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!”



Cooking sous vide is easier than its fancy name might suggest. You simply seal the ingredients in a plastic bag (you can also use a canning jar) and place them in a water bath, a combi oven, or any other cooker that can set and hold a target temperature to within a degree or two. When the food reaches your target temperature or time, you take it out, give it a quick sear or other finish, and serve it. That’s it.

The sous vide method yields results that are nearly impossible to achieve by traditional means. In the photo above, both of the tenderloins started at the same weight. The steak on the left was cooked in a pan to a core temperature of 52 °C / 126 °F, but more than 40% of the meat was overcooked. The other steak was cooked sous vide to the same temperature and then seared with a blowtorch to yield a juicier steak that is done to perfection from edge to edge.

Similarly, beef short ribs braised at 58 °C / 136 °F for 72 hours are melt-in-your-mouth tender, yet pink and juicy. And the delicate, custard-like texture of an egg poached at precisely 65 °C / 149 °F is amazing.

Sous vide is especially useful for cooking meats and seafood, for which the window of proper doneness is often vanishingly small when traditional methods are used. When you fry a piece of fish, the flesh is most succulent and tender within a very narrow temperature range. Because the cooking temperature of the pan is at least 200 °C / 392 °F hotter than the ideal core temperature of the fish, the edges will inevitably be far more cooked than the center when pan-fried.

Chicken breasts and other poultry cuts and poultry products are often held at a target temperature for a different reason: to kill potential pathogens and improve the safety of the food.

The idea of preserving and cooking food in sealed packages is ancient. Throughout culinary history, food has been wrapped in leaves, potted in fat, packed in salt, or sealed inside animal bladders before being cooked. People have long known that isolating food from air—accomplished more completely by vacuum sealing—can arrest the decay of food. Packaging food also prevents it from drying out.

Although sous vide literally means “under vacuum” in French, the defining feature of the sous vide method is not packaging or vacuum sealing; it is accurate temperature control. A computer-controlled heater can warm a water bath to any low temperature you set, and it can keep it there for hours—or even days, if needed.

Such mastery over heat pays off in several important ways, most notably, freeing the cook from the tyranny of the clock. Traditional cooking with a range, oven, or grill uses high and fluctuating temperatures, so you must time the cooking exactly; there is little margin for error. With just a moment’s inattention, conventional cooking can quickly overshoot perfection.

When cooking sous vide, in contrast, most foods will taste just as good even if they spend a few extra minutes at a target temperature, so you can relax and devote your attention to the more interesting and creative aspects of cooking.

Precise temperature control and uniformity of temperature has two other big advantages. First, it allows you to cook food to an even doneness all the way through—no more dry edges and rare centers. Second, you get highly repeatable results. The steak emerges from the bag juicy and pink every time.

A final important benefit is that the closed bag creates a fully humid environment that effectively braises the food, so ingredients cooked this way are often noticeably juicier and more tender. Food cooked sous vide doesn’t brown, but a simple sear adds that traditional flavor where needed so that you can have the best of both worlds.

We’ve been asked many times about the safety of cooking plastic bags. The bottom line is that bags made expressly for cooking sous vide are perfectly safe—as are oven bags, popular brands of zip-top bags, and stretchy plastic wrap such as Saran Wrap.

The plastic that these products are made of is called polyethylene. It is widely used in containers for biology and chemistry labs, and it has been studied extensively. It is safe. But, do avoid very cheap plastic wraps when cooking. These are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and heating them presents a risk of chemicals leaching into the food.

Cooking sous vide isn’t complicated or expensive. In Modernist Cuisine at Home, we guide you through the various kinds of sous vide equipment and supplies available for home cooks, including how to improvise your own setup. Check back later in the week when we share such methods using equipment you probably already own.

Future of Food


Former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer, Nathan Myhrvold, may have a PhD in physics – but it’s his love of cooking that has captured his imagination.

“After being at Microsoft for a number of years, I said…I’ve got all of these degrees in things I don’t do – but I cook a lot, why don’t I actually try to go to cooking school?”

Nathan not only attended cooking school, he authored what is arguably one of the most influential cookbooks in recent memory. “Modernist Cuisine” is a 2438-page tome detailing a new approach to cooking. Its premise? That an understanding of science and how it applies in the kitchen will change how we prepare common foods.

The modernist cooking movement involves tools like combi-ovens, versa-whips, sous-vide cookers, and pacojets. With them solids can be turned into liquids – liquids into foams – and foams into airs. Take peanut butter and jelly. Why have sandwich when you can make peanut butter powder and jelly noodles?

