The Art of Eating Is Part of the French Culture
As much as we don’t like to admit it, the French do something right. They know how to eat. And I don’t mean just sitting at a table with a plate and a fork. It is the whole process of shopping, preparing and then sitting down to finally enjoy a meal. The French have l’arte de manger (the art of eating) well engrained in their culture.
Even in (laid-back) summer.
Even if summer is a more relaxed time, the French still keep their meal-discipline intact
We are now more than half-way through the summer here on the Jersey Shore, and we are enjoying a welcome break from the hectic schedule of our life in France.
We do appreciate the relaxed eating and accessible food culture here in America, but it comes with a price, don’t you think? (And I don’t mean with money). It is no secret that America is in a weight and fresh food crisis and our easy way of eating and cheap access to processed foods is ruining some of the sacred art of eating.
But what you think we should do? Isn’t our American food culture heavily dependent on our work and lifestyle culture? Who has time to enjoy the art of eating? But in France they do, that different French lifestyle and habits that allows the French to make eating top priority in their culture. And although the French are also experiencing the impact of the American and Anglo-Saxon culture on their eating style, the differences in the lifestyle between France and America help to keep the French stricter meal-discipline intact.
A look at both American and French summer eating habits highlight some basic differences
We can learn from each other, the French and Americans. I believe that by understanding the other side’s culture we can enjoy an awareness of how (and why) we eat the way we do. In France, a country that fights, criticizes (and then embraces) the American influence on food (that is another article) to the America that has lost the art of eating for two generations or more. But we, as Americans, are suffering the health consequences more than French, because their strict eating habits and summer lifestyle have kept their weight and health more in check.
My call in action in this article is not to adapt the French culture into your lifestyle, but by explaining some basic differences to you, perhaps we can reflect on how we live our own lifestyle and make a few changes on what and how we choose to eat, summer season or not. Who knows? Maybe with a few changes we can lose a bit of weight and enjoy that food on our plate even more.
How to eat healthy: summer eating differences France to America
- Portion Sizes
- Kids meals in restaurants
- Differences in vacation
- Stop and take time to eat, even on the road or working
- No snacking
- Chips with sandwiches not before as a snack
- Lighter and later supper
- No air conditioning
- Grandma’s cooking and the family house
- Apéritif or cocktail hour
Everything in America is big, and that includes portions for drinks, meals in restaurants and for everything like the babyscoop ice cream you see in the picture above. In France the portions are smaller and you are not allowed to take home a doggie bag from the restaurant, like you do in America.
Tip: Ask about plate sharing at restaurants, order the baby scoop ice cream, don’t double size it. And to avoid waste, when you do get those big portions in restaurants, move half the food to one side of the plate and take it home for lunch. The portion sizes are huge in America. Just don’t eat it all.
Kids meals in restaurants
With 97% of kids’ restaurant meals in America not meeting basic nutritional guidelines, these kids menus just shouldn’t be ordered. Period. In France at restaurants, most kid menus are made fresh from the kitchen and there is usually one or two choices. Sometimes the kids’ menus are just a piece of ham and plain pasta or a hamburger without a bun and some french fries. Or sometimes they are inventions from the chef. But they are not fried and over processed, like most American restaurant kid meals are.
Tip: For your children, in place of the kids’ meals, order one or two side dishes off the menu or share an entrée between your two kids. There are options for kids meals at restaurants if you ask and you want something fresher than chicken nuggets and french fries. Note: by ordering water instead of soda and leaving the bread off the table until the meals come, you may find your child’s hunger has kicked up a notch when their food comes.
Stop and take time to eat, even on the road or at work
The French do have a lot of time off from work in the summer and having one month off of work for vacation is not uncommon. However, the French also have to work in the summer too. Whether the French are at work or on the road to travel to their vacation destination, they always stop and take a break for lunch. You wouldn’t see a French family eating lunch in the car (or snacking) to get to their destination faster. Non! They would stop at a picnic area and pull out the picnic for an hour long break/lunch. At work you take a break to eat too. No eating at your desk, it doesn’t look good to the boss.
