French Food Habits

French food habits featured by popular lifestyle blogger, Gabrielle of Design Mom

berries | French food habits featured by popular lifestyle blogger, Gabrielle of Design Mom

Image and text by Gabrielle.

We’ve been in Oakland for 8 months now, and it’s been interesting to see if any of the food habits we picked up in France would stick with us.

When we were in France, I can’t say that we ever completely adopted the French way of eating, but we got close! Partly, because living in such a rural area, we didn’t have much choice.

If you’re curious about French food habits, the two books I read that I found most helpful were Bringing Up Bébé and French Kids Eat Everything. As I spoke to French friends and neighbors about what I’d learned in the books, some people agreed completely with certain parts, but thought others were false stereotypes. So I wouldn’t consider the books as flawless, but I think they give a helpful description.

My observations of French food habits would include:

– The French enjoy minimal breakfasts — like a cup of coffee and a boiled egg, or hot cocoa and a croissant for the kids. Except on a leisurely weekend, I’ve always enjoyed minimal breakfasts myself, so this worked well for me.

– They enjoy long lunches with a complete menu. A salad to start, a main course with vegetables on the side, bread, cheese and dessert (though dessert might be a piece of fruit). This is the main meal of the day, and even at a school cafeteria it’s treated as important. We could never quite get used to this, and lunches were still a lighter meal for me and Ben Blair, with evening dinners as our main meal of the day.

– They enjoy smaller dinners, but eaten as a family. Since the vast majority of work places and stores close down by 6:00, evenings are family time.

– There are baguettes everywhere! This is one of those stereotypes I found to be accurate. You can see people walking down any village street with a baguette under their arm at any time. Even the Chinese Buffet in our little town served baguette.

– This may be different in Paris or other big cities, but in the countryside, people do not eat out very often, and there aren’t that many restaurant options. (Such a big contrast to my family’s life in the U.S.!)

– Speaking of restaurants, in our town they were open at very specific times. From 12:00 to 2:00 for lunch, and from 7:00 to 9:00 for dinner. That’s it. If you realize you’re hungry at 3:00 in the afternoon, restaurants aren’t an option. If it’s before 6:00 PM (when stores close), you could stop by a bakery and they may have a sandwich or quiche available, or you could stop at a grocery store and pick up yogurt and fruit.

– Another thing about restaurants in our town is that they don’t turn the tables over. Meaning, they don’t expect new customers to fill the tables after the first ones leave. Customers come around 7:00 and stay until 9:00 and then the restaurant closes. That means, if the restaurant is full, there is no “waiting till a table opens”. Once the restaurant is full, it’s full for the night. I found this to be true in non-touristy restaurants all over the country. That also means, it’s bad form to show up at 8:30 and hope to be served. Traditional French meals are long and don’t really offer “quick bite” options. And one more thing, in our little town, restaurants need reservations so they can know how much food to have on hand. A family of 8 dropping by without a reservation didn’t work.

– When we first arrived there, we had been in the habit of eating out quite a bit, and relying on last-minute restaurant meals on busy work days. I know it sounds silly, but it was hard for me to realize this simply wouldn’t be an option. We had to make dinner on most nights. And we had to think ahead. If we wanted to pick up last-minute dinner ingredients at 7:00 PM, we would be out of luck because the grocery store would be closed. We simply had to think harder about our food. This was tricky for me to get used to, but ultimately a good thing. I definitely think it’s important to put more consideration into what we eat.

– One exception to all of this was McDonald’s. Our town had a McDonald’s and it was the only restaurant open continuously from morning till late night. It was literally the only restaurant option for a hot meal between 2:00 PM and 7:00 PM. Not an exaggeration. And we definitely had our fair share of meals there! Despite all of our planning and efforts to adopt the French way of eating, on some nights, we just didn’t have our dinner act together. Maybe it was a longer than usual work day, maybe we hadn’t picked up proper ingredients, maybe it was too late to get a restaurant reservation — and we’d end up at McDonald’s.

– Another note about McDonald’s. Surprisingly, especially when you consider how much the French care about food, it seemed like McDonald’s is not viewed as evil-y there as it is in the U.S.. McDonald’s actually serves multiple purposes in small communities. For example, in our town there was literally no evening hangout options for teenagers beyond McDonald’s. The libraries are closed. The clothes stores are closed. Everything is closed. But McDonald’s is open late, it’s well lit and safe, it’s centrally located, it has good, reliable wifi and inexpensive food. No doubt hanging at McDonald’s keeps many kids out of trouble.

– I carried a fairly hostile view of McDonald’s in France, and was embarrassed when we ate there, until a conversation with our Dutch friends. They had lived in France for many years and they were very health conscious, growing much of their own food and always seeking out organic sources. But McDonald’s came up one day, and they matter-of-factly talked about how everyone ate at McDonald’s when they were on a roadtrip. It was the only offering for a late night or off-hour meal. They didn’t eat there regularly, but recognized that it offered an essential service to citizens.

