What do French women actually eat?
June 23, 2016 2:31 PM   Subscribe

I read all the time about how French ladies indulge in carbs and fat but never gain weight. I'm assuming that the portions are smaller and they don't snack between meals. However, croissants and Brie every day? Really? I haven't been able to find what people actually eat for meals and snacks.

This is purely to quench my curiosity, I'm no Francophile. My suspicion is that one meal a day consists of black coffee and ciggaretes. I know that France as a whole is getting fatter. But what are typical breakfasts/lunches/dinners for French people?
posted by pintapicasso to Food & Drink (23 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
There is literally a $10 book that was written to answer this question.
posted by TinWhistle at 2:40 PM on June 23, 2016 [8 favorites]

Smaller portions, no snacking, a focus on better-quality food, a focus on quality over quantity, fewer carbs, more exercise in the (walking versus car culture).

I have some pretty strong evidence: I recently lost 75 pounds by walking more, eating less, and by eating better (no processed food, no refined sugar, no carbs).

The typical North American diet stresses quantity and calories.
posted by My Dad at 2:51 PM on June 23, 2016 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I read the book and the author describes big cultural differences and less snacking or added sugars. She recommends leek soup to "reduce." She makes a pot of leeks and broth and eats it twice a day, maybe more. I actually tried this and must be a typical American because it was not satisfying. That was a dark time.
I do think the French diet involves much smaller portions and one larger meal a day, not three. And maybe brie and baguette occasionally, but not every day, probably not even every week. Based on my limited travel and meals with a French friend, there's also much more of a focus on enjoying a really good ingredient, but not necessarily a focus on a "well-rounded" meal. So we might enjoy a really great plate of radishes or fennel or a cheese, which is something I don't think I've ever done as a meal in the US. And there's the smoking.
posted by areaperson at 2:56 PM on June 23, 2016 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Based on my experience working in France:
-absolutely no snacking
- breakfast is some toast and jam, maybe a croissant and butter/jam and coffee/tea (on the other handive seen many people eat Prince or BelVita cookies for breakfast, but then again Americans have pop tarts so the whole those I glass houses thing kind of applies)
- lunch is a light green salad followed by a main plate with protein, a vegetable, and likely some carb. If they have dessert it would be fruit OR (lightly sweetened) yogurt OR cheese OR a small typical dessert item (it would be unelikely to have a "real dessert at lunch and dinner or even every day). A glass of wine or hard cider may accompany the meal
- there may be a mid afternoon snack, but that's really for kids and it would be having a snack with the children. Snacks include things like a bit of bread or a fruit or yogurt
- dinner follows a similar approach to lunch

Very rarely is something other than water or wine drunk. When I came back to the US I had really missed smoothies but didn't have one for early 3 weeks because I could t figure out when you were "supposed to" eat one. I've recently started the food addicts anonymous food plan and it's really quite similar to French eating.

There's a much greater emphasis on good and "real" food. You won't find high fructose corn syrup anywhere or people snacking crackers or chips.

Another factor is that food is very rarely eaten by oneself. Food is an experience and meant to be enjoyed. My parents came to visit me I. France and we were driving to Dijon. At noonish we got hungry and pulled over to a highway rest stop to eat (like the rest of the road did). My greatest embarrassment was my mother picking and choosing what she wanted to eat and not following the"formula." She had taken cheese AND dessert, left out the meat, and got a beet salad and a green salad! The cashier was appalled but silent, but I was horrified! It get ingrained into you... (The social aspect of meals also highlights way debate over kosher or halal meals is so charged. There's no concept of a brown bag lunch at school really and not providing a halal or kosher option is really saying "you're different" really publicly and really excluded from a basic part of life.

Ofcourse there are people who don't eat perfectly, or eat more junk food but the vast majority of people tend to "correctly."
posted by raccoon409 at 3:20 PM on June 23, 2016 [24 favorites]

Croissants and brie are "a sometimes food", as they say.

Real life French people eat a lot more vegetables than most Americans do, and virtually never drown them in cheese sauce, ranch dressing, and the like.
posted by Sara C. at 3:27 PM on June 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My experience is limited to a 10 day trip, but it was pretty authentic because we spent it with my sister, her French husband, and his family. We had bread with dinner every single night. (In fact, there was nearly a scene one night when we were in danger of running out.) There were a couple of nights where we just had the baguette and some excellent cheeses. My family is a family of snackers, but we definitely didn't snack as much on the trip. When we did, it was really good quality -- gelato, or back to the cheese and bread. All of it fresh, nothing out of a bag.

