Special Report: Eating Our Way Through Europe!

As you may know our family had the opportunity to go on the trip of a lifetime this summer. For the first time ever we took our daughters beyond the borders of the US, and together we visited England, France, Switzerland, and Italy – and what an experience it was! This was one of those trips where “scope creep” ruled. We initially decided we wanted to visit my cousin and his family who have been living in Paris for a year, and the plans just grew from there. Because once you take the plunge to buy plane tickets to travel all that way – why not? One thing I learned from this trip is that our daughters, at 8- and 6-years old, are at the perfect age to go on an adventure like this. They were total troopers even when we pushed the limits more than intended (dinner at 9:30 anyone?). I was really impressed with how well they dealt with so many new (and foreign) environments, the six hour time change, and the days that sight-seeing honestly wore out all four of us. I was diligent about having them keep a daily journal (that they also taped mementos into – like train tickets and museum passes) so they will hopefully remember this experience for years to come!

Europe Visit

Now, let’s discuss the food! For the very first time since our switch to real food we were honestly in just a “go with the flow” mode while on this trip. At home I am very diligent about packing my own food for trips, asking questions before ordering at restaurants, planning ahead, and the like – but with us being gone for so long, knowing there would be a language barrier, and also visiting places that are known for an overall “fresher” cuisine we had little choice other than to just relax quite a bit. And we survived of course! Although, I will say now that we are home, I am looking forward to getting back on track in the real food department :)

Europe Food

Some of the dishes these countries are most known for…

  • London: Bangers and Mash (Sausage and Mashed Potatoes)
  • France: Pastries, Croissants and Crepes
  • Switzerland: Fondue, Pizza (with a potato pancake crust)
  • Italy: Homemade Pasta, of course!

I was adamant about eating local cuisine whenever we could. While the sushi in Rome was tempting – I did not give in! I will say though that we did eat Indian food in London, because (we were told) London is actually known for their Indian cuisine. And I am so glad we did because it was some of the best I’ve ever had. Other than that though we pretty much stuck to “When in Rome…” well, you know the drill :). One of the reasons I was excited about this trip was to experience some different food cultures and also be inspired by the cuisine. Part of what I do for a living is develop recipes, and I can’t wait to work with the new ideas I came home with.

In the meantime though, and in no particular order, here are some food-related observations I took away from our trip…

  • I found it interesting that every single restaurant we ate at in France (except for one) had a kids menu. The offerings were better than what you would find in the US, although still very much “kid oriented.” In my experience kids menus are much fewer and farther between here at home. I am not sure what to make of it, but it was definitely not something I was expecting.
  • In France they like to eat things RAW. And I am not just talking about veggies and fruit – raw meat and fish was not uncommon. One dish in particular consisted of steak that had been chopped in a way that made it look very similar to ground beef – and it was served in one big red pile, completely raw!
  • Also in France we had the opportunity to shop at a farmers’ market. The butcher vendor had me on my toes…their “whole” chickens still had all the parts you can imagine attached, the kabobs were made with organ meats, and they had some sort of tiny animal brains for sale (no, thank you!).
  • At supermarkets milk and eggs were generally not refrigerated. The milk was ultra high temperature pasteurized, which is also something that is sold here in the US and technically does not need refrigeration. In other news – yogurt is BIG business there…the yogurt aisles go on and on and on and yogurt was part of my breakfast most days. The yogurt was refrigerated in case you are wondering :)
  • Processed foods are not quite as “super-sized” as they are here in the states, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t consumed. There was certainly no shortage of McDonald’s locations or bottles of Coca-Cola’s from what we could see. No one is perfect after all (not even the French)!
  • Speaking of portion sizes, in all honesty we found restaurant portions to not be too far off from the US. Just like we do here at home my husband and I often split meals (usually an appetizer and an entree) – that is when it wasn’t a set menu. They sure do like their set menus (pick one from each category) in France!
  • Artificial food dyes are in fact accompanied by a warning label on packaged food and therefore not used as commonly as they are here.
  • It was interesting to see how true these countries were to their stereotypical cuisines. From buffalo mozzarella and thinly sliced proscuitto found at the gas stations in Italy to croissants on every corner in France – they sure do live up to their reputations!
  • Our least favorite food was honestly in Paris. I am not sure if we were guilty of high expectations or just ran into too many tourist traps, but it just did not compare to the wonderful French cuisine we experienced when we stayed in the countryside south of Paris.
  • In Italy many restaurants didn’t even open for dinner until 7 or 7:30 – quite a different schedule than we are used to here at home. And many of their restaurants notate which menu items are frozen/premade versus made fresh in house  (we were actually told it was required).
  • Apparently the French don’t measure out for recipes much (at least the way we do). The farmhouse we rented (through VRBO.com) had no measuring cups or spoons to be found…and, according to my blog readers who reside in that area of the world, the French either wing it or use kitchen scales instead.
  • Okay, this is not related to food, but it’s related to health. Europeans sure do love to smoke! Yes, they seem to be ahead in so many ways when it comes to eating more wholesome and fresh foods, but we could not get over how many people were smoking cigarettes every place we visited. Even including a waitress as she was waiting on one of her outdoor tables – true story.