– Speaking of eating on the road, the French don’t. Well, they don’t eat in their cars. I say that like it’s non-negotiable, but I honestly never saw anyone eating in their car. Seriously. They don’t eat casually (like a quick sandwich during errands) and they don’t snack. When it’s time for a meal — even a simple one — the food is laid out, everyone sits, and the meal is enjoyed slowly. It wasn’t unusual to see motorists setting out a meal on the side of the road, usually on designated picnic tables. Everyone gets out of the car, the meal is laid out and eaten properly, everything is cleaned up, then they get back in the car and continue on their way. The food is kept in the trunk and no even considers eating it while they drive. One benefit of this is that their cars are crumb free!

– I remember hearing that French people didn’t snack, and couldn’t really understand what that meant. I don’t think of myself as a snacker. What was the big deal? But it’s actually a hugely different way to approach food than we approach it in the U.S.. When you hear “French people don’t snack” what that means is French people — like the entire country! — eat at specific times and only at specific times. Breakfast around 8:00 AM. Lunch at noon. Dinner at 7:00 or 8:00 in the evening. Children have an afternoon snack (sweet not savory) at around 4:00 PM. Some adults enjoy an afternoon snack as well, but many do not. And that’s it. Really. There are specific times for food, and the rest of the time food is totally out of place. Like it would be weird to offer someone food at 5:30 PM, or any time that’s not a specific meal time. Another example, there is no such thing as picking up a cup of coffee and carrying it around with you. In our town, they didn’t even have to-go cups at all. If you want coffee, you sit at a café and enjoy your cup of coffee. Then get up and be on your way. Food is not multi-tasked ever.

This is the thing that I probably found most different about U.S. and French eating habits. In America, no matter how small the meeting or event, we include food. PTA committee meeting at 10:00 AM? We serve muffins and coffee. Kids at the playground at any time of day? We bring juice boxes and pretzels. Friend stops by your house at 2:30 PM? Pull out your cookie stash. Americans can eat as we walk down the street or commute to work or run errands and nobody even notices. There is no time of day where food would feel out of place in the U.S..

– In a French family, kids don’t open the fridge at any random time to grab an apple or a cheese stick. There’s no reason to even be in the kitchen unless it’s a proper meal time. And our family never quite adopted this. Our kids always felt free to snack throughout the day — thought we tried to be diligent about only having healthy options on hand.

– Food quality is better in France. Well, that’s probably not phrased right. Instead, I would say, it’s really easy to access quality foods in France. You can find them in the U.S. too, but often you have to hunt them down or go out of your way to find them.

– When I read both of the books referenced above, I remember thinking: Wow! The French have food figured out. We must adopt these methods pronto! But then, I would picture what our life would be like back in the U.S., and could see that many of the French food habits simply weren’t going to transfer. I would have to be anti-social to reject food at every PTA meeting, or tell my kids they couldn’t snack like the other children at the playground. The French way of eating works, because the entire country adheres to it. The restaurants adhere to it. The grocery stores adhere to it. Work places adhere to it. Families adhere to it. A family could attempt it in the U.S., but in my opinion, it seems like it would be difficult if not impossible.

So, what French food and eating habits have stuck with us since we moved back? There are a few things.

– We still seek out better quality food. Local eggs, local honey, local produce. And less processed food in general.

– We’re picky about things like yogurt and bread, and it took us awhile to find versions we really enjoyed.

– We still have simple breakfasts.

– We eat out more than we did in France, but we eat fast food far less than we did before we moved there.

– We shop in small batches. Before France, I would try to buy enough food for a week during one major shopping trip — sometimes filling two carts! But now, we don’t keep nearly as much stocked in the pantry, and we tend to buy our dinner ingredients the same day. I’d say this is probably the biggest change we’ve made.

– The French food thing we miss the most: Our kids long for the amazing lunches they enjoyed in their French school. They would have a two-hour break with a full course meal. No students would pack a lunch. You would either go home for a full, lengthy meal, or eat at the school. Here, they get just a few minutes and won’t touch the school lunch options, opting instead to pack a meal.

This post is getting very long, so I’ll wrap up now, but I’d love to hear:

How do you think your family would adjust to eating in France? Do you currently eat out frequently or depend on takeout? Are there any details I mentioned that appeal to you? What are your thoughts on the whole French food topic?

 P.S. — If you’re curious, this is how we shopped and ate in France, and here’s the follow-up post.

117 thoughts on “French Food Habits”

  1. I have read both of those books and enjoyed them, but I really appreciate your emphasis on how the society supports such a philosophy/way of life. Not an easy thing to do here in the U. S. One of the things I find most sad is the disappearance of recess / mealtime for kids at school. I remember we had an hour, even when I was in high school. It sounds like some kids now barely get 15 mintues (?) It just doesn’t seem healthy to me.

