To understand the French is to understand their love affair with food. The French are known for their taste in high quality fashion, entertainment, and travel. And this quality taste is reflected in their culinary habits. Just as a French woman would choose one perfect silver charm bracelet over a whole armful of cheap plastic ones, so she would choose one piece of expensive melt-in-your-mouth chocolate over a bowlful of cheap imitation chocolate.
There’s no denying it…the French love their food. But what they seem to love more is the atmosphere that food – the preparation and the eating – can create. The French have a certain reverence for culinary rituals that is steeped in years of tradition. For them, meals, no matter how small, should be shared with family and friends, and should be eaten slowly, so that all gathered can enjoy the full benefit of the meal and each other’s company.
As mentioned in my previous post about the French Paradox, some researchers believe that the French love affair with their food – what they eat and how they eat it – is what keeps them trim and healthy. This unique relationship allows the French to eat any food they desire in a slow and sophisticated manner and in the company of highly desirable people. This combination of culinary and social tradition leaves the French feeling highly satisfied with their gastronomic experiences and never feeling deprived.
Eat slow and savor each bite: The French eat very slowly, many times relying on the slowest eater at the table to set the pace for the whole meal. In France and other European countries, it is not unheard of for lunches to last 2-3 hours and dinners up to 5 hours. In America, even when meals take hours to prepare (ie. Thanksgiving), we still eat our whole meal in 20 minutes, many times eating dessert along with our main meal. This race to finish eating leaves us feeling as stuffed as the turkey. However, when you eat slowly, your stomach has enough time to send a signal to the brain and the rest of your body that you are “full” and to stop eating. Slow eating also allows you to appreciate all of the flavors and textures of the food, helping you decide what foods you really enjoy and which you can skip. We might not be able to take 2-3 hour lunches to have a true French culinary experience, but we can make a conscious effort to eat slower by taking smaller bites, putting down utensils between bites, and making sure all of the food in our mouth is eaten before taking another bite.
Give your meal a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T: For the French, every meal is important and deserves respect. And why not? If you’re going to spend hours in the kitchen cooking and fantastic meal, why serve it on regular plates? Even the simplest of meals can become elegant with the right presentation. At home, use the good china and crystal glasses – even for a Wednesday night dinner. Why wait for the President or other celebrity to visit? Sit at the table while eating and create ambiance with music and unscented candles or dim lighting. At work, avoid eating at your desk. Make a lunch date with yourself or invite a friend along to eat with you in the break room. Bring a fancy plate from home and a stemmed glass for your drink. Use real utensils and a cloth napkin. Or, in pure French chic fashion, take a leisurely stroll to a nearby park and eat your lunch under a tree or on a park bench, weather permitting, of course.
Eat a 4-course dinner: People in France learn to eat in courses from the time they first learn to eat with utensils. And, just as some people prefer to keep their foods separate on their plate, the French prefer to keep their courses separate. For them, eating a cup of soup and salad in the same course would be unheard of, yet Americans are used ordering soup/salad or other combos off of most menus. The French style of eating may remind Americans of a fancy wedding reception dinner we may attend once a year, minus the dancing. For instance, a meal in France may begin with an aperitif (a light alcoholic or non-alcoholic drink), followed by an appetizer of soup or pate. The main meal comes next and may include meat, poultry, or fish and a side of pasta or potato, followed by a cheese course. Finally, the dessert is served, usually with coffee or tea. If the idea of eating “wedding style” has you feeling stuffed already, remember that the French may eat 4-5 course meals every day, but they eat much smaller portions than what most Americans are used to. For Americans who work full-time, the ability to eat in courses for lunch and dinner may seem unrealistic. But, if you can’t take the time to eat several courses at lunch, then apply this concept to dinner. Start with a small green salad or cup of soup with a little bread, then the entree, followed by a small decadent dessert, such as a mini chocolate tart, one scoop of sorbet, or a selection of cheeses paired with fruit. Finish off the meal with a hot cup of tea or a decaf coffee. No matter what you serve, try eating the courses on small plates and change the plates after each course.
Stop eating when you are full: This may sound simple enough, but the key is to know your body well enough to recognize you are full and know when it’s time to stop eating. In the book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, author Brian Wansink notes that Americans base their feeling of being full on external cues such as the end of a television show or when their plate is empty. However, the French rely on internal cues such as when they no longer feel hungry. Unlike Americans, the French pay close attention to their bodies and learn, at an early age, their personal levels of hunger. Learning your own levels of hunger can take time. In the book, I Can Make You Thin, British author Paul McKenna suggests using a “hunger scale”, with 1 being physically faint from hunger and 10 being nauseous from eating too much, to help you learn your hunger cues. McKenna advises eating when your hunger level is at 3 or 4 (fairly or slightly hungry) and stopping when you reach a level of 6 or 7 (pleasantly satisfied or full). As soon as you’ve had your fill of food, every bite thereafter will be less enjoyable then the one before. Continuing to eat after this point will create an uncomfortable feeling in your lower stomach – another internal cue that you are full. At this point, you should stop eating no matter how much food is still left on your plate.
Avoid snacking: Just 10 years ago, it would have been safe to say that the French do not snack between meals. But, like much of the Western world, snacking has become a growing trend in France and waistlines seem to be growing as a result. Seeing this trend in 2005, the French went so far as to ban all vending machines from schools and the French Ministry of Health requires the statement, “For your health, avoid snacking between meals,” to be shown or read alongside or immediately following all advertisements for certain types of food and drink. Although snacking has become more popular in France (mostly among the younger generation), the French are much less likely to indulge in snacking than Americans. And, it is no doubt that this behavior has contributed to their healthy lifestyle. Most French will rely on their 3-4 course lunches and dinners to keep them satisfied throughout the day – so satisfied that they do not need to snack. If they do feel the unmistakable hunger pang around 4 PM, they know that dinner is just an hour or two away and simply wait for the full, satisfying meal, rather than give in to an unsatisfying substitute. If you find that you need to eat something between breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner, it is most likely because you did not eat enough at the previous meal. If you must snack, avoid overly processed or prepackaged foods. Instead, choose a “natural” snack such as a piece of fruit, nuts, cheese, or full-fat yogurt with homemade crunchy granola.
Minimize distractions: In the age of iPhones, texting, and Wii, mealtimes allow more opportunities for distractions than ever before. Research shows that when people are distracted during mealtimes, they tend to eat more and never really taste the food they are eating. To echo this sentiment, author Brian Wansink suggests that anything that distracts us from our food can make us overeat without knowing it. Having tech-free mealtimes will not kill you, and may actually help you eat less and enjoy your food more. So, turn off the television, the phone, and other electronics, with the exception of music. Put down the newspaper or magazine and shut the laptop. Put the dog outside if he’s barking or begging for food – anything to make sure your meal and your company have your full attention.
Now that you know the secrets of a French woman’s diet – what they eat and how they eat – you can start applying theses principles to your own lifestyle. Like the French, try to develop a healthy relationship with your food – one where you can look forward to eating all of your favorite things without feeling guilty. Start small by incorporating a few changes each week, then, after a few months, you may find that eating with French flair will become second-nature.
If you liked this article and previous posts about the French diet, don’t keep it a secret. Share the information with your friends in hopes that they will join you in your new French culinary adventure!