For those of you that have also traveled to (and eaten your way through) Europe I’d love to hear your thoughts and impressions in the comments below! And with that I’ll leave you with some more pics of the good eats we were able to experience on our trip :)

good eats

On one last note, the French sure do know how to celebrate birthdays! My husband turned 37 while we were there and just check out the birthday dessert plate they brought out (much to my surprise!). Forget the candle – it’s a full blown firework! What a memory!


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76 thoughts on “Special Report: Eating Our Way Through Europe!”

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  1. My husband has never been able to eat fried food here, even as a kid. When we went to Switzerland this past summer, we had Wiener Schnitzel, another popular dish, several times (with fries…). Interestingly, none of that ever bothered his stomach, even though it was all fried food! I would love to know how they prepare it and what ingredients they use, since it’s obviously very different from how they prepare it here.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Kate. I think traditionally it is cooked in lard or clarified butter. We fry most things (in this country) in cheap, chemically processed, refined oils. That might be the difference. ;)

      1. I just came back from living in Germany for 3.5 years, and I notice such a difference in the food here in America vs. in Germany (and other parts of Europe I traveled to). I laughed at the image of the waitress smoking while serving tables. I know I saw a lot of smokers in Germany.

        I felt great, physically, eating foods in Europe. I do puzzle over what the difference is in America, but like you said, it must be the weird food additives/processing that happens to our food. Interestingly, Germans do use oils like canola (called rapsol in German).

        I really enjoy this blog, and I really agree that eating real foods is the key to health (not to mention taste).

  2. Thanks for the post! In one of your pictures it looks like you had Creme Brûlée? If so, was it thin or thick (like pudding)? Did you have boeuf bourguignon? Also, what was the birthday dessert served for your husband? I am very interested in French cooking and healthy eating, and would love to know as much as I can. I make these items from the Julia Child cookbook and am wondering how close mine is to the real thing. Thanks again for your inspiring blog!

  3. We’re planning a trip to Europe next autumn, can’t wait! Very interesting observations too. Although I blog about food recipes, I rarely measure anything with cups or spoons unless I’m baking. I like the best guess and taste test method. :)

  4. Its true that the French don’t use measuring cups or spoons, no Europeans do, its very much an American thing, which is why you would never find a set in a rental house. I live in Ireland, and don’t know anyone who uses cups!!

  5. As a native Texan with 4 kids living in Austria for the last 13 years, I can relate to your experience. I blog about and help people with the Autism and ADHD diet, which we also follow, so food for us must be restricted to no gluten, dairy, soy and artificials.

    All measurements are done by weight, which I’ve grown to like much more than volume of cups and spoons. It’s much more accurate.

    Though still not perfect, I love the fact that the food here is healthier thanks to the laws being stricter than in the US. Yes, many of the exact same junk foods from the US food companies are available here now, but they use natural ingredients like real sugar instead of HFCS and natural food colorings because the laws are different. If they can do it here, they can do it there… sadly, they just don’t have to.

    My first culture shock about Austrian culture is that they take 2-3 hour lunch breaks from store hours. They literally close up the whole store for that time. It has changed a lot so that the major store chains don’t do it, but the smaller locations still do. Everything closes around 6-7pm daily, between noon and 6 on Saturdays, and everything is closed Sundays. No late night or weekend runs to the store!

    For the food, they are very particular about good quality, organic, and no gmos. It’s not always prepared the best way, like deep fried schnitzel and fatty sausages of all kinds, but I like knowing the quality is good and I can prepare it how I want!

    Sorry for such a long comment, but I’m a passionate foodie myself and you hit a topic of interest! :) Love your blog – thanks for sharing!

  6. I was lucky enough to spent some time in Spain this summer. Most of the time I lived with a local family, so I was able to experience what the locals eat every day. I found it interesting how often foods were repeated. We ate the same soup two or three times a week–the three weeks I was there we only ate three different types of soup (and soup was served every day as our first course at lunch). Also I found it interesting that the concept of diet food did not exist. My Spanish “mom” was trying to lose a few pounds, so she was eating what she called sad food. It was the same food we ate, but minus the ingredients she thought were fattening. Learning about different food cultures is one of the big reasons I travel–how people think and choose to experience food is a great way to learn about people and their culture.

