Updated: Jan 28, 2021
What's the difference between French and American families and the way they eat? That's always been an interesting question for me because not only do the French enjoy their food more, but they're generally about 10% thinner than people in the United States even though they disregard many of the restrictions about limiting sugars and fats.
After a week of eating and watching people eat in Paris, I noticed one thing more than anything else concerning food......
lack of excess!!!!
French children don't often whine in public for sweets like we see in the US and parents don't spend a lot of time lecturing about healthy food while modelling the opposite behaviors. Instead you can often see a family get a treat together with no negotiations, abstinence or shame. How refreshing!
Here are a few reasons why I think this happens:
Food is not the enemy here. It's savored and enjoyed, seemingly guilt free. You can hear people praising good food without ever saying, "I know I shouldn't", or "I usually don't do this".
One time, on the street, I noticed several small groups of extremely thin young women walking while eating ice cream cones. My first and most awful thought that I wish I didn't have was. "I wonder if that's all they eat all day?"
Actually, what they eat or don't eat all day isn't any business of mine so when I heard a French woman's comments about what we were both noticing, I immediately saw the difference between her attitude and mine. She just said this, "Ah, yes, they have the very best ice cream over there."
So simple and true. The women weren't eating strangely at all, they just got the cones because they were "the best" and they wanted to enjoy a treat with friends.
In Madison WI, where I'm from, we also have some ice cream that's considered "the best" and you can buy it at our Memorial Union on campus.
But I've noticed that here when families get cones, the children get the same sized cones that the adults were ordering in Paris and the adults sometimes get absurd amounts of ice cream stuffed into humongous cones. Then they stand around and make excuses for their indulgence while they're eating, so they can't even truly enjoy! And after the excuses come the feelings and statements of guilt.
I noticed that if a woman in France wants a gooey toffee dessert or an ice cream at a festival, she gets right in line and eats it happily, usually with friends. I see more smiles and happy talk surrounding such tasty indulgences and less looking like a 'deer in the headlights' when seen enjoying a treat in public.
Here are a few other differences
Pharmacies generally don't carry candy, just a limited amount of breath and throat remedies. Candy and snack foods are sold in grocery stores but with fewer choices and less shelf space devoted to them. Bakeries and specialty candy shops seem to be the place to buy smaller quantities of sweets with higher quality which is apparently the norm rather than the exception here.
Burgers are pricey in France and they don't generally come with fries.
By the way, the main courses, as well as the treats, are a bit smaller in Paris than the US. You don't see words like gluten-free, sugar-free, fat-free, heart-healthy or low in calories plastered on the menus. Food seems to be just food, a source of national pride and nutrition rather than embarrassment, guilt, and shame.
Maybe that's because in France something or somebody smart refused to allow the food industry lobbyists to take over the market by supplying cheaper but inferior food that can be shipped and stored with no refrigeration needed and unnaturally long shelf lives.
Breakfasts in Paris, at least at the hotels we visited, didn't include boxes and boxes of cheap sugared cereal. Usually just a little bit of granola, yogurt, toast, croissants or crepes, cheeses, and an assortment of full-fat luncheon meats, Eggs were a rarity but could be ordered in restaurants.
I got the feeling that treats are for special occasions and not every day or 3 times a day like in the states. That way French people don't have to worry so much about how many calories everything they eat contains.
I don't think I heard the words calories once all week!
Anyway, my 3 most helpful "takeaways" from my food experiences in Paris are these.
Enjoy your food, order what you want, and never feel guilty about eating what you like. In Paris, they tend to emphasize freshness, quality, and flavor over anyone else's opinion about health. If you're interested, here's a link to an article I wrote about choosing to be a "qualitarian" when it comes to food.
Nanci J. Bradley is a child and family educator, parent, author, energy facilitator, family aerobics instructor, and all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, lifelong learning, healthy eating, fun, and more than anything else, PLAY! She studied early childhood education at Triton College and received her BA in education from Northern Illinois University in 1986. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison, WI.