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Main Meal at Lunch: Differences Between France and America

Are you spending some time in France? This article will help learn about the food culture in France or provide health tips on a different way of eating. Outside of those hot, lazy days of summer, eating the big meal of the day at noon is a potential for helping control your weight, better food digestion and increasing productivity during your work or busy day. Bon Appétit!

typical french lunch

A typical French style lunch that I made for the family

 Lunch in France: hot, filling and balanced

Differences between France and America: our summer at the Jersey Shore means a change in food culture and eating times

We are spending the summer at the Jersey Shore and it doesn’t take us long to readapt from our 10 months in France to the laid-back feeling of summer in America. Lucky us, we are eating well, especially because we live these two summer months at grandma’s (my mom’s) house who happens to be an amazing cook. Probably our biggest food adjustment here is the meal timing: when we live in France our main meal is at lunch and our lighter dinner meal is late in the evening. In America (in general) this is the opposite: main meal is in the evening with a light lunch.

But it is easy for us to adjust to how Americans structure their meals and meal times, we come back ‘to our country’ every summer (and have been readjusting for years) and it is more flexible for us to eat how Americans do: eating a lighter and easier lunch, usually on the go, works well with our busy times spent at the beach or doing other outside activities.

But during the rest of the year? Ah oui, we eat like the French.

French lunch main meal is similar to an American dinner main meal

In France, a hot three-course main meal is served around noon and lasts for about one hour (although the lunch break is usually two hours long). This French midday meal is filling and balanced, with a protein source such as meat or fish, along with a vegetable, starch (such as pasta, rice and bread) and a light dessert of fruit or yogurt. Dinner is later and lighter, served around 8:00 pm.

In America, this larger dinner meal is served earlier than when the French eat their dinner, around 6:30 pm, with lunch as a faster and easier meal.

This may not seem like a big difference, but with the main lunch meal in France being hot, filling and taking longer to eat, this can make a difference with our weight and health.

Why is there a meal timing difference between France and America?

This difference in timing of the main meals has to do with a long history of two-hour lunches in France compared with America. A country’s meal type and times depend on the lifestyle and culture as a whole. France has a different meal schedule than in America because the daily routine of school, work and midday business closings dictate different meal times.

The two-hour lunch is sacred in France, (although for some French workers lunches are getting lighter and food is eaten faster than in previous years). At school, French children still have a two-hour pause to eat their three-course meal and play in the playground. Many businesses in France still close for two hours at lunch time, although in the last years I have also seen this also changing to staying open at lunch to serve clients’ needs.

Embedded deeply in the French culture is this midday pause, and despite French trends of eating faster and lighter foods, most French people I know take this sacred time at lunch to sit down and enjoy a hot meal. La Joie de Vivre!

Does eating main meal at lunch help you stay healthier?

Yes, I believe it does. And here is why:

  • Weight control: by eating the main meal in the early part of the day and feeling satiated with a good hot meal, a person is less likely to reach for junk food in the afternoon or ‘binge-snack’ before dinner. The calories from the main meal are burned off during the day as fuel for work and being active thus keeping you leaner, rather than consuming a large amount of calories in the evening and then going to sleep. Also, by eating the balanced main meal during the day, the dinner is (logically) a lighter, less-calorie version of an easily prepared meal.
  • Digestion: by eating the ‘harder-to-digest’ foods earlier in the day, digestion is easier because you have all afternoon to digest the big meal before sleeping, including foods such as meat and heavier sauces that you would normally reserve for that main meal at lunch. In fact, eating heavier meals before sleeping, including a large amount of meat, can interfere with sleep and cause stomach upset.
  • Stress level: taking a good break during the midday to sit down, eat and enjoy is a good way to reduce stress and take a few deep breaths from a busy day. These mini-food stress breaks are important to keep stress under control.
  • Work or school productivity: along with using the main meal at lunch for a zen ‘destress’ part of the day, there is nothing like a good balanced meal at lunch for brain and body food. Taking a half-hour to an hour for a balanced lunch will keep you focused and productive and a good hot meal is the just premium fuel to get you through work and your busy day.