Breakfast is apparently much smaller, lighter, and sweeter -- my brother-in-law is a big eater and isn't picky (he looooves a Big Mac), but he just does not comprehend the bacon, eggs, and pancakes style breakfast.
posted by natabat at 3:29 PM on June 23, 2016

Best answer: I was an exchange student in Orléans in the late 90s/early 00s. It's hard to generalize an entire nation, but my host mom:

-Ate cheese daily, after dinner, often without bread or with just a bit of bread or cracker.
-Ate in smaller portions than my American family.
-Ate a lot of one-ingredient single-food meals outside of the evening meal / dinner (e.g. breakfast was half a small melon, not a bowl of oatmeal with nuts and raisins and milk and muesli; lunch was sliced tomatoes, maybe with some thin slices of onion and a little drizzle of olive oil).
-Water, water, water (soda, even fruit juice, was something kids drank).
-Maybe one or two glasses of wine with dinner. Maybe an occasional aperitif or digestif, but always small volumes.
-Meat, when eaten, was served in very small portions.
-Salads were at every dinner, and rather simply served without oily dressing (maybe some lemon juice and salt, fresh herbs).
-Pastry and cakes and such were maybe a twice weekly indulgence.
-Walk, walk, walk, everywhere.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 4:01 PM on June 23, 2016 [16 favorites]

Best answer: France has among the highest smoking rates in Europe — 32 percent of men and 26 percent of women, according to the World Health Organization. Sure, smaller portions, walking and all the rest.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:51 PM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Even the plates are smaller, and the servings also much smaller. There's an absence of that raft of sugary condiments that's usually clogging up USA dining tables. The food is better quality - fresh fruit and vegetables available in farmer's markets, smaller meat portions but really amazing stuff like lamb back straps for example. The cheese is delicate and served consciously, not liberally and ubiquitously loaded on everything that gets served on a damn plate. People eat slower too, and talk more during meals [as others have said, it's a social thing to eat] and there's no 'doggie bags' or takeaway options like there is in the USA.

Also, yep, smoking.
posted by honey-barbara at 6:58 PM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

There is literally a $10 book that was written to answer this question.

It's literally in the tags, so I think OP literally knows this.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 7:00 PM on June 23, 2016 [12 favorites]

Best answer: The French women I know eat like birds, smoke like chimneys and drink fair amounts of black coffee.
posted by Jubey at 10:10 PM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I spent a year there in the mid-2000s and my cousin and her family still live there and they are all SUPER THIN. And I don't recall any of my friends or family there smoking cigarettes. I know it's more popular there than in the US, but by no means ubiquitous.

My cousin, an American, adheres to some gluten-free former-model diet situation that I'm not sure is typically French; however, she still keeps madeleines, apple sauce, and Nutella around for her kids. Apart from that, I observed that they drink mineral water like I tend to drink wine--buy a bottle after work, keep it in the fridge, pour it out in glasses at the dinner table. There is never any chugging or drinking to excess. With water and wine, it's all small sips.

Cheese is served as almost a dessert course. It's after the main meal and intended to be a small-portion treat for the palate.

A friend I had there was adamant about never snacking, but she also served a "vegetarian" meal one time that contained tuna. And an unpleasant asparagus-mayonnaise situation. For lunch at school, we'd all have the same cafeteria food: a baguette sandwich with (usually) ham and butter; some kind of saucy green bean or asparagus-based salad, and quite often some pasta salad or rice. If we went out for lunch, the meal was often just an omelet. Filling, simple, tasty.

They don't seem to fear carbs the way we do, but the portions are indeed smaller and they're pretty strict about not snacking.

One final thing I noticed was an absence of the "treat yourself"/"cheat day"/"sinful indulgence" line of thinking with regard to carbs and desserts. You want it, you eat it, you compensate the next day by hydrating and having vegetables. No shame or guilt. It was refreshing.
posted by witchen at 11:27 PM on June 23, 2016 [6 favorites]

Oh! One more thing. "More walking" isn't just pacing to get Fitbit steps. It's more like a situation where you get into town, the bus isn't coming for 20 minutes, so you decide to walk the 3 miles to your apartment. You're out late and nobody can drive? Just walk home! You're in a group and it'll only take an hour. That kind of thing was really common with my cohort. The extra walking would amount to several miles per day above what most Americans get, and the tolerance for urban schlepping was much higher than what I see here in the US.

...all of that said, I still gained 30 lbs during my time there. C'est la vie?
posted by witchen at 11:32 PM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: What with the ubiquitous step trackers now being on smartphones (check the Health app on an iPhone, for instance, and you'll find your steps are tracked), friends and I here in Paris have been comparing how much we walk. We all average 6-9km a day. When we travel, that goes up to between 11-15km/day. Some friends do 20. On work days that easily includes 5-7 flights of stairs, because you have to get in and out of public transportation, which is mostly underground here. As practical as escalators are, it's often faster to take the stairs, especially if you're in shape.

Breakfast is indeed quite light. A bit of bread or a small pastry, coffee/tea, that's about it.

