The Art of Meals and Dining in France

Do you remember this movie? This is definitely an accurate portrayal of French Dining

Meals in France are out of this world. There is simply nothing else like it. If you are the kind of person who wants to base your life around meals and food, come to France; you’ll be the happiest person in the world. Food time is family time, and family time is sacred. Therefore, food is sacred. In France, you never mess around with a person’s food or mealtimes– you just don’t. I love the idea of being able to sit down and really enjoy your food and company, which is totally reality here in France. However, sometimes France’s obsession with food leave me, the American, quite baffled. France believes in the right to enjoy a high-quality breakfast, lunch and dinner. In most of France but especially in the south, businesses open between 8:30-9:00. Then, these businesses CLOSE between 12-2:30 in order to give workers a break for a nice, long lunch. And let me be frank, you never mess with a person’s lunch. Never expect to be able to set up a meeting or run your errands in France during lunch– no one will want to, and everything is closed. French people are always horrified, and I mean horrified, when I tell them that students and workers are allotted only 30 minutes for lunch in the United States (and many Americans spend that time scarfing down a sandwich in front of their computers while continuing to work.) These long lunches in France are the norms in schools as well- students end their day between 5-6 PM but one if the reasons for this is because they are given extensively long lunches. Finally, everything in France is closed on Sundays; instead, it is quite normal for French people to have big, long, intimate family-style Sunday lunches that can last up to 8 hours! (I’m not kidding!)

Most businesses end their days and close between 5:00-7:00 PM in order for workers to return to eat with their families for dinner. That means you cannot do errands after 7 PM, so plan ahead! Dinner is typically eaten, at the earliest, around 8 PM, but it is completely normal to start dinner around 9:00 PM. (It is absolutely impossible to make a dinner reservation in a restaurant in France before 7 PM. It just is not done, and in fact many restaurants are closed between lunch and dinner time.) Dinner lasts normally between 1 and 1.5 hours, and, along with lunch, is eaten in courses, in contrary to the American-style of piling everything onto a single plate and chowing down. (Even at the maternelle I was working at, the small children ate their lunch in courses; the teachers placed out each course from the students’ lunches one-by-one!) Again, when my French students heard that Americans normally ate around 5 or 6 PM, they were literally horrified; they could not believe it, and some of them even asked if that time was just for hors d’oeuvres!

A standard dinner in France includes five courses and begins with an apéro (basically hors d’oeuvres- a small glass of strong alcohol or kir, and some nuts or crackers), which is usually eaten in the living room, followed by the second course, which is usually a small appetizer (ie: oysters, soup, or sometimes salad- with of course a light vinaigrette dressing, not the heavy stuff we have in the states). The third course is the main dish, which is usually a meat of some sort. Finally, the fourth course is the bread and cheese course, which usually consists of a platter filled with 4-5 cheeses being put out in the center of the table. All of these courses are served with red wine, which is the equivalent to the standard milk or water in the USA. A meal is not a meal without a bottle of wine.) Last but certainly not least is the dessert- sometimes something as simple as a piece of fruit or yogurt but sometimes as exciting as a tarte aux fraises, galette des rois, or a few pieces of chocolates. After dessert comes the sixth course- un petit café.

Contrary to Americans, the French don’t really snack in between meals- at least not like Americans do. (A snack may include a handful of nuts or a piece of fruit, or a pick-me-up cafe, but that’s it.) So, they are always ready to truly indulge and enjoy a nice, long, hearty meal. The French also never feel guilty about eating dessert. In their opinion it is not good to deny yourself from life’s pleasures- a dessert is an essential part of a meal! The French do, however, eat in moderation- courses and serving sizes are much smaller compared to US standards. In restaurants here in France, it is normal to order a meal that comes with five courses, including dessert. It is literally not normal to skip dessert. Finally, as I have stated over and over, meal times are sacred. Here in Europe you will rarely find drive through anything– meals are not meant to be eaten in a car and coffee is not meant to be drank on the go (stay-tuned for a post about cafe culture in France.) On our way back from Lyon for example, we somehow managed to find a drive-thru McDonalds on a Sunday night that was open! My Spanish friend said, “I’m 26 years old and I’ve never eaten a meal in a car and I’ve never gone through a drive through. I feel like I’m in a movie.”

Other quick cultural differences:

-In the high school cafeterias, there is a glass pitcher placed on each table. Students can get a drinking glass from the lunch line, and then fill that pitcher with water, which is shared by the entire table.

-People here are very lax about alcohol. The legal drinking age is 16 for wine and beer, and 18 for hard liquor. However, it’s completely normal for children to start drinking wine as early as 12 years old. The family I stayed with in Carbonne encouraged their teenage children (ages 13 and 17) to sip red wine and champagne during dinner, explaining that since red wine is such an essential part of French culture, and it is an acquired taste, we need to train our children early to like wine. For the record, I have NEVER been carded in France, in bar, in a restaurant, or in a store. In general, people drink to be social in France, not to get black-out drunk.

Overall in the United States, we wake up earlier, we go to bed earlier, we eat earlier, and we work more and longer. A recently published article written by a French woman living in Boston about the “Early to bed, early to rise” culture in the states puts things into perspective- check it out of you read French!

Christmas Eve Dinner in Normandy

Fondue in Carbonne

Thanksgiving Dinner in Peynier

Moules Frites (Mussels and Fries) in Caen in September 2013

Caen back in May 2010

What do you think of all of these cultural differences!? Leave me a comment below!



7 thoughts on “The Art of Meals and Dining in France

  1. Love this post. I am so intrigued by the France’s way of eating. We have been trying to do what we can here with our work schedules. Sometimes it is challenging but we do our best. It has been about 4 wks….and my spouse and I lost ten pounds each. We eat dessert every meal. We eat chocolate and drink wine!!!! Lol….and I do not exercise. Thank you for posting this…loved it…i read it twice and showed some of the girls at book club!

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