Do It Naturally: Lessons From France

Robyn Webb in Paris

Bonjour from Paris! I’ll be reporting for The Daily Basics for my next several columns from one of the most exciting destinations in the world. In addition to coming to this glorious city every year for an extended period of time, I also design itineraries for friends and colleagues so they may enjoy their time in the City of Lights. Their post-trip reports include the rave reviews of all the major attractions, the magnificent people-watching and the joy of being in a place so unlike their own. But the overwhelming majority of the comments I receive has everything to do with the food. From the glee of eating with a little abandon but then being pleasantly surprised with no weight gain, to the discovery that one little tomato could pack so much flavor, to the pure bliss of really relaxing at a mealtime, my friends tell me they wish they could pack the French approach to eating along with their treasured souvenirs. But I say, you can take a little slice of France with you once the vacation ends.  There is much you can do to continue a sensible approach to eating and dining rather than following the latest trend or fad diet.

I sat down with four American women who currently live or have lived in France for many years for their take on the different approaches to well-being between Americans and the French. It turns out that it may have less to do with just menus and diet and much more to do with attitudes about eating. In America we have plenty of good food choices available, a gym practically on every corner and enough information to guide one in the right direction.  So while we might marvel at the French ability to munch on croissants and still stay slim, their feat need not be a mystery for the rest of us. A healthy outlook about eating and dining can be adopted no matter where you live.

The Hunger Games

The first difference between American and French attitudes towards eating is about hunger and fullness. Between the two cultures, we are indeed an “oceans apart” about these two important sensations.

“I asked my French husband what the French concept of hunger and fullness is, whether the French recognize hunger and fullness in the same way that Americans do”, says Jamie Schler, award-winning food writer, owner of the acclaimed Plated Stories and Life’s A Feast  blogs and proprietor of Hotel Diderot in Chinon, France. He immediately replied “You will never hear a Frenchman or woman say “I’m full!” It’s not only rude, but the French do not eat until they are full, being full is not the purpose of eating. We eat until we are satisfied and no more. Eating until one is full is simply gluttony, like someone drinking until drunk.”

Schler continues, “Having lived for close to 30 years in France, married to a Frenchman, immersed in the French society and culture, I have to agree with him. I have rarely seen the French eat simply because they are hungry (nibbling or noshing between meals is done but rare), and I have rarely seen the French eat until “stuffed” and both may have quite a bit to do with French mealtimes, which still follow a very traditional pattern. Meal time hours are regulated and fairly rigid, including snack times (at 10 am and 4 pm), and the French will stop what they are doing, whether work, school, or play, to gather around a table and eat, thoughtfully and carefully. This regularity and rigidity of mealtime explains why the French don’t get hungry between meals; if I offer my husband or sons something to eat – a cake I have baked and just taken from the oven, for example, they will say “Not now, I’m not hungry. Wait until breakfast, lunch or dinner, and I’ll taste it.”

She goes on to say that the way meals are organized, served, and eaten explains the phenomenon further. Meals are served in courses, each dish plated and passed around the table, even at home, rather than everything placed on the tables in platters, and courses are spread out over a period of time, allowing the body to ingest, digest, and be satisfied as the meal comes to a close. “Servings are reasonable and sensible in quantity, again, both at home and in restaurants, rather than the often-gargantuan proportions served in the U.S. Even when preparing a meal, the French are more reasonable than the average American – my husband will cook only four portions of a dish for the four of us.”

Schler also believes that the French eat well (whether meal time organization, portions, or nutritional balance) because food is more connected to tradition rather than to health and dieting. “While the French can be obsessive about their health where illness is concerned, they are still very sensible where dieting and diet are concerned, again, most likely because food and eating is more tied to tradition than to health. One eats at certain times and in a certain way because it is just done that way.”

Takeaway: Regulate your meals so you don’t get too hungry. Make dining a priority.  Start setting regular eating patterns.  If you need coaching to develop these habits, a registered dietitian is best source in the U.S for help. They can coach you to more mindful eating until it becomes ingrained.

