The French Approach to Food

When it comes to food I think I can learn a lot from the French. And I am not just talking about French cuisine. Their whole approach to food is quite different than ours here in America, and I first became intrigued when I read “Eat more like the French” in Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food.

Cécile Delmas

And what better way to learn more than to hear from the French themselves? So without further ado, following is a “100 Days of Real Food” guest post by one of our very own readers who grew up in France, but now lives in North Carolina and blogs in both French and English on http://frenchyncarolina.blogspot.com/.

The French Approach to Food

By Cécile Delmas

I don’t pretend to know how every French person eats. I can only share the experience I had with my family. I grew up in France but I’ve had the chance to visit the US since I was 13 and now live here.

The first time I came to the U.S. I remember being shocked when lunchtime arrived and the kids in my family went to the fridge and helped themselves to sandwiches and snacks. They did not eat together, nor did they eat the same thing. Some didn’t even sit down.

My next cultural shock would be a few years later when I spent a year at a Texan high school. I don’t think I lasted two weeks in the school cafeteria. All the meals were what I call fast food: fries, burgers, pizza, chili, tacos. Sodas were free but they charged for bottled water.

What planet had I landed in? I started bringing my own lunch but sometimes sat down by a girl whose lunch was a pint of ice cream. How different from my upbringing!

I grew up eating what you call family style meals. We don’t even have a name for it because that’s how 99% of the meals are eaten. In fact when it’s time to eat in France we say “A table!” which means “to the table”. Dinners in front of the T.V., “plateau télé”, were a rare occurrence, a treat in fact.

French Table Setting for Birthday Celebration

Dinner is a family affair. This is when you connect with others and catch up on what everyone is doing. We take the time to converse. And I think that’s where the big difference lies. We take our time. Most meals are an hour long.

We eat one course at a time, socialize in between, clean up the plates and move on to the next. In fact, when I studied tourism in France, I was told to plan one hour for lunches and two hours for a gourmet (gastronomical) meal.

And forget your afternoon if you come to my family reunion at Christmas. We sit around the table for four hours not counting appetizers. Are we full? A little, but rarely stuffed because we eat small portions and take our time between the courses.

My Grandmother

Both of my parents worked, but still took the time to make us homemade from scratch meals. Sandwiches were for picnics. Most meals would have three to four courses.

 L’entrée, the first course, would be a salad of vegetables, a soup, a plate of cured meat, half a grapefruit or a cantaloupe during summer. Then comes le plat principal, usually a vegetable or a starch with a side of meat or fish, the latter no bigger than 3 oz. If the meal didn’t start with a salad we would have one then, followed by cheese and/or dessert. Dessert to me as a kid was not cake.

For example dessert was a yogurt, applesauce or another dairy product like flan. I was lucky that my mom was a trained dietician, so I probably ate better than most.

But even when I ate in school, fries were only on Fridays and not the only option. All meals also came with fresh bread from the bakery. Bread is used to clean plate and eat with cheese, but also as filler.

We do tend to eat a little later. Normal dinnertime was around 7 to 8:30 P.M. It’s about the only way that a slow cooked meal can be put on the table every night. It does mean that we had a small snack when we came home from school.

Crepe Dish

We ate little processed food. Sure there were exceptions like Nutella, cookies, or some pastries. But the great majority of the food came from fresh vegetables, and we did not own a microwave.

A lot of people in fact go to the farmer’s market (tailgate) to get their produce. Most towns have at least one market. When I was a student I was lucky to have one right under my window on Saturdays so I would get my fill of fresh produce, dairy and eggs without having to drive to the supermarket.

In the U.S. I think farmers markets are on the rise, but still not as common as what I grew up with.

I haven’t brought over all my French habits, but in our house I cook the meals and yes we do tend to eat later, too late maybe sometimes but my husband still enjoys what I put on the table.

It’s taken a few years for us to eat most of our meals at the table. I can proudly say that he now eats some French cheeses and leaves the Kraft singles away from my grocery list.

As for me I’m learning to find the good tailgate farmer’s market and to cook in season. It’s a process to educate yourself, but so rewarding when you take the time to cook and enjoy a flavorful tartlet with in-season squash and herbs from your garden.

