10 Eating Rules French Children Know (But Most Americans Don’t)

How the French eat, age, dress, raise their children and live in general is a real talking point these days. So, as an American mother of three half-French kids, I figured I’d add my two cents to the conversation.

I lived in France before becoming a parent, but eventually it was my kids who taught me everything I need to know about eating like a French person: Eating, and staying slim and healthy, isn’t just about what you eat, but also how, when and why. Yes, French people enjoy junk food occasionally, and sometimes they eat between meals, but people don’t just let loose every day. There’s a code of conduct for food, for big people and little ones alike. Here, in 10 quick life lessons, is what my kids taught me about food.

1. Eat, but not all day long.

Three meals a day, plus the children’s traditional after-school “gouter,” or snack, which might be a pain au chocolat, fruit or applesauce.

When mealtimes roll around, you eat with real pleasure because you’re hungry.

2. Eat real foods and generous portions.

Consuming three meals a day without grazing in between means you can eat well when you sit down at the table — and that includes a starter, main course, cheese and dessert. Portions are generous without going overboard. An example of yesterday’s lunch menu:

Starter course: Lentil salad

Main course: Roasted chicken, green beans

Cheese course: Vanilla yogurt

Dessert: Apple and orange slices … and that was in the public school cafeteria.

3. Choose water.

Generally speaking, the French do not drink their calories. At mealtimes, water (whether still or sparkling) is the drink of choice. Adults might opt for a glass or two of wine, but the glasses aren’t the size of fishbowls.

4. Sit down.

It’s rare to see people eating while walking or shopping. There are no cup holders on caddies, or even in most cars. You eat at the table, not in front of the TV or computer screen, then you leave the table and do something else.

5. Eat lighter at night.

Lunchtime is the main event. Dinner is usually light: soups, salads, an omelet, a simple pasta dish. Dessert might be a yogurt or fruit. And you sleep so much better.

6. When the kitchen closes, it’s CLOSED.

No grazing after dinner.

7. Know your limit, then stop.

Set eating times help you tune in to when you are really hungry or full.

8. Taste your food, guess the ingredients.

The French don’t just like to eat fabulous food and drink wonderful wine, they love to talk about it. Discussing how something tastes, its ingredients and how it was made heightens awareness; children love to join the conversation. They learn about real food and where it comes from.

9. Get cooking!

Along with an interest in ingredients comes an interest in the actual process of cooking food. With a little coaching, my 2-year-old peeled the apples she picked with her class and happily joined in making a tart. Children love helping put fresh vegetables or pasta into the pot, or making a chocolate cake from scratch. Being part of the process heightens appreciation, and builds good habits for life.

10. Eating well is not a sin; it’s a pleasure.

Eating great food — no matter how simple or how elaborate — is one of life’s great pleasures, not an endless guilt trip. Especially when it’s in moderation. Once, when we were visiting family in the US, a waitress asked my French husband if he was “done working on that,” referring to his plate of food. His reply: “Eating is a pleasure, mademoiselle, not work!”

WINES…

From biodynamics to natural wine, there’s a lot to choose from in the world of “green” wines

“I entertain a lot during the holidays, and because I eat organic as much as possible, I’d like to follow through with organic wines. But what are the differences among organic, biodynamic, sustainable, and so-called ‘natural’ wines?”

—Janet Finnegan

Buying organic is a simpler choice at the farmers market or grocery store than it is at a wineshop. Before I try to make sense of all the different “green” types of wine available, let’s step back and look at the bigger picture for a moment. Viniculture, which embraces both viticulture (vine cultivation) and winemaking, has always been sustainable in a far larger sense of the word: It’s thought to have its roots in the Near East some 9,000 years ago, and the earliest evidence for wine, found in northern Iran, dates from 5400 to 5000 B.C. The history of civilization and the history of wine are inseparable.

You may also be interested to know that a recent analysis of 2,500-year-old amphoras, from the ancient French port of Lattara, by a team led by molecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that French winemaking began as far back as 500 B.C. Lattara was where the Etruscans traded with the Celtic Gauls, and that first French wine was basically an Italian white, albeit flavored with rosemary and possibly thyme or basil.