How can you adapt to eating your main meal at lunch?

Probably the biggest barrier to eating the main meal at lunch is that not many others eat this way. In America, the main meal is served at dinner, so what do you do if you want to switch over to the French way?

If you are retired, eating the main meal at lunch is an option for you because you are not constrained with a work schedule (even if I know many retirees who are still very busy!)

But if you work, or are a busy stay at home parent, this switch to eating a bigger meal at lunch may be challenging. Here are some first steps to try:

1. Adapt to the lighter and later dinner first. Here are some examples: soup and salad, vegetable pasta, omelette and toast, a vegetable stir-fry. These lighter meals are full of good nutrition, and we do not have to eat meat, fish or another protein source at every meal to get all the vitamins, minerals and nutrients we need for good health. Even if your lunch is lighter and eaten quickly, dinner can be a light too. (Here is an article on this lighter and later supper).

2. Plan and prepare larger hot lunch main meals on the weekends when you have more time to cook: enjoying a large Sunday lunch with friends and family is a perfect way to spend time together.

3. Make some hot meals in advance on the weekend to plan ahead for the week. Take the meals out from the refrigerator or freezer during the busy work week, for school lunch or to eat at home with your preschool children.

If you cannot fully switch over to eating the main meal at lunch, c’est comment ça (that’s just the way it is). Instead, focus on eating a sit-down meal at lunch, even if it is not your main meal, taking at least 20 minutes to sit down at a table. And your main meal dinner doesn’t always have to be heavy with a meat course, lighter easier foods are still healthy options.

Taking time to sit and eat and enjoy a meal is one of life’s treasures, to be enjoyed to the fullest!

If you have a story to tell or are interested in learning more on how the French eat, why not subscribe to BrightonYourHealth and download your free E-report on “How to Eat Like the French Without Having A Food Snob Attitude”. You can subscribe here:

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I also appreciate when you share this article with anyone that you know could benefit. Merci and thanks in advance!

Wishing you good health,



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6 Responses to Main Meal at Lunch: Differences Between France and America

  1. Frederic December 21, 2016 at 22:30 #

    Interesting comparaison Mary, the French way of eating is a slightly better alternative I think.
    In regards to the health aspect, I think it depends really on the meal itself. Despite the French being well-know for their balanced and rich meals, I believe there can be exceptions. However, the big advantage the French are getting is the longer amount of eating/resting time, and I consider that to be very important.

    • mbrighton December 22, 2016 at 10:30 #

      Absolutely Frederic, I believe having the main meal at lunch gives the body the energy it needs for the afternoon and a lighter later dinner is better for sleeping. And your comment on the French getting the longer amount eating / resting time is also key to a healthy body. Merci beaucoup pour votre commentaire! Warmly, Mary

  2. Linda Ikedi September 18, 2015 at 15:14 #

    Hello Mary, i think your kind of meal in France is similar to that of our country’s In Nigeria, our main meal is taken at lunch. this is mainly to keep the body healthy and fit for the activities of the day. our Dinner is always mostly a lighter food than the breakfast or lunch.

  3. Megumi Reagan September 16, 2015 at 20:09 #

    Hi Mary,

    I love your post. It’s funny, at a French-themed dinner party recently, we all got into this discussion about lunch and dinner in France–hence my googling and finding your post! I’m going to try and switch to a larger lunch and light dinner and see how it goes. I’ll definitely utilize your tips.

    • mbrighton September 16, 2015 at 20:47 #

      Hi Megumi!
      Merci beaucoup for your comment and compliment. Really appreciate! Try the main meal at lunch- it really works :-). A bientôt.

  4. Bala August 4, 2014 at 18:16 #

    Hi Mary,

    I agree that lunch as the larger meal has definite benefits compared to dinner being the larger meal. However, for those who wish to share their large, leisurely meal of the day with their near and dear ones which may not be possible during lunch as much as during dinner, what are your thoughts?

    Among the farming/agricultural/laborer community I have liked the habit of a large breakfast/ a large lunch where families or couples make the time to gather and spend time over a meal before meeting again for a light supper.

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