      1. I’m a teacher, and we get exactly 30 minutes to get from our classrooms to the teacher’s lounge, eat, go to the restroom, and get back to class. The students often spend half their lunch time in line if they don’t pack their own, and the healthy options cost more, so the students on free lunch aren’t allowed to choose those items. Administrators dismiss our concerns, saying it’s the “way it has to be,” but I think we are doing them a great disservice.

      2. I so agree. Our kiddo often says she doesn’t have time to finish her lunch and is totally rushed out of the lunch room. I don’t like that at all. I don’t think they should feel like they’re racing against a clock to eat.

      3. One of my complaints is that at our school lunch is followed immediately by recess. As in, as soon as you “finish” your lunch, you get to go to the playground. Which means most kids gobble down a bit of their lunch and then head out. Yes, kids need outside time but they also need to eat. And this approach doesn’t contribute to a healthy learning environment. It’s no surprise kids “need” an afternoon snack at our school…

  2. Thanks for the book recommendations. I’ve never given serious thought to society eating patterns in other countries compared to the U.S. and I enjoyed reading your insights. I definitely notice that I enjoy a meal more when I make time to enjoy it–but I’m sorry to say I could nickname myself the queen of speed eating and I think my kids are falling into the same habits–the faster you eat the more time you have on the playground….or to finish running errands…..kind of sad when you think about it.

  3. So interesting to hear what your experience is. My husband is French (I am Austrian) and we lived in a small place between Nice and Grasse for two years (I miss it sooo much!).

    Some things you talked about I recognized, others not. For instance in our area there were 2 large markets that were open until 8 or even 9 pm on weeknights. So for us it was possible to shop groceries on the way home from work. Maybe this was this way because that area (Cote d´Azur) is very touristy.

    Also I often saw people eating in their cars, precisely having breakfast behind the wheel or kids having ice-cream or candy bar. Our (then) toddler did have snacks between breakfast and lunch, as did his French friends at playgroup. It was supplied for by the kindergarten. Usually it was a piece of store bought pastry or a yoghurt, always with some fruit. Talking about pastries: My husband works for a large food company, therefore I know that the French also buy boxes of cookies and pastries to enjoy in between meals.).

    One thing I really do agree with you is that I hardly saw people carrying coffee cups through town. Coffee is enjoyed sitting down in the sun. I like that!

    My sister-in-law always laughs about this “French kids eat everything”-idea. She thinks it is a social prejudice and would love to send her 3 kids to the US to prove this idea to be wrong ;-)

    1. I like hearing about your grocery stores with later hours. For me, that’s one part of American life I love. Ben Blair and I often run grocery store errands after 9:00 PM! The store is empty and we don’t feel time pressures and there are no lines.

  4. I would love to live in France and always eat the French way! Actually, because I live in a rural area of Maine, it comes pretty close. We eat out at most once a month, usually breakfast or lunch when we do errands in the nearest city. Otherwise, it’s food from the farmer’s market, local co-op, occasionally the supermarket, or from our garden/root cellar. Now that my husband and & are getting older, we aim to have lunch be our biggest meal, too. Supper is often simply soup & crackers.

  5. As I am sitting here eating my leftover Indian take-out, I am wondering if you had take-out in France? Did you have restaurants that served other nationalities’ food? I don’t know what I would do without delivery on Friday nights!

    1. There was a Chinese Buffet in our town, and there was a Kebab shop, and an Italian restaurant. And I suppose McDonald’s counts as American food. I think that’s about it. If I remember any others, I’ll add them in.

      As for as take out goes, it seemed to be pretty non-existent. And no doggie bags either! You finish the food on your plate.

      1. Of course we have take away ! I think Gabriel didn’t come across ones in Normandy because she used to live in the countryside. It’s true that I live in Paris but we have Japanese restaurants, Chinese, Corean, Italian, Greek, African, Mexican, Brazilian, Spanish, Portuguese…I could go on and on.
        But true for doggie bags. I have to quote Gabby for that ” finish the food on your plate ” ! ;)

        1. I remember this coming up a few times in French films, where the idea of taking uneaten food out of a restaurant with you was seen as really peculiar, gross even.

  6. I’m French and am honestly not a fan of the trend in books abouts how the French do everything better – I find them stereotypical and they tend to assume that all French people are all the same, whereas there are huge differences depending on region, social class, cultural background, urban vs rural etc. But I really enjoyed your post!
    I agree with most of your points, although I’m in Paris where its easier and more common to eat out (and they often try to fit in two services per meal). It’s also easier to find late night groceries, take out etc. And for the snacks, I agree, although I think most little kids are also allowed a mid-morning snack at recess (I know I was).
    The constant eating is what confused me the most when I moved to Canada (which I think is relatively similar to the US in terms of eating habits). My boyfriend and I often have conversations like “hey, want a burger?” “but…it’s 3PM!” “so?” “its not time for food” *looks confused*.

    1. Hah! I’m sure I would be completely bugged if there were a million books about how ideal life in the U.S. is — when I could so easily see exceptions!

      I love your last comment about 3PM burger suggestions. I can’t believe how many times I would get in a groove and work through lunch, then look up and see it’s 3:00 and think: Oh no! What in the world can I pick up for lunch? Everything is closed!