These days, the industrial end of the wine import-export biz uses 20-foot ocean shipping containers holding 25,000 liters of bulk wine in a “flexitank” bag. You may find that to be a turnoff, but The Wine Economist points out more than one green reason for the rise of (really big) boxed wine.

And before I forget, there’s a nice international roundup of sustainable, organic, and biodynamic wines—as well as a useful explanation (and photo IDs) of sustainability and organic certification labels—at winewarehouse.com.

Organic wines

Just like other certified-organic products, organic wines are overseen by the USDA’s National Organic Program. They must be made with grapes cultivated without synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or fertilizers; agricultural products such as commercially available yeasts must be organic; and the label must state the certifying agent. They also have to meet the standards of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau—in particular, for sulfite labeling requirements.

Sulfites (sulfur dioxide in various forms) are naturally found in grape skins and are a byproduct of fermentation, but winemakers the world over have long added tiny amounts of them to wine, primarily to give it stability (so it doesn’t turn into vinegar) and prevent oxidation and unwanted bacterial and yeast growth. Conventional wines in the U.S. may contain up to 350 parts per million (ppm).

While certified-organic wines contain naturally occurring sulfites, the level must be less than 10 ppm, and no extra sulfites may be added. If an organic wine is labeled “Sulfite Free,” that means it has no detectable sulfites—that is, present-day analysis isn’t sensitive enough to pick up sulfites at such low levels.

Another category of organic wines states “Made With Organic Grapes” or “Made With Organically Grown Grapes” on the label. They can’t be certified organic because they may contain up to 100 ppm of added sulfites, and any agricultural ingredients such as yeast aren’t required to be organic but must still be produced without genetic engineering or other excluded methods.

The National Organic Standards Board’s vote in December 2011 to continue to prohibit the adding of sulfite to certified-organic wine was controversial in wine circles. Most winemakers feel the preservative is critical in a product that must be shipped and then may sit unopened for years. The European Union, for its part, restricts sulfites in its organic wine to 100 ppm for red wine and 150 for white and rosé. The wine preservatives in the ancient world, by the way, were tree resins, according to Patrick McGovern, who writes about the history of winemaking in Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture. They included terebinth, pine, cedar, frankincense, and myrrh, which gives me a whole new slant on the Three Wise Men. Modern wines like Greek retsina are made in this ancient tradition.

You should also know that sulfites aren’t the sole prerogative of vintners; a two-ounce serving of dried apricots can have 10 times the amount of sulfites in a glass of conventional wine. Although they’re safe for most of us, they can be hazardous to asthmatics and others with an allergy or sensitivity to them. I can’t go into a longer discussion of sulfites in this column (so much else to cover!), but here’s one of many online sources that can help sort out sulfite facts from fiction. And Wall Street Journal wine columnists Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher (and a few medical experts) have thoroughly addressed the purported connection between sulfites and headaches.

Biodynamic wines

Like organic practices, the intense, holistic (and trademarked) approach to agriculture called Biodynamics is free of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, etc. One thing that differentiates a Demeter-certified Biodynamic farm, however, is that the farm is considered as an organism in which plants, animals, and human beings are integrated. I’m not sure what carefully managed farm isn’t, but anyhoo, “the significant difference,” the Demeter website explains, “is that the Biodynamic method attempts to work with the dynamic energies in nature and not solely with its material needs.”

The spiritual-ethical-ecological principles of Biodynamics were developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner after a series of lectures he delivered to a group of German farmers in 1924. The eye-rolling among skeptics starts once the discussion turns to what it takes to bring cultivated land more closely in harmony with nature. Herb-based compost preparations made in accordance with celestial rhythms are key; the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association explains that even the method of stirring a field spray is specific, “repeatedly creating a vortex in one direction, followed by a vortex in the other direction.”

