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!”