The modernist kitchen also features new ingredients. Marc Lepine is one of only a handful of Canadian chefs who practices modernist cooking. His kitchen contains an assortment of atypical ingredients.

“We’ve got ascorbic acid, versawhip, agar agar, there’s our xanthan gum, Ultra-Tex 8, locust bean gum, iota carrageenan, Methocel K100,” he lists.

In Marc’s Ottawa restaurant, two such ingredients are combined for a technique called spherification. That’s when you turn a liquid, in this case a gispatcho soup, into balls that burst when you eat them.

“The calcium that I’ve added to the gispatcho reacts with the sodium in the water, and form a gel all along the outside. It’s gispatcho soup on the inside (and) it’s encapsulated in a gispatcho jelly on the outside.”

Still, Nathan Myhrvold admits modernist cuisine is not without its detractors.

“Some of those people say isn’t this all artificial and weird, and we say no. We are celebrating these ingredients in a way that you just can’t without all the rest of this equipment.”
© Global News. A division of Shaw Media Inc., 2012.


Peeling fresh fava beans with ease (and soda)

A few weeks ago Evan Kleiman of KCRW’sGood Food tweeted me a question from one of her listeners: why did the cooking water for a batch of garden green beans turn pink? Not knowing for sure, I guessed that the color came from early stages of the browning discoloration that develops when many fruits and vegetables are cut or damaged. Mushrooms are especially prone to this, and I’ve noticed that they turn pink before getting more frankly brown.

Shortly after replying to Evan I happened to pull out a half-dozen fava bean plants from my garden, and I harvested pounds of green pods, old and young. I enjoyed the tender ones whole, tossed in a hot pan with a little oil and salt. They’re deliciously different from ordinary green beans, with a flavor that’s both meaty and flowery, even perfumed. The older pods I pulled open to collect the beans in their tough seedcoats.  I blanched a batch of these beans in boiling water to soften the skins and speed the tedious peeling. And I noticed that the blanching water became pink, especially under incandescent light (below).

This reminded me of how quinces and pears can turn pink and even red when they’re slowly poached. They do so because they contain compounds called proanthocyanidins, molecules that don’t participate in the usual fruit browning, but that fragment during cooking into anthocyanins, the pigments that color most red fruits and vegetables.

So I checked, and it turns out that the skins of most legume seeds, favas included, are rich in the same proanthocyanidins.

New theory! Colorless proanthocyanidins in bean seedcoats release fragments into the cooking water, and these are what turn the water pink.

I thought I could test the theory by cooking some skins by themselves and adding either citric acid or alkaline baking soda to the cooking water. Anthocyanin pigments are sensitive to pH. Acid usually shades them toward the red, alkali toward the blue. So if the fava seed coats are indeed releasing anthocyanins into the cooking water, I should be able to change the water’s color.

Well, the color test didn’t turn out the way I expected. The acid cooking water was the same pale pink as the neutral water, and it was the alkaline water that turned a deep, winey red (right). I still haven’t figured that out.

But I noticed something else that was easy to figure out, and much more useful than any color change. Whenever I cooked fava beans in alkaline water, more than half of them popped their skins in the pot, no hand-peeling needed! And the rest were easy to peel with a gentle squeeze at one end.

Here’s a batch of alkaline-blanched favas fresh out of the pot, before any hand-peeling.

The skin-busting effect of alkaline cooking water makes good sense. Acidity maintains the structure of plant cell walls, and alkalinity breaks it down. That’s why beans take forever to soften if you try to cook them in a tomato sauce. So soda in the blanching water weakens the fava seed coats enough that many of them rupture on their own in a couple of minutes at the boil, and the remainder easily break between finger and thumb.

Using soda seems such an obvious idea in retrospect that I’m surprised it’s not already standard practice. Many recipes for dried favas do call for baking soda to soften their skins and speed the cooking. There must be other cooks out there who’ve been blanching fresh favas with soda. I’m now one of them.

So: to ease fava peeling, add about a tablespoon of baking soda to a quart of vigorously boiling water, and throw in the beans. Fish them out as they pop their skins so they don’t pick up the soda soapiness, and drop them in a bowl of cold water to rinse. After two or three minutes, scoop the remainder into another bowl of water to cool them down. Peel them by gently squeezing on the thick end of the bean, if necessary nicking the thin end with your fingernails.

And check out the color of the cooking water before it disappears down the drain. It’s a sign of the chemical defenses concentrated in the seed coats, and their likely nutritional value for us. That’s the next challenge: making fava skins delicious enough to keep and eat with pleasure.