      1. Yeah, I can see how that would be a problem, but to be honest I don’t think I’ve ever forgotten lunch, no matter how hard I work. I’m biologically programmed to eat around 8am, 12:30 and 8pm, no matter what. It must be in our French DNA! And to be honest, regular mealtimes and no snacking is one of the things I hope to pass onto my kids, ever if I raise them here in Canada.

        1. Isabelle, I am fascinated by these set eating times. I can easily make it from 8am to 12 or even 1pm without snacking but gown cn you not eat for 7 or 8 hours between lunch and dinner at 8pm?! I would love to know how you manage this :)

  7. My grandmother is French and my mother grew up in France, there were 3 things that we did different than my cousins

    1. Tiny breakfasts (a bagel, that is a lot of food)
    2. Room temperature water with no ice
    3. Salads after dinner (i never understood a salad before dinner, still don’t get it)

    I miss the long lunches and try to recreate those on the weekend. The bread, how I miss the bread, I have never had a good baguette outside of NY & France.

      1. Salad after the entrée I think is what she means – in France it’s supposed to clean your palate before dessert – instead of a salad as an apetizer (before dinner).

    1. Monique, I grew up in and Italian-American household where the salad always came after the meal. It’s a tradition we have carried on with my own family of young children. When we have friends for dinner they always think it is unusually fun to partake in our post-meal salad tradition! In fact, there have been a few occasions when dining at a friend’s house we have been offered the salad after the meal. When I ask my parents about this tradition they simply say it was just what their parents did too. I suppose one day our children will say the same :).

  8. No kids yet but I know that the husband and I would have an incredibly difficult time transitioning! I think it’s almost expected as an American to eat on the go. Setting time aside to sit down and enjoy a meal seems uncommon. Loved reading about the differences. It sounds kinda dreamy!

    1. I confess, sometimes I LOVE eating on the go. Sometimes thinking about food feels like more of a chore and less of an enjoyment depending on how busy I am at the moment.

  9. Completely agree with you about McDonalds. During our time in Europe I felt so embarrassed to be in one (and was only there in the most desperate tomes) but no one native seemed to have any strong feelings against the place.

    1. Encountering a McDonald’s in any country I’ve traveled to always gives me mixed feelings. Some shame at its pervasiveness, but also comfort because it’s so familiar. One of my first faraway trips was to Japan at age 13, and I remember mixed feelings even then!

      1. I traveled to Japan when I was 13 too! Maybe it’s because Asia is SO different, but when we came across a McDonald’s or a Baskin Robbins it was really comforting and I would beg to go.

  10. Personal experience in France leads me to say that ‘Bringing up Bebe’ was not an accurate reflection of ALL French kids. I know French kids who turn up their ‘nez’ at certain foods. And act out in public. The teen references in the book were kind of laughable. My rural (admittedly non-Parisian) experience was that French teens were much more dependent on parents because non of them could drive before 18. None had jobs, either. I think the author’s experience was as narrow as if ALL American parents were thought to be like those Park Slope, parsley eating parents she encountered.

    Bottom line: I love France, love the (complex, multi-dimensional) French; don’t like idolizing any culture as perfect specimens to emulate.

  11. I love the way food is truly enjoyed in France…people seem to eat sensibly without worrying about gluten, carbs, calories, etc.. I also love the idea of slowing down the eating process. I cringe when i think about how often we eat snacks in the car, rushing to different activities. I do wonder if kids in France have fewer extracurricular activities. I adore the idea of a sit down family dinner almost every night. We strive for family meals, but with differing sports schedules, we have to do dinner separately once or twice a week. In general, I like the fact that there’s a simplicity about food that we don’t have in the US. I remember coming home after a trip to Paris in 1994, and being shocked at the contrast of France vs. US when it comes to the cereal aisle of the grocery store!!

  12. Very interesting read. I cannot imagine having no eating options at certain times of day, I love being able to buy whatever, whenever. I think that would be a huge adjustment for me if I were to move to France. I love the idea of longer and more appetizing lunches in schools though!

  13. I loved these books. I lived in the UK and didn’t have similar experiences at all – which is unique to food I believe as so many cultural things can cross European countries!

    I constantly remind my husband to eat slower. He would easily finish complete a meal in under 5 minutes – not drinking anything between bites or putting down his fork. I try and have us savor the food and each others company somewhat! It helps when we don’t eat in front of the TV! ;)

  14. So interesting to read your take on this. I think the concept of the whole country doing things a certain way is spot on–we can make changes for our families, but unless we get our wider communities to do the same, new eating habits are reaaaaally hard to stick to.

  15. So fascinating! Thanks for sharing. I love learning about the “common” practices in other countries and how they compare. So often we only hear about the “crazy” things other countries do, but food and sleep and how we dress, etc. are often the most interesting things that people view differently.