  7. We also live in Italy and I am so glad you had the opportunity to come experience life here!! Now you can see the struggle with doing the real food idea here – with variety . Sure we can eat the heck out of some Italian food, but after 2 years even I need a break from homemade pasta. There is another really important caviot to European living. Did you notice the size of the freezer? Barely any room for a gallon of Ice cream. Europeans, especially older ones shop day to day. There is no “freezer” meals and especially here in Italy the idea of a pre-packaged meal grosses them out. But the society here is more geared to a real food lifestyle. Generally if the wife works full time the grandparents take care of the kids. You will not find daycare’s here like in the states. Also they take 2-3 hours off every day to come home for lunch. Lunch is generally the biggest meal of the day during the week. With every Italian I know Mama(grandma) usually makes the lunch. They eat later, but dinner is a 3-4 hour ordeal. It is a social time. Like in the book why french women do not get fat – NO ONE eats on the fly – No eating in your car or at your desk. Italians work to live not live to work – and this makes all the difference in their health. This is why where I live is one of the healthiest areas of the world. You can’t just change your diet – you have to also change your lifestyle and outlook – that is what eating and living overseas has taught me.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts as well – I feel like I need to go back again and even pay more attention next time around! So much to take in when we were only there for a few short weeks.

  8. I love the timing of this post. We are headed to Paris & Germany (several cities) in about 10 days. My youngest is 6 so I am so glad to hear that things went well for you!
    Interesting that the food was disappointing in Paris. I’m really hoping for good bread, cheese, wine & fresh local produce. Meat too I guess. We shall soon find out!

  9. Very interesting thoughts. I live in Germany and wanted to share a few of my own.
    Almost everyone I know with kids buys fresh whole milk. The real kind that spoils fast. The other milk is mostly used for coffee.
    When in italy and france, if they have a kids menu, it’s probably for turists. In restaurants for locals, either the chef will come out to talk to you or the waiter will suggest a smaller portion of a normal plate. For babies -in italy- it’s often free! They love bambini!
    Also, they like to add sugar to so many things! Italy again.
    In France, they get upset when I say we are vegetarian.
    Most of the time, we like to cook ourselves because of my daughter’s allergies and we love visiting the local markets.
    Another thing, many cheeses are not pausterized, europe wide, and pregnant women are not advised to refrain from eating them.
    Lastly, our best experience for healthy fresh vegetarian food: Greece and Israel. Fresh fruit is always available! In germany kids eat way to many french fries. Maybe it’s because of the produce of each country. In winter almost everything is imported.
    Anyhow, just found you site and have been enjoying reading from like minded people.
    Oh, and regarding another post of yours: since I told the children’s doctor that we use real salt, they get a supplement.

  10. Theresa Von Duerring

    I was also surprised, and disgusted, by the popularity of smoking in Europe, especially by the young people. I wonder why they avoid food dye but inhale poison?

  11. Hello! I live in Italy with my husband, while he is stationed here with the Army. It was very fun to read your comments about European cuisine – especially your thoughts on Italy! it is SO true that restaurants do not open until 7 or 7:3opm, we have become quite used to late dinners here (no kids for us, so that helps!). But it is very common for us to be out to eat and see parents with toddlers stroll into a restaurant at 9pm or later! And I have also noticed how big portion sizes are. I think, when we moved here, I mistakenly came with the idea that portions would be smaller, so it would be easier to eat the proper amount. No way! Especially because most restaurants, at least in our part of Italy, have sections of the menu – First Course, Second Course, etc, and we felt like we needed to order something from each section. Luckily, we’ve learned that it is ok to just order what we want…. well, they might think we are crazy Americans, who knows! But apparently Italians have a very scripted eating schedule – they eat certain things at certain times of the day. I’ve been told that is why they are so skinny. And the smoking – drives me crazy! Especially when we are eating outside and the people next to us our smoking. Weird. I guess it is just something we have to get used to! Oh – and one last thing! :P I have been taking an Italian cooking class, and I have noticed that the chef doesnt measure anything, unless it is on a scale as well. I dont know if all Italians cook this way, or just him. But it’s been fun to learn to cook some yummy Italian meals!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about European food! :)

  12. Measuring cups are indeed an american thing. You will not find them anywhere else, same with Fahrenheit, pounds and ounces etc.