Lunch is usually a sandwich/hamburger/salad/pasta and a small dessert. Three-course lunches of salad, main dish, and dessert are generally reserved for family affairs, which is why you see it cited so often by people who visit the country. But a working Frenchperson can have just a big salad or sandwich and that'll be it. Dessert is usually a treat, though it also depends on cost. We get tickets restaurant here for workday lunches, they average just under 9 euros apiece, so obviously if a boulangerie has a sandwich-dessert-drink menu at 8.50 you're more likely to take that than at a restaurant where a single dish is 9-10 euros and adding a dessert would mean another 4-5 euros out of pocket.

Contrary to popular belief, people do drink soda during the workweek. All my colleagues do. Indeed, I, the American, am the only one who sticks to water. Again, the healthier option is much more likely to be during family get-togethers, and to skew outside impressions further, the French also like to pretend they never drink soda or eat chips (haha, I see you, fellow Frenchies). While it's true they drink a lot less than Americans, they do still drink them. Interestingly, that link seems to bear out my educated guess that they drink a can many workdays: say your average Frenchperson works 45 weeks a year (keep in mind we get roundabouts 30 paid days off, or 6 weeks, plus holidays), multiply 45 weeks by 5 workdays a week for 225 workdays, divide 37 liters by that and you get 164 milliliters. A 12-ounce can is 355 milliliters.

Snacks are very rare during workdays. A sweet or savoury biscuit or two.

Dinner, there's large variety. Pizza is popular, but they're smaller and thinner. Lots of people get vegetables and good-quality meat, which is highly regulated here (that's just one example). Usually accompanied by bread, yes. Me, I buy veggies, fruit, eggs, cheeses, meat, rice, and bread, and will make stir fries. Sometimes I'll have light dinners of just bread and cheese. All depends on what I feel like. I rarely eat desserts, but I was an outlier in the States too, never had much of a sweet tooth.

Portions are smaller, yes.

The reason you don't see high-fructose corn syrup anywhere is that it's banned.

Very few colleagues are smokers, though yeah, they exist of course. And I work in an upper-middle-class context, so there's also that. You see a lot more smoking in more precarious contexts.

I have lived here for 20 years and don't know a single person who eats leek soup regularly. That book is an outlier, like most on French eating written for English-speaking audiences. Any time you see something popular on France written in English, you've got to keep in mind the golden rule of publishing: write for your audience. In other words, the target audience influences content. And the target audience for English-language books is not your typical French person.
posted by fraula at 2:05 AM on June 24, 2016 [15 favorites]

love how they take their time to eat, you never ever ever see anyone lay their phone at the table, even in cafes - soo chill.

They buy a little food often - fresh and yummy. a lot of its from little separate stores like bakeries, butcher's, the market.

At the paris st germaine airport these classy french ladies sat down with their coffees, got out a small box of deli meats and ate them with their coffee.
posted by speakeasy at 4:49 AM on June 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The idea that the French can indulge in whatever they like but not gain weight really means that food is not a moral issue. Food choices are not pitted as good against evil and there isn't an idea of "indulging" in fats and carbs like there is in the US. Eating whatever you want isn't "I'm going to eat as many croissants/with cheese/and chocolate/and bacon/and a smoothie" as I can stuff into myself" but more like if you want a croissant for breakfast, you eat a croissant for breakfast. And the croissant would be much smaller than that of a typical American-sized croissant and you'd have it with coffee, maybe a bit of butter or jam, and nothing else. And then you don't eat again until lunch, where you have whatever you want but whatever you want will end up being a light lunch compared to what you'd have in the US if you went to a restaurant for lunch and ordered anything you liked off the menu.
posted by Polychrome at 6:30 AM on June 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: When I was in France, my host family had hot chocolate with croissant for breakfast everyday.

But nobody ever eats/drinks and walks at the same time. If you want a coffee, sit down and have a coffee. If you're at a museum and want lunch, sit down, take your time, and have your lunch. (And lunch was often baguette with ham and cheese. Filling, but very plain.) Once you make the rule that you must eat (1) sitting down at a table and (2) with someone else and (3) not trying to multitask, there are a lot fewer times during the day to eat.
posted by ethidda at 6:58 AM on June 24, 2016 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Piggybacking on the last two comments that mention eating times – it's a good observation, and one I've come to take for granted after living here so long. People truly do eat at scheduled times, and when we eat, we sit down to do so. It might not be at a table, but we do sit and take our time: I currently work in La Défense, where it's popular to sit on a bench outside with your sandwich; when I worked in Sophia Antipolis, we would bust out our folding picnic tables on our office lawn.

