Before moving to Australia, I had not realised that French people have so many food-related rules. And there are certain French eating habits that I decided to keep even while living abroad because I believe they make life so much better! Which ones will you steal?
Petit dejeuner (breakfast)
I love French breakfast. The term petit déjeuner means “small lunch” in French but has nothing to do with lunch. We enjoy a hot drink in a bowl (usually coffee for adults and hot chocolate for children – but I prefer hot chocolate) and food to dip in it. This typically includes a baguette with butter, and sometimes croissants (which are popular on Sunday mornings) and other viennoiseries.
The dipping step is confusing for many cultures; I recall foreign friends asking me: “Why do you dip your sandwich in your hot chocolate?”. I swear, it’s delicious.
This is something I miss a lot since moving abroad. In Australia, most people don’t take a proper lunch break, and having only half an hour for lunch is common. Australians often bring food from home and eat it in front of their computer. And when they don’t, they frequently discuss work. But they do make an exception when there’s something to celebrate.
In Paris, my colleagues and I would go out for lunch multiple times a week and take the time to sit at a restaurant. It’s a relaxing moment giving an opportunity to connect with colleagues. If the workload allows it, it’s not uncommon to take a one-hour lunch break or longer. Of course, this does impact working hours as office workers tend to finish late in Paris. I love the work-life balance in Australia, so I suppose I’d be happy to keep the best of both cultures and alternate between lunch break styles!
Sitting and eating together
French people enjoy eating together at a communal table. Lunch break at work is not the only difference I’ve noticed from living abroad; at school in France, children have lunch together around a table at la cantine. The family also sits together for dinner.
It would be shocking for French people to have someone in the family open the fridge, make a quick dinner for themselves, and eat alone. Eating is a social activity, and we take time to savour our food.
It’s even more true when we have something to celebrate and bring friends and/or family together. There’s a ritual in place that many French don’t realise they follow, as it’s part of their culture. It starts before the meal itself with the cooking, the presentation and the set up of the table. During the meal, the French usually enjoy talking about what they are eating, guessing the ingredients or sharing tips and recipes. The gastronomic meal of the French recognised by UNESCO is more about the rules and traditions the French follow rather than French gastronomy itself. You can learn more about it in this UNESCO video.
Dinner times vary greatly around the world. In Europe, it appears that the further south you go, the later dinner time will be. I recall British people having dinner at 6 pm, while restaurants in Spain wouldn’t open before 8 pm. France is right in the middle.
We usually have dinner between 7 pm and 9 pm. I quite like this timing. It gives you time to do something after work (if you’re fortunate enough not to work long hours), but you still eat early enough to wait two to three hours before going to bed.
In France, snacking is perceived as a bad habit, so most French people don’t snack (or won’t tell anyone if they do). Oh, and le gouter does not count as a snack.
In our education, snacking is bad for your health, even if you snack on healthy food. So we eat at set-up times and not in between. To be honest, as we eat a lot, I don’t feel the need to snack. It’s a habit I kept even if I now live in Australia, where snacking is very common. Every time I am offered a snack, I feel ashamed considering it!
The secret to being able to wait until late dinner time is le goûter. It’s the French equivalent of afternoon tea, but so much better. At 4 pm or 4.30 pm (when kids finish school in France), French children are allowed a snack. And forget about the rules of healthy snacking. Le goûter (which translates to “tasting”) is all about sweet snacks and chocolate.
The most typical goûter is a quarter of a baguette with squares of chocolate inside (or Nutella). My friends Down Under call it the “chocolate sandwich”. It is served with a glass of juice or cordial.
Although le goûter is mainly for kids, I decided to keep this French eating habit as an adult. Why would I give up this perfect snack? It may actually be my favourite French eating habit.
Taking time for the apéro
Apéro is the shorter word for apéritif. An apéritif is a drink usually served before a meal to activate the appetite. The apéritif is a great opportunity to catch up casually and have savoury snacks without calling them that. You often get offered peanuts, pistachios, cured meat, sausages or raw vegetables with a drink. Many people go for alcoholic beverages. As I like to have apéros regularly, I choose a soft drink; it’s healthier, but you still get the relaxing effect.
We don’t have an apéritif every day (except maybe when we’re on holiday), but it’s a habit we have when we meet up with friends or family or to relax after a long day.
Buying fresh bread daily, often at the bakery
Who doesn’t like a fresh baguette from the bakery? In France, we’re lucky to have many bakeries, so it’s easy to buy fresh bread daily. And we’re talking about delicious bread with a crispy crust, not toast. I’m lucky to have a few bakeries in Brisbane on my way back from work, so I kept this habit while living in Brisbane.
Oh, and I know I wrote that French people don’t snack, but we all eat the end of the baguette as soon as we leave the bakery. Another snack that we all agree doesn’t count and a great habit for a small guilty pleasure.
Serving a cheese platter before dessert
Is it possible to write an article about French food without mentioning cheese? It’s not an overused cliché: French people do love cheese. Indeed, France has the highest cheese consumption per capita. And it’s not surprising when you see the cheese platter that is put on the table before dessert on any day. We don’t need an occasion or a fancy dinner to bring out a full cheese platter.
Drinking wine, but not too much
Quality over quantity is really a good French habit to adopt when drinking wine. French people do drink wine often; France is the second leading consumer of wine worldwide behind the United States. Some people even drink every day. It’s indeed hard to resist having red wine when you’re eating good cheese.
Most of the time, we have wine with our food to enhance both the wine and the dish we’re eating. Having wine isn’t about getting drunk. We even keep a bottle open for a few days to avoid drinking too much. How about the taste? You can use this* to preserve the flavour of opened wine for up to a week.
Arriving 15 minutes late
French people don’t expect their guests to arrive on time when they invite them over for dinner. There’s a 15-minute polite delay (les 15 minutes de politesse) to give the hosts time to get ready in case they’re running late.
Choosing vegetables at the farmers’ market
French children are educated about having a balanced diet and the importance of eating vegetables at a young age. It’s part of French culture to choose good quality, seasonal vegetables, often at the market. Most towns have a weekly farmers’ market, sometimes even bi-weekly, where local vendors sell fresh produce.
Adding butter everywhere
Here’s a cooking tip: you can make many dishes tastier by adding butter. When you compare the amount of butter French people eat compared to the rest of the world, it’s clear that butter is a French eating habit. At least in the majority of France as some – mostly around the Mediterranean Sea – will argue olive oil is better.
I’m not a good cook, but I’ve sometimes impressed my foreign friends with very simple dishes. The difference? Butter, every time.
Eating small portions
French people eat a lot during celebrations like Christmas or for dinners with friends and family. But in general, portions are much smaller in France than in the United States. It’s also not rare to have a little bit of many different things – like they’d do in a British Sunday roast – or a mix of vegetables (have you heard of ratatouille?) rather than one big serving of the same food.
Maybe this French eating habit is the secret to staying healthy while enjoying delicious food and wine.
Although French people eat a lot of cheese and butter and drink a lot of wine, obesity rates in France are still among the lowest in the OECD. Maybe French people’s smaller portions and the rule of not eating between meals compensate for the extra calories we may consume with tasty butter and cheese.
Which of these French eating habits will you adopt? Leave a comment below!
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