  16. Mary (my life in Scotland)

    My husband is from Portugal and they eat the same way! I love when we go visit. Breakfast is usually fresh squeezed orange juice from their citrus orchard with a little bit of honey and a boiled egg. Lunch is a big affair! The biggest meal of the day and always with the whole family. Usually chicken,rice, vegetables and some amazing bread! All cooked in some interesting way and super yummy. Dinner is very light. Maybe a lentil soup or a small hot sandwich. I love eating this way and wish the UK lifestyle was set up to support such a thing.

    No snacking in Portugal either! If they do it is a slice of meat, cheese and bread. Maybe some fruit with it. That is customary to have when guests come over. Always the same thing! But only for company. No snacking on your own.

  17. We cook most nights and we don’t normally do processed food. I snack quite a bit though (mostly fruit)–I’m 30 weeks pregnant so I feel like all I think about is food sometimes! I’m curious if habits change for pregnant women. :)

    I love having family dinners every night! We didn’t grow up doing this, but my husband and I do. I’d definitely adapt to this.

  18. I am wondering about the weekends… Do they still eat breakfast at 8? Or don’t people sleep in in France as we do here? Do they eat later and change the schedule for the rest of the day?

  19. i love these posts! i really enjoyed bringing up bebe but came to a similar conclusion. if the school doesn’t support that sort of eating, and friends eat the american non-stop way, it’s hard. i have tried to get closer to the french spirit though – emphasizing proper meals, less snacking – i do what i can!

  20. I hear you on the yoghurt. I have trouble returning to U.S. dairy products after seemingly every trip abroad. Yoghurt especially seems so achingly sweet (almost in a fake way) and oddly thin here. I’d love to hear what brands you’ve gravitated towards since your return from France.

    1. I would love to hear about which brands you’ve sought out or found that are good mimics to quality European food. I agree, it’s harder to access quality food here, so it’d be great to see what your family has found.

  21. Love your post! I do appreciate McDonalds! We were in our 2nd year in Riga, Latvia when McDonalds arrived. Clean, bright, happy, colorful, friendly etc .
    It revolutionized restaurants in Latvia. LOVED Mac’s in China where one felt
    welcome and free to visit about anything and with anyone. From one who knows
    the difference I am grateful! Hooray for McDonalds and Kentucky Fried etc. etc!

  22. I was so happy to read this today as I was actually going to email you and beg for advice on how to keep up the habits we have adopted while here in France. We leave in four months and I feel almost panicked every time I eat a baguette. Savor it savor it savor it ha! I would LOVE to know what types of yogurt, butter etc. you have found that your kids enjoy now back in the states. We have been zoooooo spoiled (even the carrefour vanilla is a fav in our house) and I have contemplated freezing a years supply of sel de mar butter to bring back in a cooler ha! I am sure your choices in San Fran will be a lot better then ours will be in SLC though. How will I survive with out Picard? :)

  23. Hi,
    I’m French and we recently moved to Canada. I recognize some of the things you say, but not all of them. You probably didn’t have too many restaurant options and stores open late because you were in a small town, but in bigger cities in France, you can do your groceries until 9.00pm, you can find lots of restaurants, and take out food too. And during the lunch on weekdays, you see lots of people eating their sandwiches outside (ok, it’s often a baguette). But it is true that we do sit down to eat (even for a sandwich) and we take our time. Otherwise your stomach hurts and you ate so fast that you feel hungry again, which doesn’t happen if you sit for at least half an hour :)
    One of the biggest things that we found hard to adjust to in Canada was the lunchboxes at school, and the time allocated to kids to eat their food ! They also snack in the morning, which is very new to us. So I keep it simple, I pack mostly leftovers but not too much, so that my son has time to finish everything.
    For adults, we do have the “social coffee” in the morning at work. But no food with it, that’s true.
    In our family we eat dinner together everyday, we cook our meals (simple things – it doesn’t have to be gourmet food) and that’s a very special moment to share. Sometimes it’s even the only moment of the day when we are all there together ! I wonder when do you share your day in the US if you don’t sit together at least once per day ?
    Otherwise I still don’t get used to the dinner time here in Canada: families usually eat at around 5.30-6.00 pm here, and that’s waaaay too early for us ! So we are often the last ones left on the playground ;) But they do the baths, etc after dinner, we do it the other way. I realized that our European neighbors tend to do like us ! If you ask Italians, I guess they have the same type of habits as French ;)
    Anyway, thank you for the post and the nice tips on your blog !

  24. I lived in Switzerland and can say the same things regarding their eating habits. There were many things I liked but I also DESPISED the small refrigerators and having to grocery shop pretty much daily. I really missed the conveniences that we have here (when I lived there grocery stores closed at 6 PM and were closed on Sundays). While I do feel their eating habits are probably healthier (aside from allowing smoking in restaurants), I truly love cruising around running errands with a warm Chai in hand. I once asked for a to-go cup at a Starbucks in Zurich and I got a serious attitude in return. Like you, I would get embarrassed if I ate at McD’s there…..I felt like everyone would be staring at me thinking “typical American”. Although, I have to say, the McD’s food there was truly divine….WORLDS better than McD’s food here. What I miss most? Yogurt and bread. When I visit, I usually head straight to the grocery store for some yogurt and then hit up the local bakery for some fresh bread. YUM! Such a great post!

