I have just returned home from three glorious, gluttonous weeks in France – punctuated by a four-day pause on the glistening Lake Como in Italy. Stop rolling your eyes.
Whenever I visit a new country I love discovering people’s little quirks and different ways of doing things. After a holiday in Japan, I ate all my meals with chopsticks. I got back from Spain unable to eat anything for breakfast other than jamon y queso (cured ham and cheese). My ‘culture’ lessons don’t have to be deeply philosophical or require me to participate in extreme rituals; I just like finding neat things I can introduce to my own everyday.
My take-home from France was a broader lesson on How to Eat. Because the French really do know how to eat.
The rest of the world has always had an obsession with France and its food. Globally, France has produced some of the best chefs of all time. Countless films and documentaries have sought to excite and expose us to the wonderful world of French gastronomy – a pillar of French culture that is rooted in colourful and controversial history.
At the same time, we often think of the French as a svelte population; French women in particular consistently attract attention for being slim. What’s their secret, we ask. Just why don’t they get fat?
Though they’re reportedly on the rise, France’s obesity rates are among the lowest in the world. And it’s something I noticed everywhere in France; from the glamourous arcades of Paris to the more relaxed promenades down south, it’s rare to come by an overweight person. At one point I made a concerted effort to spot someone – anyone – with even a little extra padding. I failed.
How confusing, then – isn’t French food meant to be fattening? Cheese, cream, butter, foie gras, rich, meaty dishes, pastries, desserts (stay focused, now), and of course wine are considered dietary staples, but elsewhere we’re led to believe that foods like these should be avoided if we’re to keep the kilos at bay.
According to obesity specialist Dr. Jean Marc Catheline, it’s their obsession with food that helps the French maintain slender waistlines.
“The French know how to cook and prepare food,” he told NPR.
“French families have always known what’s good for them and what isn’t. We are also a country with strong rural traditions and great respect for food from the farm.”
He makes solid points, though I have my own theories on why the French don’t all resemble the Michelin Man to add. After all, one can’t spend three weeks in a country that eats cheese with a knife and fork on a daily basis and not be intrigued by their eating behaviours.
Lesson 1: Invest in the Experience of Eating
In France, meal times are sacred. The French pour enormous amounts of love, care and precision into cooking and serving great food; they fully immerse themselves in the experience of eating. Be that solo or with family or friends, if food is on the table, they’re present. They eat slowly, and deliberately, and enjoy the textures and flavours in every mouthful.
Here, we do everything in a hurry – our meal times are often squeezed in between work commitments and social events and we forget (or perhaps don’t even think) to slow down and simply eat.
French dining: slow it all down. Photo by Mecredis.
On one particular day in Metz (a little town not too far out of Paris), I watched over my steak frites as a chatty family of five went silent when dessert was served. Until that point they’d been laughing and swapping stories, but as soon as those custards and cakes hit the table, they all shut up, and didn’t resume talking until they’d put their spoons down again.
It was a beautiful thing to observe, but it also screamed an important point at me: being mindful when eating is what it’s all about. When you concentrate on what you’re eating – not on the TV or the computer screen, and not on your emails as you dash between meetings – when you’re truly present, you can hear your body’s signals properly. You’ll begin to recognise when you’re satisfied and won’t keep eating out of habit. If you’ve consciously enjoyed your lemon tart, you won’t keep craving more – your body will know when enough’s enough.
Also, the French don’t stress about eating like we do.
I’m not a fan of gimmicky diets, but author of French Women Don’t Get Fat Mireille Guiliano makes stupid amounts of sense when she compares French attitudes to eating with American attitudes to eating. Guiliano explains that when we allow enjoyable, normal rituals like eating to become sources of anxiety in our lives, we’re “erasing the simple values of pleasure”. Ergo, we miss out on one of the simple pleasures of life!
“French women take pleasure in staying thin by eating well, while American women see it as a conflict and obsess over it,” she explains.
“French women typically think about good things to eat. American women typically worry about bad things to eat.”
Food for thought: what if we ate for pleasure and to feel good – not just to be thin? It seems being on a diet is having no impact on our high rates of obesity anyway: although one quarter of us are reportedly on a diet, obesity continues to make headlines – with 63% of Australians now considered overweight or obese. Light bulb: diets don’t work.
Actually listening to your body and eating when you’re hungry – and what makes you feel good – seems quite a logical approach to me.
Lesson 2: Portion Control
This one’s not rocket science: portion sizes in France are normal. A French person will typically eat a small breakfast: a pastry or some baguette with butter and jam and a coffee keeps them going until noon, but they’ll usually eat three courses (with wine) at lunch and dinner.