“But focusing on the mystical aspects of biodynamics risks missing the point, as well as one of the main reasons winemakers are so attracted to it,” James Rodewald, drinks editor at Gourmet, wrote in January 2005. “It is the ultimate hands-on approach…. Serious attention must be paid to the vines. Winemakers are by nature extremely detail oriented, so it’s not surprising that this kind of agricultural micro-management might appeal to them.”

As far as sulfites go, biodynamic wines can contain up to 100 ppm (150 ppm for sweet wines).

Sustainable wines

Sustainable growers generally minimize energy and water use and inputs of synthetic chemicals. They may even farm organically or biodynamically but choose not to get certified; they want the freedom, for instance, to tinker with the amount of sulfites they use or wipe out a devastating pest with a synthetic if all else fails.

Sustainable farmers stress flexibility; the practices that work in one area or even microclimate may not work in another. There are no federal standards for sustainability, but regional wine-industry associations, such as the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance and LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology), based in the Pacific Northwest, have developed programs for third-party certification of vineyards and wineries.

Natural wines

This newest counterculture niche is based on a deceptively simple non-interventionist theory of winemaking. One hallmark is the use of the indigenous yeasts that are present on grape skins and in the air for fermentation (instead of always consistent commercial yeasts), which can lead to unexpected flavors ranging from funky to sublime.

The only additive may be—you got it—sulfites, in very small amounts, if used at all. In fact, natural winemakers don’t even like to refine or filter their product, and they’re far stricter in the cellar than organic or biodynamic producers; there is no correction of sugars or acidity, for instance. You’ll find a more detailed explanation of what constitutes a natural wine at Jamie Goode’s wine blog; the British wine columnist (and biologist) is also the author, with Sam Harrop, of the excellent Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking. American wine writer Alice Feiring, author of Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally, is a big proponent on this side of the pond.

Improve that red wine with just a push of a button…!

Something about fine wine invites mystique, ritual — and more than a little pretension.

If you have ever ordered an old and expensive bottle of red from a master sommelier, you may have seen the ostentatious production that goes into decanting the stuff. The wine steward rolls out a gueridon (a little table) on which the bottle is cradled gently in a cloth-lined basket. A lit candle flickers nearby. The sommelier tips the neck of the bottle over the candle while pouring the wine with the delicacy of a surgeon into a broad-bottomed decanter so as not to disturb the sediment that has fallen out of the wine during years of aging and character development.

Thus aerated, the wine is then allowed to “breathe” for a while before it is served. Oenophiles — even those back in Roman times — have observed that wine of many vintages and varieties improves perceptibly when aerated for as little as a few minutes or for as long as a day. Oenologists have debated the chemistry that might account for this shift in flavor. Do the tannins change in ways that soften their distinctive flavors? Or does aeration simply allow stinky sulfides enough time to evaporate away?

Whatever the science behind it, the traditional ritual makes for a fine show. But when you’re at home pouring wine for yourself or guests, you can save time and generate entertainment of a different kind by taking a shortcut: dump the bottle in a blender, and frappe it into a froth. (Sediment is less common in wines today than it used to be, but if you are concerned about that, pour the wine very slowly into the blender, and stop before you get to the last couple ounces.)

Less than a minute of hyperdecanting, as we at The Cooking Lab have taken to calling this modern method, exposes the wine to as much air as it would see in an hour or more of traditional decanting, and does so far more uniformly. Wine aficionados may recoil in fear that such a violent treatment will “break” the wine, but the proof is in the tasting.

In carefully controlled, double-blind taste tests conducted at our lab, we presented 14 experienced wine tasters — seven sommeliers, three vintners, two oenologists and two wine writers — with unlabeled samples of hyperdecanted wine. The tasters also received samples taken from the same bottles but decanted the old-fashioned way. The order of presentation was varied from one trial to the next.

When we asked them which samples they preferred, only two of the 14 judges were able to distinguish a difference repeatedly, and both of those tasters consistently preferred the wine that had gone through the blender.

So the next time you uncork a well-muscled syrah — or even a rambunctious riesling — for your connoisseur friends, bring a blender to the table, and have a camera ready. The foam will subside within seconds. But you’ll cherish that memory of the look on their faces for the rest of your days.