  25. Loved this post! So fascinating! We had a French foreign exchange student last summer (love her like my own daughter!), and we had a wonderful time comparing cultures without judgement. Things that blew her mind: Take out! Being able to take food home that you didn’t finish (doggy bags), and being able to send an order back if it was not correct.

  26. Fascinating! We are following the paleo diet in our house which means there is very little convenience food around and I have had to think harder about dinner (I like the way you put that); I can’t just boil up some pasta and put some sauce on it and call it good. I like that we are eating more veggies, but it is definitely more complicated.

  27. Hi. I loved this post and hearing your perspective as an American in France. I did read both those books but have a few French friends so knew some of it to be a fallacy. I completely agree with you about the lunch times in schools here in America. My boys are in K and 1st grade and do get a full half hour to eat lunch but in the school we were in last year, it would be 15 min to eat and 15 min recess. I hated that. It teaches all the wrong message. Even half hour is not really long enough as a teacher pointed out here.
    We moved here from the UK which has pretty much all the same habits as the US except that I find the food in the UK cleaner as I call it. While there are additives and processed food, I find it much easier to buy unprocessed food at a reasonable price in every supermarket. I imagine that is the same in France. I went to the supermarket this morning and was so annoyed that I had to pay twice as much for a peanut butter that had an ingredients list of just peanuts. For half the price I could buy one with sugar, salt, molasses and palm oil. Why do those items even need to be in peanut butter? This is my biggest gripe about America. The whole concept that plain food needs to be expensive when it isn’t in other countries just bugs me no end.

  28. Travelling abroad with small kids, I have hit McDonalds in Portugal and Egypt…and I find it kind of interesting. It is NOT the same menu, and seeing what “local” flavor is added is kind of interesting.

    Actually, driving through a McDonalds outside Toronto only to discover there are no biscuits at breakfast (only english muffins) was pretty nuts, too…and that’s Canada! (They are missing out, IMO).

  29. Your post reminded me just how much food habits and culture are tied together. I love that so many European cultures take meals seriously and slowly, not to mention the quality of ingredients. I’d miss some conveniences and eating out for sure, but I think I could get used to the way it’s done in small-town/rural France if the rest of my lifestyle supported it. One of my grandmothers was French Canadian — in her house breakfast was simple, and lunch and dinner were sit-down and elegant — linens and all. Snacking wasn’t common. That’s the way she grew up.

    I have a hard time imagining myself eating at McDonalds, but never say never… I’d be curious to see if McDonald’s food is actually better over there!

  30. We honeymooned in Italy for two weeks a few years ago and traveled by train several times. We were always blown away by the crowds of locals inside the McDonalds at the train stations. We thought, “But you are in ITALY! Why are you eating at McDonalds?!?”.

  31. this is so fascinating and thank you for sharing. many many years ago i lived in rome for about 6 mos and we actually ate out a lot but most of what we ate was italian. fortunately i love italian food so i never got tired of it. i think the homogeneity of the cuisine is what i noticed most while traveling throughout europe. probably so in other parts of the world too. but here in the states, i could never just eat italian food all the time. we’d get so bored!
    so now that you are back what kind of food do you usually make at home? our home cooking is around the globe for the most part! and that goes for eating out too!

  32. I grew up in France and your observations are completely accurate, and much more balanced that either of the two books you mention which over-idealize the French to a silly degree. One thing you don’t mention though is just how sugary the French kids’ gouter is — often pure candy, or my favorite, a chocolate bar wedged inside a buttered baguette! They don’t skimp on sweets. They enjoy food to the fullest extent, plain and simple.

    1. dana tkach gault

      Du pain and du chocolat! I tried to explain this to my husband just the other day and he remains flummoxed. Mlle Duvet, my middle school French teacher, introduced our class to this little miracle some 40-plus years ago and it is magnificent! Alas, celiac disease has eliminated it as an option for me, although my family is instructed to provide it at my deathbed. Because I intend to go out happy!
      Love your take on this, Gabrielle (as always xo!)

  33. I read French kids Eat Everything, not the other. The main thing I love is the school lunches. It makes me furious that politicians are so focused on restricting what size of soda can be purchased at a gas station, but leave our children eating processed junk in our schools all year. And the amount of time they give them to eat is also a joke!