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54 thoughts on “The French Approach to Food”

  1. Cecile,
    I am so happy to read this. I wish to adopt a French style of eating because I have struggled with earing disorders for years now, my most recent battle being with binge eating. I am a very active person and I get very hungry. I’m hungry every 2 hours it seems. How would the French handle this? I don’t understand how the French can make it through the day on only 3 meals and not feel starving between meals. What do you do if you feel really hungry hours before dinner time if you don’t snack? It’s quite perplexing to me and I would love to know the “secret.” Also, could you provide me with some examples of typical portion sizes that French women consume? Portion control is important and I read all about how the French eat smaller portions, but no sources really say what the portion sizes are. For example how much does the average French woman eat at lunch (in ounces or cups etc.)? How big of a piece of bread and cheese is normal for example?
    Thanks so much,
    Denise

  2. Cecy,
    I spent a year living in Grenoble as a student at the Universite, and came home with a few stories of my travels, but mostly of the time I spent with my new-found friends in the kitchen of our dormatory. In fact, a full 50% of my photos were of our “family dinners” that we had every single night. Often, one of us would could a favorite meal from home for the whole floor. Occasionally, we would all cook our own food, but sit, talk, eat and drink our coffees. But we were always all together sharing the stories of our days, of our childhoods, of our dreams for the future.
    That is what I miss most about my life in Grenoble.
    Now that we’re at home in the US, our dinner time starts with cooking (we always cook together, or at least are in the kitchen together) and continues through finishing the dishes. It’s a ritual that I hope we can continue when we someday have children. I think that the community formed over preparing and eating food is the greatest community there is!
    Merci!

  3. What a wonderful story, it brought back fond memories of my grandmother who was from France. Italians think they have sunday dinner on lockdown. They never ate at my meme’s home on sunday with the whole family. A two to four hour affair complete with all the courses and plenty of wine,(I got juice of course.) Oh how I miss her!

  4. I don’t think the military should be thrown into the equation. Military in my opinion has nothing to do with the time you take to it. There are plenty of military families that take the time to have family dinners.
    In face my grandfather was in the military, a Doctor not a gun holder sure, but with military demands non the less and 8 children to raise. Some of my fondest memories are with that side of the family. We all sit down. Large dishes are passed around the table, everyone takes a serving and passes it on, we all take turn going to the kitchen getting the next dish.

    We do work a little less, at least for the majority of the population (35-40h/week). I think there is more a mindset of working to live than living to work like some people seem to do here.
    I think the climate plays too because it’s easier with the European climate to chill outside, enjoy a drink, socialize, there is less a temptation to be inside by the TV.

    I agree that the mix of cultures makes it different. Everyone takes a little bit from everything, but I do believe that good habits and quality time around food can be taken even with international cuisine.

  5. Oh don’t get me started about the lack of mass transportation and the fact that you need your car everywhere. I miss that a lot. I guess it’s a much bigger country so things being far more spread out it’s harder to have transportation to everything?

    I think some of your theories are valid. I wonder if some things go back to the Puritan New England? I don’t know enough about the pioneers culture, but it seems to me that they might have treated food more as a sustenance than a pleasure? What a country is built on has a big influence on its culture.

    1. I don’t think of this as so uniquely French. Rather, it simply seems European to me. I grew up this way in the U.S. because of my European mother. The only difference was, of course, the lack of farmer’s markets and dearth of good, crusty bread. But we still managed to find that bread! Like my mother, I cannot stand the soft, mushy, mass produced white bread that most Americans continue to eat. We always ate meals together, our dinners were later, too. And my mother was and is a phenomenal cook and baker! I think overall Americans depend too much on fast food and processed everything. And a person needs time to digest comfortably, not eat on the run.

  6. Great idea for a post. Turning off the TV in my house will be a battle…my husband seems to think we have nothing to talk about, I guess! But at the very least, when my child starts talking, it’s going off. I don’t want him to start pointing to the TV, asking me to turn it on. As is now, he only sometimes even notices it’s there.

    I think eating late here in the US gets a bad rap…but yes, the Europeans do it, and they’re far better off than we are in terms of health and obesity. My problem has always been sticking to one “small snack” in the afternoons…when you get up before 5am, it gets to be a long day. But if that small snack is paid attention to, is real, delicious food, like a treat of French cheese, you are more easily satisfied.