Tip: Take a break at work to eat lunch or to get away from your desk. Not only will you feel more productive in the afternoon, but you will get more satiety from your meals. If you are traveling in the car towards your vacation, fatigue is an issue that leads to accidents. Take some time to eat a real lunch and keep your car clean at the same time. Whether at work, in the car or on vacation, take a break and eat lunch.
The French do not snack. Well, their kids do have their afternoon snack (read more here). But with the strict meal discipline that the French embrace, even in the summer, there is no more stomach room for extra snacks. All the meals are on a schedule in France, (this is the hardest aspect for me with the French food culture). While the regular filling meals leave little room for snacks, don’t you think it would be fun to have a day where meals are unscheduled?
Tip: Having a more relaxed eating agenda in the summer scores kudos for the American lifestyle. As long as most days have a basic eating plan of regular meals this is important. But if a day on the beach means snacking instead of finding a picnic table to eat a more formal meal on a table, than vive l’amerique (go America!).
Lighter and later supper
Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall the French do the light and late supper. Main meals with meat and fish are served at lunchtime in France and this main meal is filling. So whatever time of the year it is, a lighter and later supper menu is on the agenda. Why is this better? You eat and don’t feel those cravings to open the fridge and indulge on some more food before heading off to sleep.
Tip: Don’t feel you have to eat at 6 pm like you do in the winter. With the sun setting later and temperatures higher, what better way to end the day than with a supper topped with some light and fresh foods.
There is very little air conditioning in France. And while this sounds intolerable to the average person who must have air conditioning, here is the ‘skinny’ on how the French can tolerate (to a large degree) to live without air conditioning in the summer heat. 1. A body gets used to not having air conditioning 2. houses in France are in cement (in general) which means that as long as you close out the heat starting from the morning by closing the shutters, the house stays cooler 3. Many French head to the sea, ocean or the mountains (or the 18th century old farmhouse that has been in the family for generations) during July or August. These places are cooler than in a major city where you cannot escape from the heat.
Tip: too much air conditioning to keep the car, work and house at low temperatures doesn’t allow the body to perspire or adapt to a normal summer heat. By feeling the summer temperatures, you have less hunger, drink more water and perspire more. So, turn down the air conditioning, keep the environment warmer and go out in the evening for a long summer walk. Read here for more details.
Grandma’s cooking and the family house
Summer also means family gatherings and in France this means getting together with the grandparents at the farm-house, sea house or house in the mountains. You know the old French houses (like the kind you see on TV), they have basic amenities, and the house has been in the family name for years. Grandma is there too, at the house, cooking all the favorite dishes the family cannot wait to eat. These treasured moments are important for kids (especially), because the grandchildren are often involved in learning how to cook. And who better to teach them, but grand-mère?
Tip: Summer is an ideal time to get the kids involved in cooking. A great time to pass down those family recipes from the older generation and to get together as a family. Your kids don’t want to get involved in meal preparation? Give them a little incentive with having them plan their favorite foods as part of the menu.
Apéritif or cocktail hour
Cocktail hour, the best time of the day, ne-c’est pas? Bring on the apéritif! During vacation in France, the apéritif is sacred, and it is a privileged to have this day’s break. Enjoy some cocktail downtime pre-dinner, supplemented with a small amount of nuts or olives. What a perfect start to a lighter and later supper.
Tip: The apéritif is a moment of conviviality, of wetting your mouth for the menu to come, a time of transition from the day to the evening. During the summer vacation, make it a point to have a symbol of transitioning to the meal and to take time to relax. While alcohol should be drunk in moderation, an apéritif can also mean a juice, water with lemon or a seltzer.
A summer month off from work is not uncommon in France, but here is how you can make your own vacation
Good mental health is a key component to good physical health. Yes it is true, the French have a lot of time off in the summer compared to other cultures (in America especially), and while I believe that time away from home (on vacation) helps to have good mental health, here is something you can do in the summer even if you don’t have vacation time:
Wake up everyday starting with a zen attitude. Plan time to just do nothing. And organize some time off, even if it is just a day off or a week off. Eat lighter and fresh, turn off the air conditioning and order a baby scoop ice cream from the shop next door.
PS-There is something you may not know about the French, about why they need these days off in the summer. Secret is that many French need (desperately) this time away from their work. Why?
That my friends is the subject of another article.
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