  34. I love food, and I love this post! The gouter , after school is one of the official meals, it’s an established snack, and my kids never skip it!
    What I try to bring on playgrounds is water, because kids get thirsty quickly, but no juice; at my house we don’t drink sodas, and rarely juice, unless it’s homemade. We rarely eat out as a family because it’s so expensive, and we enjoy (well, the kids) eating at Mc Donald’s occasionally. My husband and I, or I and some girlfriends enjoy going out for lunch, in one of the small bistros that offer simple but delicious traditional French cuisine; you can have a full menu for less than 20 euros. Last but not least, my kids don’t eat anything, far from it, but they have always eaten normal food, and you didn’t need to drown their food in ketchup so they would eat it.

    just for your kids, here’s my son’s lunch menu in his “college”:

    Salade verte ou salade de tomates

    Filet meunière ou porc confit (that’s fish in a buttery sauce)

    Haricots verts BIO

    Saint Nectaire (that’s stinky but yummy cheese)

    Glace en barre ou verrine au citron

  35. Fascinating post — thank you! I am now tempted to read both books you describe.

    I am also in the Bay Area and wonder whether you might share the sources for the yogurt and breads that you have found that you like (and hopefully come close to those in France)?

    My own favorites are St. Benoit yogurt and Bellwether sheep’s milk yogurt (both from Sonoma County) and Cheeseboard (Berkeley) and Acme breads. Plus La Brea Bakery baguettes, which are from LA, but we buy the frozen par-baked ones from Whole Foods and bake them the rest of the way at home. Vital Vittles, a Berkeley company, also sells wonderful whole-wheat sandwich breads.

  36. Love this post…hardest thing for me to get used to when we moved to Switzerland was the cooking, thought and creating of meals. I called my grandmother and told her I think I know what it is like to be a 1950s housewife! We do eat out but mainly on the weekends in the mountains while skiing or hiking depending on the season. During the week we don’t just go grab food…EVER. Luckily also many farm stands where you pay on the honor system are open 24hrs with fruits/veggies and eggs so that helps. Laughed out loud at your no crumbs in the car- no one ever eats in cars here- and our kids have gotten used to it- I took them on a two week road trip during October break and did a drive-thru from Quick and we ate in the car as we drove with the music blasting- I told them this is was the American portion of our Road Trip :) Really find your thoughts on reservations regarding food amounts interesting– we do reserve in the mountains but mainly to guarantee seating- though I have always wondered why when I am meeting friends for lunch in Zurich sometimes empty restaurants will ask why we didn’t reserve.

  37. I live in France in the outskirts of Paris. My two children go to a French school. One son finds the cafeteria in his school so bad he refuses to eat. When I asked the school if I could give him a lunch, they refused — I needed a Drs note saying he had allergies and could not eat at the cafeteria. Life in France is very much fit into a mould– this includes expectations in schools, and also eating times, vacations, etc. While such attitudes provide structure to their daily life, if one doesn’t fit the mold its problematic. Really, the cafeteria in this school is really bad– everyone complains about it, my son is exceptional only in that he refuses to eat. So sometimes food is better here, but sometimes it isn’t. Traditional French meals are heavy and typically not made with the best meat. When they say salad after the main course it is not ‘a salad’ it is lettuce only. It is very refreshing, but I serve almost always a first course of vegetables– raw carrots, cucumbers, beets or radishes generally without sauce but with a vinigrette on the side. Cheers

  38. This is a wonderful post. I wanted to add my experience moving to Pakistan, six months ago.

    The meals here are vastly different from the US too. We still eat light breakfasts, occasionally eggs, but tea with toast is fairly common, or tea with a buttery paratha, a round layered flat bread.
    Lunch is the main meal of the day day at my husbands home with rice, flat bread, lentils, a salad a vegetable and a meat. Fruit and sometimes desert follows a leisurely family style lunch between 1-2. Since schools get out at 1. the kids are home for lunch.
    There is a specific tea time around 4/5 with tea and sometimes a snack with it, generally something sweet
    Dinner is much lighter sometimes just fruit and yogurt.
    If company comes over for tea, there will be multiple things savoury and sweet as well, but only for company.

  39. I’m very curious, though I hope this isn’t too personal of a question: you mentioned that you don’t do one big shopping trip per week and instead shop often. I wonder, considering your faith, do you have a food storage? Did you have one in France? I imagine in New York it would have been nearly impossible with such small living quarters. Anyway, just curious!

    1. I am curious, too, because I have a small family in an apartment, and I go back and forth between wanting to be “prepared” and trying to be minimalist due to space limitations. I grew up in Brooklyn and we were 3 generations in one house, but my grandmother shopped several times a week, we never seemed to stock up on very much.

  40. What yogurt do you buy in the U.S.? I was recently in Europe after not visiting in 9 years, and ate yogurt every day. It reminded me of how every time I’m there I fall in love with the amazing yogurt, but I don’t know what kind might be closest to it in the U.S. I think it tastes so good because they keep some fat in it and don’t need to add all that sugar!

  41. American relationships and perceptions about food make me insane. It’s one of the things that gets me right up on my soapbox.