    Makes me wish I were French!

    1. It’s been a process for me here… still it.
      I’ve made some compromises such as it’s ok for him to have it on when he wants to watch a sports even that can only be seen at that time. I just face my back to the TV.
      I started by asking for a dinner a week that was TV free. When he was used to that I slowly increased the amount of nights. Set up a nice atmosphere, candles on the table, nice background music like classic or jazz to encourage the tv to be off and make him feel more like a restaurant. Then bring in the conversation. Avoid work, think about your next vacation, your dream home, something inspiring and see where it goes from there.
      I think the best thing is to have the TV in a different room than where you eat to be honest. That’s how I grew up so it was never a question to have it on or not.
      Also I’m still working on this and it’s hard because we don’t have a big home, but keep the dining room table free of clutter. No computers, papers, just a pretty table (tablecloth or not), it’s so much more inviting that way.

      I think you’re on the right track for snacks. Treat yourself to good food, take the time to enjoy it, have something to drink with it too to curve hunger (unsweetened iced herbal tea is my favorite right now). You’re making me wish about some french crispy bread with some goat cheese… Oh wait I have some in the kitchen!

    2. I’m Canadian and my heritage is that of one of my country’s founding peoples: British. My country remains today largely a working class culture. The people worked physically hard to build the country into the success it is, carving it from the wilderness. To do that, they ingested high calorie meals; they ate together but relatively quickly since there was a lot of work to be done before twilight. In our country dusk in summer can be anywhere from 9:30pm to 1am. And our people ate real food: raw milk, farm fresh eggs, veggies from the garden, fruit from the orchard, meat from livestock and wild game. Their ingenuity and self-sufficiency alone is worthy of praise, not to mention the great food they ate. They used carrot juice to colour butter that lovely yellow, for example; not yellow dye number 83.
      European tourists are quick to notice that we Canadians are not fancy people and perhaps they even think us uncouth. I can only speak for myself, but when I was growing up I never wore my ball cap indoors, especially not at the table; we had no special way of passing around food at the table, etc. But the children were always fed first, then the elderly, then the women, then finally the men. And I remember everyone was always courteous and concerned for everyone at the table that they got all they wanted. We talked, smiled, patted each other on the back, and happily portioned out extras of certain foods for people who had a favourite. And we cleaned up our plates–we ate everything given us. No one would eat your leftovers so if you didn’t eat something it may be wasted, which was nearly a venial sin. Down to my children’s generation we still remember the Great Depression and try never to waste food.
      But I agree, mealtimes are not for TV, electronics, phone calls, etc. They are for family and the best quality of food as can be had to be given to your loved ones. I tell my children that their mother and I put our love for them into the food we cook so they grow strong and happy.
      Cheers,
      Glen

  7. A good part of this is economic and historical. The history of the USA is far less homogenous than is France’s. We are a nation of many cultures, all thrown together, not emphasizing any one in particular. So, there are places in the USA where this sort of eating still occurs, but not in the cities for the most part.

    The economic part is that the French don’t work as many hours as the Americans. Part of this is because Americans provide a good part of the military protection for France, and if you think that doesn’t add up to several hours work per week, per American, you haven’t checked the US military budget. Maybe when we stop providing this support and other foreign aid, the French will be forced to spend a bit less time at the table, and we will be able to spend a bit more time there. I hope so – would love to have that luxury.

    1. this military bit really doesn’t make much sense. In France the work week is 35 hrs, not 40 plus there are 5 wks of vacation a year. The standard lunch break is 2 hours and you would be hard-pressed to find a store open on sundays. Speaking of finding open stores, when they do go on vacation they just close shop and leave…a note on the door explaining to customers when busines as usual will resume. It is simply a different set of values at work…they both have their advantages and disadvantages in my opinion.

  8. I am 50 yrs. old. Growing up the TV was not allowed on until dinner was over and dinner dishes done. Mom washed, my older sister and I dried and put away. When my father got home from work, we sat at the table as a family. My parents had a cocktail, my sister and I, a soda. Crackesr and cheese were served. Big band music went on and mom and dad would dance in the kitchen. Sometimes my father would dance with me. Dinner was eventually served. This was a normal evening unless my sister or I had something to attend at our high school. I cherish those memories. Unfortunately, my husband traveled so much when our children were growing up. The children and I ate at the table, but my husband prefers to eat his meals in his chair with the TV on.