Breakfast is generally any time before 9am. The workday starts around then (there are exceptions, but they tend to prove the rule). Lunch is between 12pm-2pm, usually an hour, sometimes two. Personally I take between an hour to an hour and a half, depending on how much work I have. I'll eat for maybe half of it, then flâner (walk around). I wholeheartedly admit to making the most of the break after my previous life in the States, where lunch was 20-30 minutes. I'm not an outlier though, lots of people do this. Dinner is traditionally at 8pm, though diversity has widened the period to 6:30pm-9pm. Snack or tea time at 4pm.

The times being societally sacrosanct and reinforced by restaurant opening times molding to them, make them much easier to stick to, and your body becomes accustomed to them. It's psychologically and physically much easier to forget snacks when you know you'll have food at X time because that's when food happens.
posted by fraula at 7:31 AM on June 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

No snacking and smaller portions are a big part of it, but the absolute lack of High Fructose Corn Syrup ANYWHERE is a huge element. Related to that is the fact that sugar/HFCS isn't a hidden ingredient in every single food item, like it often is in the US. The French diet skews towards being quite stable in the blood sugar department in general, which has unexpectedly wide-ranging effects (most notably in this case: effects on appetite stimulation/suppression). So less sugar, smaller portions, more dietary fat, etc.-- all contribute.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 8:44 AM on June 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When I lived in Alsace as an exchange student, breakfast would be either some sort of (unfrosted, dense, maybe one-third as sweet as I was used to) chocolate cake, or like, a bowl of radishes. Which one you chose wasn't really a moral issue, which was very foreign to me, and this cake was very filling in a way American sweets never are for me. And if you ate that cake in the morning, you would not be eating sweets the rest of the day.

Bread and cheese and a piece of fruit was lunch or dinner. Salad, vegetables at dinner, simple preparations of meat. More bread. Not a basket of endless bread, more like a small personal sized pretzel loaf. Wine, one glass.

Yogurt was dessert, not health food. Dessert was not every day. Packaged snacks were for 13 yo boys.

There were vending machines in the train station but no one I knew ever used them (whereas in my American high school, we lived off of them.)

DIET PILLS. I can't believe nobody's mentioned this! My host mother used an rx pill, and the teen girls used something otc which they jokingly called "crack" or "speed." No idea what was in them but possibly ephedrine.

I don't believe the stereotype of women there not being obsessed with their weight. The girls there openly scolded themselves and sometimes each other by saying "calories!" when presented with a rich food. There is actually a LOT of pressure for girls and women to be thin, even if their food and food culture is healthier.
posted by kapers at 8:45 AM on June 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

This may have changed since I was there but I never saw anyone young watch tv unless it was soccer, so there were fewer opportunities for solo mindless eating. People were generally on the go, walking, biking, etc and meals were a halt-everything and eat type thing. I didn't witness grazing or bingeing behavior there the way it fits very easily into my US lifestyle.
posted by kapers at 8:52 AM on June 24, 2016

Best answer: One of my housemates in London was French, and our house was home base for her group of four French friends. Of the four:
All of them smoked constantly. All of them were constantly thinking about their weight, regardless of what their weight was. Fat acceptance was not a thing. All of them loved cheese and cured meat, preferably on baguettes, and considered them perfectly fine.

One was rail thin via no special effort, in the same way I was. Ate what she liked, and made no special effort to restrict her diet, but served herself an organised looking plate at dinner (main, veg, sides), drank wine/water/coffee. Smoked throughout, unless shamed by by her Anglo tablemates.

Two were seriously overweight, my housemate and one other. My housemate couldn't stay away from the snack tray at work (which is insane in English offices), and generally ate fairly plain farm table meals at home. She totally did the leek soup thing while "on diet", but couldn't stop cheating on it. Lots of internalised judging, lots of angst. Also lots of soda.
The other was far more at ease with herself, and ate the same organised plate as the first when she was with us. She was less talkative in English, and my French is terribad, so I'm not sure what her deal was on her own. Some soda.

The last was in sales, and was your stereotypical elegant French woman. Ate the same organised plate as the others, but was much choosier about how much she ate, if not what. She clearly loved her food, but there were no seconds or extra slices. Firm directions were issued during pie slicing. She was never on a diet, per se, but she definitely managed her intake constantly.

If I had to draw conclusions, I'd say it's partly environmental, particularly the lack of drive-by grazing on snacks, and the formalisation of mealtimes as exclusively for eating and socialising. A lot of seemed cultural, though. They all had a fairly accurate internal model of how what they ate affected their weight. Other than my housemate, diet was more a constant awareness of what they were eating, rather than a special period of different eating.

TLDR - Portion control, eating confined to meals, cigarettes, no soda, "lifestyle" not "special occasion" diet.
posted by Kreiger at 10:37 AM on June 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: These answers are exactly what I was looking for. Thank you.
posted by pintapicasso at 3:35 PM on June 26, 2016

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