  13. We were also disappointed in the food in Paris. The best food we had on our visit was crepes from a street vendor! The best food we had, hands down, was in Germany. So fresh and flavorful! Austria was wonderful as well. We’re looking forward to going back in a few years and exploring the French countryside to find those delicious foods that everyone raves about!

  14. I lived in Germany for three years and went back to visit a few years back. I’m surprised you weren’t crazy about the food in Paris…we had nothing we didn’t adore! Also loved the food in Strasbourg. The wonderful thing about Europe is everything is really fresh and not impregnated with all sort of preservatives. The hotel we stayed at was on the Rue Cler which is a big market street in Paris….wonderful food and such great memories! It reminded us very much of the Viktualienmarkt in Munich where we were blessed enough to live. Food seemed like a celebration when we dined out. We were never rushed….in fact, quite the opposite. It’s one of the things I miss so much here in the USA. I dream of going back to live in Europe for a few years. There are some different things to eat, but the open air markets are superb! One of my best memories is I was pregnant with my first child and craved a watermelon. My hubby spent the equivalent of $20 1984 dollars to buy me this little watermelon that was imported from Israel. OMGosh, was it amazing. Things I really miss…schweinshaxe (a cardiologist nightmare I assure you! =P), fresh lychees, spanferkel and pickled peppers stuffed with kraut from a stand on the corner of the Viktualienmarkt. They are just an example of some things I miss!

  15. My husband, mother, and son all went to Europe for the first time in 2000 when our daughter was stationed in Germany with the Air Force. We traveled to France, Luxembourg, and Switzerland as well as traveled around Germany. We have since gone to Austria and Belgium. The food was wonderful and the fun thing was that if my husband could not tell from the menu what he wanted to order, he would just walk around and look at what other people were having, then tell the waiter he wanted “what that person was having”. It was great!

  16. That’s for the blog. We just visited London and Ireland. I’d have to say I preferred Ireland’s food over England’s. Their “traditional English breakfast” is overrated. I ate it about twice and then opted for toast and jam the rest of the time. Thanks for inspiring me to eat better.

  17. I lived in Paris for 3 years and was saddened to hear about your disappointment in Parisian cuisine. We have loved so many of our meals there! I am not quite sure what you were expecting, but maybe you can elaborate more on what displeased you? Did your cousin have any good recommendations?

    I just came back from Paris for a visit in June. It is as delicious as I remember it. The strawberries have so much more flavor, the pate is locally made, and the baguettes are as delectably fresh and crispy on the outside and moist on the inside as I remember. I am sorry you did not get the same impression!

      1. Confit de canard is a family favorite for sure. Who can argue with duck that is slow cooked in its own fat and then preserved in its own fat? Glad you were able to have it in Paris!!

    1. Oh I am sorry to hear that. I honestly think we ended up in some touristy places. One meal that wasn’t so exciting was at the restaurant in the Musee D’Orsay. The others were just places we stumbled upon after doing no research. We just lucked out a lot more in Southern France – especially when comparing the two side-by-side. I am sure there are fabulous places in Paris as well we should have just planned it out a little better!

      1. We ate at that restaurant once in the Musee d’Orsay as well! You are absolutely correct in that it was terrible!! I remember it being awful as well! It is hard to know where to eat, that’s for sure. On our last trip, we were pleasantly surprised by a delicious meal in a restaurant RIGHT next to the Champs des Mars. I thought it was going to be a total tourist trap being right near the Eiffel Tower, but it was delicious! You just never know!

  18. Hi!
    We just found out that my husband is going to be stationed in the southern part of England for 3 years. we just set our moving dates today for mid November. We couldn’t be more excited to explore and travel and eat! We have a 4 1/2 year old, 2 1/2 and a 17 month old. It should be interesting! It’s been great to hear everyone’s experience that they have had while traveling.

  19. What a wonderful opportunity you had and you picked great destinations.
    By the way the raw beef is called Tartare and it is wonderful, hope you had some.
    Also you should have tasted the brains, its very good… you just have to forget what it is!!!!
    I’m suprised to read that you didn’t eat well in Paris… you probably went to some tourist trap like you said, because French food is awsome!
    Anyhow, if you ever feel nostalgic about Europe, take a shorter trip to Montreal, Qc Canada. The food, the entertaiment and the people are great. It’s just like being in Europe with a twist, and a lot of people speak english too!!!

    1. Hi Val – I took a bite of the tartare and it was quite good…had some onions mixed in. No way Lisa is eating brains, although I’ve had some pig brain back in the states (Georgia, to be precise). Thanks for the recommendation on Montreal…I never thought about it like that. Reminds me of seeing poutine and gravy on the menu just north of the border at Wateron Lakes National Park (although nowhere near Montreal of course).