    1. Oh I love the memories you’re sharing. Your parents sound like amazing people, I can visual it and feel the joy reading your words.
      You know, it’s never too late. Share those stories with your children, and you can always start a tradition when you have grandchildren. Rituals are so great for family memories.

  9. I encourage you to turn the TV off now before your child talks….I’ve lived the life you are just beginning. The TV didn’t go off in our family until my oldest was 10 and my youngest was three. At first it was a struggle, but now it’s expected, and if the TV is on when “dinner” is called, the kids turn it off without even thinking that it should be any other way. And don’t worry about your eating time, because as your child gets older and schedules change eating just naturally comes later. I think the biggest trick to healthy snacks or meals is eating a small amount and then waiting to see if you are still “feeling” hungry – and you are so right – the snack must be real food – not a processed flour/corn product. If hunger grabs hold of you before your dinner, then have a satisfying snack and then just eat a smaller portion for dinner, something I’m not struggling with but my husband is.

    1. I agree with you, the earlier you start good habits, the easier it is. I think Lisa’ experience with her children is proof, they both adjusted really well to eating real food.

  10. Tracey Extence

    Such a wonderful article! I love that my passion for healthy eating and healthy food is shared by a large portion of the world. It breaks my heart to see all the junk people are willing to give their children and the elderly and not think twice about it. Thank you so much for posting this article. I will definitely share it with others.

    1. Thank you Tracey. I love to talk about food with people who love it too. It’s such a common thing for me and my friends to talk about food while we even eat, sometimes I think we’re silly but then again it shows we love it.

  11. Doug, the reason food in the U.S. is inferior to that of virtually all other countries is purely political. Our food system is highly industrialized and controlled by powerful lobbyists. Big agribusiness and the lobbyists who represent them fiercely guard the billions in subsidies they receive from the USDA each year. The structure of our system is very much the exception among nations rather than the rule.

    If you’re interested in learning more about our food system, I recommend these movies:
    Food, Inc.
    King Corn
    Fast Food Nation
    (I think all 3 are downloadable for free from Netflix if you have a membership. Occasionally they run a promotion for a free 30-day trial membership.)

    I recommend these books:
    Food, Inc. (companion to movie by the same name)
    Food Politics by Marion Nestle
    What to Eat by Marion Nestle
    Safe Food by Marion Nestle
    Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (and just about anything from him)

    I also recommend these blogs:
    Food Politics by Marion Nestle http://www.foodpolitics.com/
    Civil Eats (posts from a variety of bloggers) http://civileats.com/

    I also check Michael Pollan’s site periodically. Every time he publishes an article anywhere, it’s noted there. http://michaelpollan.com/

  12. Great post! Another vote for how this works with young kids – in addition to it being too late and too long for me to imagine my kids doing, it seems like that much choking would use up all the time I would otherwise spend engaged with them….

    1. R, have you ever considered getting your children to help with the food preparation? I work full-time and I have a 4 yo son and almost 7 yo daughter. They help with food prep and clean up almost daily. They also help with the shopping. Through this they know which foods are healthier and better choices. Last night we were at the farmers market and I could barely keep them from the strawberries. They had a few as a snack before dinner. They still occasionally ask for cereals like Fruit Loops but they also know that my answer will be “no” and the reasons why. They will eat pretty much anything that is prepared for our meals and I think it is because they have been actively involved in the selection and preparation. I like to think of it as quality time that I spend with them.

    2. Yvonne’s recommendation is great.
      But also: good food does not have to be complicated. A simple soup, a tartlet made out of ready made puff pastry (which I know doesn’t fit the 100 days rules but I never had the patience to make my own) and fresh veggies. You can make satisfying meals very quickly.

  13. I’m starting to learn this very thing and think it is extremely important for a sound family life. I wish the learning curve steep, but I am sure I will get there! Thanks for this little reminder (and affirmation) that it is worth it.