Here’s the thing, though: each course is modest in size. You might get a small serving of soup, pasta or risotto for entree (and it’s genuinely small – say, eight or ten mouthfuls), a fist-sized piece of meat and some fresh vegetables or a salad for main, and a lovingly-prepared piece of gâteau or a pint-sized crème brûlée for dessert.
Yes – dessert. Yes, women in France eat dessert at lunch.
But they don’t eat entire tubs of ice cream, and the dessert they do eat is made from the best quality ingredients around. They don’t play games with the vending machine at 3.30 every afternoon, then kick themselves for the rest of the week because “the Mars Bar was giving me seductive looks”. They save themselves for the good stuff.
And of course, bread is put on the table the second you arrive at a restaurant and is eaten throughout the meal, but it’s good quality bread – it’s not full of sugar and preservatives like the stuff we eat here. “French women don’t eat Wonderbread,” Guiliano stresses.
Wash it all down with a glass or two of wine, and finish up with a short coffee, and your midday lunch has not been a stuff-your-face eat-a-thon, but a thoughtful and satisfying pause – the average lunch break in France lasts for one hour and 30 minutes.
Though we often make fun of just how off-the-scale serving sizes in the US can be, it’s little wonder America is mid-obesity crisis. People just don’t need that much food, and it’s something the French whole-heartedly understand. A little can go a long way, particularly when you’re eating high-quality ingredients and a variety of nutrient-rich foods.
Lesson 3: High-quality Ingredients
The French might eat seemingly large amounts of pastry, chocolate and butter, but it’s good quality pastry, chocolate and butter. They believe that life’s too short to eat bad food. How could you not be on board with that?
If you’re going to invest the time and energy into preparing a meal (which the French do – they invented mise en place for godssake), you want to make it worth eating, and that means using the finest ingredients and freshest produce around. Because the ingredients are of such high quality, they’re satiated by small amounts.
They’re mad for fresh food markets – they’re not just novelty outings like they are to so many of us in Australia. It’s commonplace for the French to buy fresh meat, cheese and fruit and vegetables several times a week at the local markets. They religiously buy bread on a daily basis: that picture of a Frenchman riding home with a baguette in his bicycle basket is not just romantic fiction.
It also helps that French children are involved in sourcing, cooking and learning to appreciate food from a very young age. French state creches are renowned for feeding their kids real food – it’s hard to distinguish kindergarten lunch time menus from meals at the country’s best brasseries. There are no kids menus – no nuggets and chips to be found in France.
Author of French Children Don’t Throw Food Pamela Druckerman shares some inspiring advice in her guide to French parenting, explaining that French parents introduce their kids to different foods “with a whole different level of intention and commitment”.
“They describe the taste of each vegetable, and talk about their child’s first encounter with celery or leeks as the start of a lifelong relationship,” she says.
Kids are encouraged – but not forced – to taste and understand a wide variety of meats, cheeses and vegetables, as well as how to sit at and participate socially at the table during meals.
“[It is never suggested that] a flavour might be too intense or complicated for a child’s palate,” Druckerman adds.
The point is that children give every food a chance. Nurturing a love for, and healthy attitude towards eating from a young age can play a significant role in them developing a positive relationship with food.
Fresh food markets in Aix-en-Provence, where I loaded up on prosciutto, a lovely comte cheese and a rudely-sized chunk of dark chocolate dotted with roasted nuts… for breakfast.
Really, in the end they’re quite simple lessons: be mindful when you’re eating, don’t eat too much, and eat good-quality food.
Who knows, by introducing just a little French into your life, your stress levels and waistline (not to mention taste buds!) might just thank you for it.
Author’s note: I have to disclose that I didn’t actually follow the teachings of Lesson 2: Portion Control while in France. In actual fact, I was eating as much chocolate as I could possibly put in my mouth at every available opportunity. I left no chocolatier’s window un-gazed in: that stuff is worth its weight in gold and given my time in France was limited, I surrendered to the little voice inside telling me to just enjoy it – all of it – while it lasted.
Do you take a ‘French’ approach to eating?
Perhaps you’re a foodie, or love France and just want to gush about your culinary experiences?
*Raspberry tart photograph by Evocateur via hipparis.com.
MORE ARTICLES BY HAYLEY GLEESON
*Hayley (The Hoopla’s Managing Editor) is passionate about publishing positive, real content for women and girls. Her background in marketing, advertising and design has seen her work closely with many brands for women over the past six years, including a collection of titles at Pacific Magazines. She loves science, cycling, cats, sloths, fibre media, eating and cooking good food, and women doing great things. You can follow her on Twitter: @Hayley_Gleeson.