    The French attitude towards food sounds like my dream come true. All except the part about not taking coffee everywhere you go…that would be a hard one for me. :)

  42. We are an American family living in Germany for the past 6 years and we are moving back to the States next month. Most of the things you mention are also very common in Germany as well. Although we don’t eat baguette everyday, we go to the bakery for fresh breads. Everything is so fresh and I worry we may not find that back home. I laugh when you mention motorists and the eating at rest stops. We always take a picnic and get out of the car, lay it out on the table and eat as a family, then pack up and go. We’ll keep doing it when we road trip in the States. We enjoy our German life and it will be hard to leave, but will not try to leave behind the good habits we’ve picked up whilst living here.

  43. Such spot on observations! I studied abroad in Strasbourg in college and had many of the same realizations and frustrations. I still remember vividly the bizarre looks a friend and I got from the people at the café when we ordered our café-crème “emporté” (to go) The obliged us, digging out some tiny paper cups without lids. Not exactly what we pictured! Never did that again. Also, the time I took a day trip with my host mother to Germany, and when she stopped for gas I ran into the store to get a Diet Coke. Well! She asked if we should wait while I drank it! Wasn’t I going to spill if? Wouldn’t I rather sit and enjoy it? Where would I put it? No cup holders! Ahhh memories! Really enjoyed reading this post!! :-)

  44. I love this post, in part because you seem to be considering the subject practically.

    I lived in Spain several years ago and encountered similar trends–the hardest part for me to get used to was that EVERYTHING was closed one Sunday per month–even grocery stores. I was in trouble if I had forgotten to do my shopping ahead of time!

    I very much appreciate the French emphasis on being present while eating–I think this provides an opportunity to have a mental break and improves one’s chances of having a good mind/body connection with food (i.e. connecting with hunger/fullness cues). However, I really like that in the U.S., I can eat when my body tells me it’s hungry, rather than feeling I have to eat at pre-determined meal times even if I’m not hungry (this might be my last chance for awhile!) or wait for the next meal time if I’m hungry, even if that’s several hours away. I realize more than likely people’s bodies just adjust to this schedule and generally adjust hunger schedules accordingly, but I like knowing if I get ravenous at 5:30, I can easily adjust my meal time or have a snack without anyone blinking an eye.

    I also really like that on days when I’m “in flow” with a great project, I don’t have to stop everything for a meal–sometimes I just want to eat or graze and get on with it!

    Overall, I think the root is to just be mindful of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it instead of overlaying a set of rules that may not be the best for us and our families. We (the U.S.) so often glamorize French food habits without taking an honest look at what’s good about U.S. food habits (e.g. people here are relatively accepting of a wide variety of ways of eating, so it’s easy to individualize eating habits, and there’s an enormous variety of foods available at the grocery stores, so there are a lot more recipes I can make here than I could in Spain). There are completely wonderful things about France’s food philosophy, but that doesn’t mean it would work (or be the best thing) superimposed as-is over U.S. culture.

    Thanks for this post and this discussion!

  45. It is interesting how food is ingrained in our social events (like you mentioned, meetings and play dates) compared to the French. One thing that would not be a change for us is having to plan ahead and not eating out very much. We live on a farm in the Midwest. Our nearest grocery store is about 25 miles away and the nearest “big box” stores are about 85 miles. We have one small café in our town that is open for breakfast and lunch (it closes at 2pm) on every day except for Saturday, and then an ice cream shop that is open seasonally. Having the pantry and freezer stocked are necessary. I loved to hear about the differences between American and French eating habits. Thank you for sharing!

  46. I absolutely love this post, and appreciate all your insight! I realize one of my favorite things about traveling to Europe, is the slower pace of mealtimes…and there is no guilt associated with that!

  47. Erika Roberson

    As one who has lived 3 years in or around Basel, Switzerland I really can relate to the same food adjustments. It is still hilarious that my brain asks “Is the store open today?” because all of the random religious holidays we had off and would forget about. Definitely made use of the train stations which in our area also sold food on holidays and odd times.
    In my return to the U.S. working back in the school systems I was just dismayed at the lack of time the children have to eat their food. I kept thinking if children could have a calm peaceful meal half of the behaviors that get them sent into my office would be mitigated. Then watching Jamie Oliver be in West Virginia Schools and one comment that really didn’t play hugely in the show but still echo in my ears is “Wait, is this all the time they have to eat?” yeah some children are lucky to get 10 minutes depending on the speed of cafeteria lines etc. We are talking KINDERGARTENERS. It is the biggest factor for me when contemplating homeschooling my future children they would be able to enjoy nourishment and connection.

  48. Yes, I think there’s a big difference between eating habits in Paris vs. the countryside. We live in Paris and tend to eat out a lot. At least once a week and often with other families. I work late during the week, so we eat late. We have a tiny apartment so I shop for something fresh everyday on my way home.

    However, when we’re in Normandy we never eat out and shop in bigger quantities.

    Regardless of being in the city or country, I think the generalizations both books make are pretty spot on. There is a real food culture in France where food is not just about food, but also about socialization.

    My daughter goes to a public preschool and they all eat at little round tables with real place settings. No trays, no lines. They are served at the table and help pass the bread, water etc.. It’s pretty darn cute <3

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