  14. Cecile, when I visited Paris a few years ago, I bought some strawberries from a farmer at a street market near my hotel. They were so beautiful and when I returned to my hotel room and ate them, I discovered that they tasted like lavender. The flavor was a religious experience! Have you heard of this or tasted strawberries that taste like lavender? Do you happen to know anything about how that type of strawberry is grown? I’m wondering whether those berries were a particular variety that tastes like lavender or whether the berries were grown alongside lavender in order to impart the taste of lavender to the berries. I went back to the market every day until my departure but the farmer who sold me the strawberries had not returned so I wasn’t able to ask him about them.

    I’ve enjoyed your post and comments immensely, Cecile! Many thanks for so generously sharing your story with us.

    Lisa, thank you so much for bringing this to us. It was a great idea!

    1. I’ve never heard of such a strawberry. You have me intrigued. The only unique strawberry I know is the real wild strawberry, tiny, with a very unique and amazingly flavorful taste. Since 1992 there is the Marat des Bois (named after the Fraise des bois=wild strawberry). It has the flavor of wild strawberries but the size of commercial ones. Maybe it’s similar to what you tried?

      1. Well, the strawberries I had were on the small side but I don’t think they were as small as a wild strawberry. I adore lavender so they were a wonderful surprise. Once or twice each summer, I make strawberry ice cream infused with lavender. That’s as close as I’ve come to recreating that experience. Strawberries and lavender are magical together.

  15. Lisa and Cecile, thank you for posting this important overview of the French eating habits. I have my doctorate in French and have spent much time living in France. I think that anyone who spends any extended amount of time somewhere like France (or other European countries) will inevitably revolutionize their relationship with food, their fondness for food, their eating styles and habits. Being in France has taught me that HOW we eat our food (with whom, where, for how long, etc.) is equally important as WHAT we eat for our overall health. Coming back to the US after long stays in France it is frustrating, even embarassing, to deal with the rushed and unhealthy eating habits of our friends and families. How did America get so disconnected from the essence of life: food (real food, from the earth and sea, not a factory)?
    I am truly grateful to the French, to my host families and friends over there, for revolutionizing my relationship with food so that my family and my children will have a healthier upbringing and improved quality of life.
    Thanks for sharing, Cecile, a peek into the French lifestyle for those who have not had the chance to live over there. Merci.

    1. You’re welcome, it’s a pleasure to share.
      Maybe we should all spend a little more time in the kitchen. I personally take joy in it, it’s my domain. I’m far from being a chef, but I love to try recipes that I find. People we shocked on my birthday when they found out I made my own birthday cakes (yes plural). I took pride and joy in making them and knowing I would have exactly what I wanted. And joy again in seeing people enjoying them and praising the food.
      I hope you are able to still keep some of the habits you learned to enjoy in France. I truly believe that big changes can happen by starting local movements. Slowly winning over people to enjoy things can snowball.

  16. You know I’ve eaten at amazing tables (homes) and restaurants here in the US too. I live in Asheville, NC and it’s a foodie town. I was not ashamed to bring family members to local restaurants, au contraire. You just have to find the right places when it comes to restaurants and create the right food at home. Your efforts to buy local food help I’m sure.

    I think a big difference is that food is a huge part of our culture and something we are very proud of.
    In fact when I wrote this article, I realized that last November, French Gastronomy was added under the “World Intangible Heritage” of the UNESCO http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/8138348/UNESCO-declares-French-cuisine-world-intangible-heritage.html.at If that’s not proof of it being a culture I don’t know what is.
    I truly do believe that there are some changes happening in the US however, especially with the Slow Food movement.
    The best thing we can do is gather around friends who like to eat the way we do and invite new guests over to win them over with our plates ;)
    And trust me, I struggle here too. I have a 30mn break to eat at work. I eat my food in 20-25 minutes most of the time so I can have a chance to walk outside and stretch my legs. As a result I’ve taken this bad habit to eat fast. I’m thankful that my husband is a slow eater and reminds me just by his presence to take the time.

    I had the same talk with a French couple now living in Florida recently, they too were frustrated at how fast people eat when they go out to the restaurant.
    Sometimes I think that food in the US is too tied up with guilt. In our society (and France is in the same situation) we are showered with words like “diet” “fat” “healthy” “unhealthy”. A lot of the people I grew up with in France just believed in enjoying food. I refuse for one to use the word diet. I try to eat healthy but I don’t diet. I want to enjoy my food, I will have dessert even if it’s a small slice of fruit pie or a square of chocolate, and without the guilt. Guilt spoils the taste. Food should be taken with joy and shared with joy.

