be fois gras maison which is really delicious but it’s called “fat” for a reason. At a rather nice restaurant we went to on one occasion the entrée served right after gin cocktails was pureed artichoke with cream and a poached egg. It was superb and I’ve been trying without luck to recreate it ever since. The point though is while the bits and pieces served for aperitif are always nicely laid out and well prepared the entrée is meant to show off a bit.
The main meal will be again a protein with a starch — usually potatoes to my immense annoyance — and vegetables. At a super fancy dinner there may be a fish course somewhere in there but more typically if fish is included it will be the main meal. After everyone is finished there will be a simple salad which may be served with or just before cheese and bread. At this point things typically slow down and if there is a dessert it will be served in a lull in the conversation.
I personally like baking but from what I understand home baking is not really a thing in France largely because the patisserie available to them is of considerably higher quality than anything you are likely to do at home. So if a dessert is served it is often something that was bought or ordered. I once hosted a Thanksgiving dinner and asked my partner’s French friends to attend. They somehow got the impression they should bring something and while my American friend brought a dish she herself had made they brought a tarte au citron they had purchased. It was welcome as I was serving about five young men and several women, but it never occurred to them that they could come empty handed or that they shouldn’t buy something to bring.
Everyday vs. Haute Cuisine
Not every French person cooks well or even passably and there is a rather huge difference between what you will find at a restaurant, at a party, and what you might eat if you are just residing in France. The key difference between French and American eating is portion size. There’s not even truly appreciable difference in ingredients. As I said at the outset French food does involve a greater variety of foods and more leafy green vegetables, but it’s basically the same stuff.
Even at a restaurant your portion sizes are going to be smaller. French chefs and home-cooks will never try to impress you with quantity. But as with the Japanese breakfast, while the portions of the side dishes are tiny, because you’re getting multiple side dishes, they add up and you get to have a variety of things. It’s possible if you’re particularly athletic or your job is at a lab bench as opposed to a desk that you might have multiple courses each day, but it’s more likely that you’ll usually have just the well balanced main meal.
It is pretty true that French always eat cheese. My in-laws have this pretty huge tuperware box in their refrigerator that has just different types of cheese in it and after dinner they’ll bring that out and just pop the lid off. Half the cheeses in there you probably could not source outside of Europe.
But another thing my in-laws do that I have started copying is that they use soy cream instead of crème fraîche. Don’t get me wrong, I like all humans am evolutionarily predisposed to love the taste of something that rich and fatty, but it is not okay to have that every single day. French food does rely heavily on sauces and I have even salad dressing recipes that ask for mayonnaise or cream. When I’m cooking French style I try to rely on deglazing with wine and using mustard. But when a cream is required for everyday cooking as delicious as crème fraîche is, you simply can’t have it every day.
What you probably think of as an American considering French food is their really showy food and patisserie. These things exist and they are wonderful, but they are also not for every day. If you’re trying to improve your health by adopting a French diet the key things you want to have in mind are portion size, higher ratio of leafy greens to all other foods, more soup in general, and time taken to eat. Be okay lingering over your meal for thirty to forty-five minutes. It’s better for you. You’ll be satisfied and you will enjoy the time spent just enjoying life.