The French know how to eat. Though I doubt anyone would really debate this fact, it takes time spent amongst their foodie ranks to truly grasp the depth of the love affair between the French and their nourriture.
Last fall, I boarded my flight to Paris for a semester abroad dreaming of macarons, croissants, and salades niçoise, and of course wondering how French women could eat such delicacies and remain so thin, chic, and lovely.
After long hours of traveling, my Parisian roommate and fellow Duke student, Charlotte, and I arrived at our homestay, jet-lagged and starving. We were greeted by perhaps the greatest news we'd ever heard: our host father—whom we lovingly referred to as "JF"—is a food and travel photographer by trade. Even better, he was in the process of publishing cookbooks that would become best-sellers in France by the time our semester drew to a close. We, too, doubted our French interpretation skills when he told us this. What an impossible stroke of luck!
It would be impossible for me to fully convey the parade of beautiful sensory experiences that were our three weekly dinners with the family. We'd come downstairs to join them for plates of delicately roasted fish with seasonal vegetables from the market, homemade galettes (buckwheat crêpes) filled with fresh eggs, or lightly layered casseroles of spinach and incredible French cheeses.I'd love to feed all these things to my American friends, but alas, I haven't reached my full Julia Child potential just yet. I'll have to make do with sharing some things that JF taught us about food that could change the way we all eat for the better.
Every meal is a sit-down affair
Out of the meals you ate today, how many of them did you slowly enjoy and appreciate while sitting down? As a busy college student, I'll go ahead and confess that more often than not, this number is zero for me on a daily basis.
The concept of eating "on-the-go" is appalling to the French, and maybe should be to us as well. JF would share his horror at the speed and lack of thoughtfulness with which Americans eat. Happily acclimating to French culture, Charlotte and I learned to leave time before our classes to have sit-down breakfasts at the family's table. Sometimes at home, we'd witness the family affair of our two little host sisters coming back from school for a midday feast, always prepared hot and fresh by their parents.
And, of course, dinner was always lovely: with multiple courses, a fresh table cloth, and plentiful conversation.
Never skip breakfast—but don't eat too much, either
There is little that I look back on so fondly from my time abroad as breakfasts in our homestay. That's not to say that they were elaborate: each morning, promptly at 9h du matin, we were greeted with crunchy toast, French butter, various fruit preserves, and black coffee.
At first, Charlotte and I wondered how we would get by on such tiny breakfasts, but we soon came to appreciate this perfect pick-me-up that didn't leave us bloated before lunch. There was too much good food to be had in Paris to begin our days already feeling full.
Always eat dessert
Yes, even the lovely, model-esque French women do it! It is a travesty in France to end a meal without a sweet morsel to conclude the experience. It's all about balance: portions are small, both for the main courses and the dessert itself.
An evening with our host family wouldn't have been complete if plates weren't cleared to make way for a little something to please the palette. Fresh fruit with Crème Chantilly was a common, simple option. One week, JF was perfecting his recipe for a marzipan and fig tart, which we sampled nightly. This may have been one of my favorite weeks of my life thus far.
Buy your baguette fresh each day (and take a bite off the end as you walk down the street)
Okay, so maybe not all chic French women do the latter part, but it's all about the mentality. The food in France is so good that you just can't resist it, and you shouldn't. The French are all about deep appreciation for food as a lovechild of dedication and enlightenment. As a Parisian, you'll eat bread with every meal, but only bread of the highest quality, which of course can be found at any neighborhood boulangerie (use your nose, not Google Maps, to locate these). And you'll never eat too much bread, because you know that the beautiful, wonderful baguettes will also be hot and fresh tomorrow morning, as they are every day.
French food is truly grounded in love. We watched as JF would pay attention to every little detail of a recipe, spending hours on a dish that, while it might take only minutes to consume, would be celebrated by a full table and perfectly matched bottle of wine.
So next time you catch yourself having a Clif Bar for lunch at 1:27 pm while power walking to your 1:25 pm class, maybe allow yourself to remember these little French ideas. Accept that you can't follow them to the tee in college, just promise yourself that tomorrow you'll eat a little more like a Parisian. I promise you'll feel all the better for it.