    Sorry this is turning into a novel…

  17. I love this! I visiting German, the Czech Republic, and Austria this past spring, and while obviously the types of dishes offered are somewhat different than those in France, the attitudes toward eating are much the same. As we sat down to eat (a three-course meal!) our first night, one traveling companion said that he’d gain so much weight if he ate like that every day. I told him he probably wouldn’t. So much of the bad American food culture has to do with our attitude and approach to eating events. In Europe, we sat down and ate our food. We took our time. And we rarely ate outside of dedicated meal times! In the states, we eat at every opportunity. We snack throughout the day. We eat on the run and hardly remember what anything tasted like.

    I had the very blessed opportunity to eat at a very authentic Italian restaurant in Vienna, Austria. There, I realized why good Italian restaurants are so expensive even though the dishes are pretty inexpensive to prepare. When you go to a good Italian restaurant, you’re not only there for the food; you’re there for the atmosphere. Italian cuisine is so much about quality and passion, family and fellowship. You don’t “eat and run.” You sit down and unwind. You absorb your atmosphere and the entire experience is something almost sacred.

    And at the end of the week I found that my previously snug jeans were starting to slipping down my hips. And I’ll have you know I already eat pretty healthy at home! All that changed was the frequency and attitude toward eating events!

    1. I love the way you describe your Italian restaurant restaurant. I don’t know if I’m up to that level at home but it’s definitely something to strive for.
      I think someone commented above and said the same thing, it’s not so much about the food itself-although I believe you are more quickly satisfied with tastier food- it has a lot to do about the attitude and quality of the time.
      I think it’s something easy to reproduce at home to be honest, but considering meal time a sacred family time.

  18. Cecy,
    When you said part of the “sitting down” time was preparing the next dish, does that mean the next dish was’t already made, or it was already made, and you would just help with plating the next dish?

    1. It would be already cooked, at least in most cases. Sometimes, especially during summer you might grill the food at the last minutes and then maybe start with apetizers while it’s cooking.
      We might also be slicing a piece of meat or doing that last “put together” tasks, but the next dish would be pretty much ready to go.

  19. Great article!

    Some cultures claim that you should eat the heaviest food earlier in the day, but this always seemed to be the opposite, to me. What do people in France generally eat for breakfast & lunch?

    1. Breakfast as a kid: cereals and milk.
      Breakfast as an adult: tea or coffee with bread (fresh preferably) and butter, jam as an option.
      We don’t have brunch but it is fairly traditional for those who can afford to get croissants or chocolatine (chocolate croissant) on Sundays.

      I think we tend to eat a heavier lunch and a lighter dinner, either that or a similar amount.
      You’re more likely to have a soup for dinner which will be a big part of filling you up.

  20. I am from the US and we grew up with a hot meal all at the table together without TV. I strive to do this with my family as well and we have two small children. Daddy doesn’t always make it home in time but we sure try! These were some of my favorite memories and hope they’ll be our kids too. I agree with the last person….for us it’s not about how perfect the meal is…it’s about family time and good food. Our weeknight meals are 30 minutes and longer with extended family.

    1. I’m glad it inspired you. Even if you’re not washing dishes, I think having different courses instead of everything in the same plate can help to spread out the time too.

  21. Julia McKernan

    My son has told me that one of his fondest memories of his childhood is that we all ate at the table together and at the same time each night. I don’t think what time you eat matters but being together and having a regular schedule that suits your lifestyle gives family members a sense of stability and unity. I have a kitchen that has a bar and stools but I rarely eat there. Even if it is just me I will sit down at the table to eat. I guess I got that from my Mother. Its the little things we do in life that become tradition and sense of family.

    1. This is very sweet from your son and confirms my thoughts.
      It’s something I still work on at home, but my husband does agree that once we have kids there will be no TV during dinner time and that meals will be at the table. I’m slowly moving us into that habbit. The other day my husband even said “are you sure you want to eat at the coffee table?” It’s working!
      I think eating at the table is essensial. We’re all so caught up doing things, especially nowadays with all the technologies. I look at it as a peaceful time to gather as a family.