Stop Talking About Dieting

The latest diet is favorite topic of conversation in America and is responsible for much of the click bait on the Internet (well that and the Kardashians!).  While we are sweating it out on the treadmill, we are chatting with our fellow running partner on whether we will try Paleo this week because last week’s vegetarian diet didn’t work. This constant reaching for “the answer” gets us running on a treadmill alright- a treadmill to nowhere.

“I think it’s because when we diet we do it in big gulps, all-or-nothing weight losing campaigns”, says Hilary Davis, an 11 year resident of Provence, now residing back in the U.S. She is the author of three cookbooks on French cuisine including her latest, Le French Oven (September 2015).  “My French friends do it in small bits and they don’t spend much energy thinking about it or stressing. They may just decide to have a yogurt or two during the day then a full dinner at night. The next day they may have a big lunch and a bowl of soup or salad for dinner. By chipping away bit by bit they maintain their weight and can over time, without a rush, lower it.”

Takeaway: Stop stressing and start living. There’s plenty to talk about besides dieting. It’s about balance, not the next “big diet discovery.”


Walk This Way with a Little Swagger

Robyn Webb in Paris

Health and Wellness Editor, Robyn Webb enjoys picnics in the park while in Paris

Aileen Bordman, author of the newly released Monet’s Palate Cookbook and a part-time resident of Paris and Giverny, explains that having confidence is a sure-fire way to developing healthy eating habits. She shares the same philosophy as her dear friend best-selling author Mireille Guliano whose series of books started with Why French Woman Don’t Get Fat.  “I agree with Mireille when she says life for many French women starts at 50 or 60. It’s definitely not as youth obsessed as the U.S. and all that that implies”, Bordman says.

“I can close my eyes and envision a French woman( of any age)walking briskly and confidently, her mesh shopping bag filled with the ingredients for the evening meal. The French woman is not obsessed with the gym; in fact their most ideal exercise has always been walking. And then she has no guilt in eating a baguette sandwich, one with fresh vegetables of course”.

Takeaway: Walk everywhere, learn to be comfortable in your own body at any age. Stand tall, and move with confidence. And don’t forget to take the stairs!

Simple Food, Simply Prepared

Don’t be fooled by all the patisseries in Paris, dessert is still viewed as a treat by the French. And those multi-course, haute cuisine meals? Those are not eaten with any kind of regularity by French residents and perhaps more over business than anything else. A French meal is usually served quite simply.

And also don’t be duped into thinking you have neither the skill or nor the time that the French do to get a meal on the table. Despite the stereotypes, not every French women or man can cook well or even has the desire to. In recent years, there has been a mini explosion in the amount of “convenience” food available. When I say convenient, instead of tearing a head of lettuce, the French may buy bagged, already torn lettuce, but they are still buying lettuce! While the French have a mandated 35 hour work week (I know, that’ll be the subject of another article!) which would conceivably allow them more time to cook than we have, their lives are busy too, so preparing simply is just practical for them. But they still prepare.

Rachel Kaplan, a 30 year resident of France and owner of the Paris firm, Events and Company, and a self-professed “foodie”, cooks simply for herself  and her French husband. Originally from New York, Kaplan knows just how busy American lives can get, but still it really isn’t an excuse to eat poorly.  “Cook simply like the French home cook and you’ll be on your way”, she exclaims.

“Make ahead dishes that are delicious, healthy and inexpensive include lentil salad with vinaigrette and hard-boiled eggs–the caviar of the poor; and new potato salad with herbs, olive oil and ratatouille. Buy eggs for an omelette that you can fill with cooked veggies and cheese. Buy shrimp that you can use for pasta or risotto dishes; the frozen ones are fine when first sautéed with minced garlic, for instance.”

As mentioned earlier, the French really don’t make snacking a habit, but Kaplan will eat fruit as a snack with perhaps some plain yogurt. Just avoiding lab-produced food will go a long way to good health she says.

“And remember to be kind to yourself. See food as a pleasure and something to share with good conversation and a glass of wine and a linen napkin. You can even treat yourself to that when alone. And you don’t even need a ticket to Paris to do that.”

Takeaway: Tout simplement manger, bien vivre- Eat simply, live well!


Le French Oven by Hilary Davis

Monet's Palate Cookbook by Aileen Boardman & Derek Fell