  22. Great article! I’m always so curious about places where dinner is served very late–what time do kids normally go to bed? We start my 18 month old’s bedtime routine at 6:45 so he can be in bed by 7:30. If he goes to bed later, he’s a wreck the next day. So do kids just go to bed really late in France (and do they get up early too then)? And do very young children really sit and eat for an hour? If so, how on earth do you get French children to have so much patience?!?

    1. I think around age 7 or so we would be in bed by 8:30.
      You bring a good point which is school time. Primary school started around 9am for me. The school bus would pick us up around 8am, so it allowed for me sleep.
      School is usually 9am-4pm or so.

      As far as sitting down for an hour, I’m sure as little kids we didn’t sit down for that long, but still long enough. We have to ask “Est-ce que je peux sortir de table” (may I leave the table) when we were finished. I think part of it is that we just take the habbit from seeing our families do it and take the time to sit. As I mentionned we don’t spend one hour eating, it’s an hour sitting down, talking, exchange, getting up to help get the next dish, etc. For the rest I’d have to ask my parents on that one as I don’t have children yet.

    2. i am an american living in France (married a frenchman) and this is something we have had to face as parents with 4 young children. We have chosen to set an “early” dinnertime of 6:30 so that the kids can be in bed by 8pm. School (preschool/Kindergarten) starts at 8:30am and lets out at 4:30pm. I find this to be a very long day for such little kids, but it is the norm. There is a 2 hour lunch break included in that day…many parents pick-up the kids and take them home for lunch. Nowadays lots of moms do use frozen dinners, but the French in general seem to have a very ingrained notion of “ballance” in a meal … always a protein, vegetable, seperate dairy (yogurt/cheese)and a dessert, which often is just fruit/compote. I would also add that things are generally sold in pre-portioned servings as well (1/2 C. of yogurt for example) so it is kinda hard(er) to overeat at the table. I have seen many of our french friends feed the very young children earlier (using babyfood or specially prepared (simpler, but still ballanced) meals. They usually feed the baby, put him to bed then prepare/eat their own meal around 8pm or later. Personally i’m ready to go to bed shortly after my kids and since we have a lot of kids i see no point in doing 2 seperate meals so we choose to eat together. Very early-on though kids are expected to sit and participate at the family meal time (probably once they graduate from a highchair). At the lengthier family holiday meals (that last hours) they are permitted to get up between courses to give them a little break.

  23. This is certainly an ideal I would like to strive for as a parent and the one in charge of all meals in my home. However, I wonder how this adapts to American lifestyle where families do not come home for lunch. For example, you say that sandwiches are for picnics but then what should kids eat for lunch at school? What should adults eat for lunch at work? And I am asking that honestly, not sarcastically. Because most Americans of my generation did not grow up with all meals had at the table, especially lunch, its hard to make the switch without really clear guidance/advice.

    Also, how does this work for families of young children? Again, this is asked honestly. I think I do a very good job of giving my children good food but I still have certain limitations. My kids (3 under 3) are all in bed by 7. Its hard to get a 4-course meal on the table by then, let alone get them to sit for multiple courses. With that in mind, I try to make a one dish meal that incorporates all the things I’d like them to eat. Is that what people in France/other cultures do? Work their way up to longer meals as their children mature?

    Thanks for sharing your perspective – your warm memories of meal times are enough to make me try harder to get everyone to sit at the table a bit longer!

    1. We’re lucky in France to have in most places very good “caffeterias”. They have balanced menus with healthy options and good variety of food served.
      So one thing is to push for schools to improve their meal plans (easier said than done isn’t it).
      On a more realistic approche, you could look into some of Lisa’s recommendations of what she sends her girls to school with. I think a container with separate areas allows to make a nice balanced meal, for example: grated carrots to start with, a pasta salad as a main dish and yogurt for dessert. It does indeed take a lot more work to plan it however.

      When I grew up as a kid we ate a little earlier, and when I’m at my grandparents so do the kids too. Sometimes they have a different meal (something simpler), sometimes not.
      I’m pretty bad at getting food on the table early, but I find that one way for me to do that is to prepare the meal the day before. Then all I have to do is reaheat it. Or in such cases just do the prep (make the quiche dough, cook the quinoa, etc). You have a great thing in the US too which is the crock pot so you can throw things in in the morning and have it ready at night time.

      I’d have to ask my parents on how they worked out the meals, but my early memories of age 7 or so do involve yogurt and a salade too.

    2. Nicole,

      My children often take leftovers from dinner to school for the next day’s lunch. We have thermos’ for them and I reheat foods in the morning and they eat it warm at lunch. We only do sandwiches one day a week, if that.

      One year our lunch schedule was:
      Monday – pasta
      Tuesday – pizza lunch at school
      Wednesday – soup
      Thursday – lunch leftover
      Fridays – mac’n’cheese with hotdogs

      This is their main lunch and is accompanied by 1 dairy (cheese, yougurt), 1 fruit, 1 veggie and 1 “dessert” (cookie, muffin, granola bar).

      Hope this helps!

    3. i’m living in france (as an american) and have young children so i hear you on thses questions. I am often frustrated feeling like school (even preschool) really takes up the WHOLE day…there really isn’t much evening for us…get dinner ready, eat, get ready for bed, sleep and do it all over again. The good thing is there is no school on Wednesday so you get a chance to catch your breath midweek (at least that’s how i feel).

      Dont let the “four course meal” bit put you off…when american’s hear “courses” it is automatically assumed that it is a fancy meal. This is not usually the case (for weeknight meals). All it means is that you divide up the elements of your meal instead of eating them all at once (also assures you are getting a full serving of vegetables usually). You might make Spaghetti salad and garlic bread and serve it all on the same plate. In france you would serve a plate of salad first, then the spaghetti second, after that you would also have a (small) dessert of some kind: maybe a cup of applesauce or a cup of fruit yogurt. That’s it! It sounds more complicated than it is. My husband (french) classifies sandwiches as “unhealthy” but i (teasingly) tell him that if i served him the lettuce and tomato on one plate and a slice of ham on another with french bread on the side (and a chunk of cheese as dessert) He would have NO problem with it (very french in fact) BUT when i put it all together and call it a sandwich it’s doesn’t qualify as a “proper” meal. Now i do admit the vegetable ratio is different on a sandwich than a side salad…but there’s a lot of “principle” that’s moreso cultural than nutritional!

      I have just found it easier to basicly plan leftovers from our evening meals to be used as packed lunches for the following day. Kids in France cant actually pack lunch for school, either you eat at the cafeteria or you go home to eat. I actually just pack my husbands lunch and he has microwave access. When we do need a “picnic” lunch we often do hardboiled eggs, bread, cheese, pasta salads, fruit, cookies. It’s funny to me now to see how perplexing it is to americans to imagine lunch without sandwiches…really i don’t miss them…and the french do make baguette sandwiches with ham and butter or paté.

  24. As a Frenchwoman, I would only add that dinner time in France depends on what region you’re in. For ex, in Paris, you tend to eat around 8:30-9pm as you come back from work late. And it’s the same in the South where dinner time is a bit, but not exactly, like in Spain (they eat around 11pm). Where I come from, in the North East, it’s rather like in Germany, around 6-6:30pm.
    But congrats to Cécile, it’s well summed up!

  25. I love this article! I love that it’s not even so much about the food as it is about the lifestyle! I hope that as Americans we can start to pick up some of the habits of the European cultures, begin taking our time, and enjoying the company of family instead of living in an always rushed society.

    1. I think you hit a bit point with your last two words, the difficulty comes from the rushed society. It’s hard to make things different when you have to fit things into the business world.

      1. I’m always irritated at the “business” schedule.

        On average 10% of people are “morning people”. 9 out of 10 of us just aren’t terribly functional for awhile after we wake up and especially not early. Why do businesses demand we come to work so early when the quality of our work (and our lives) suffers for it?

        Likewise for the length of the work day, again studies have been done and most of us are able to focus on a single thing for about 6 hours a day. The standard US work day exceeds that by 2 hours. Our lives and our work suffer for the extra hours put in unproductively.

      2. Same in Europe, the standard day is 8 hours. However the closer you get to the Mediterranean Sea the later people start (and finish) work. When my brother was in Barcelona, Spain I think he started around 10am and finished around 7pm.
        I am glad however that French schools tend to be delayed too.

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