Recently in the métro I overheard a conversation between two ladies from the US. It was obvious that they had  a great time during their stay in Paris, marvelling about the places they had visited, the gifts they got for their families, the architecture, the history and beauty everywhere (it is de rigeur here in Paris to moan about tourists, but what I do like about people from the US is their enthusiasm!).

And then the conversation turned to food…and these two ladies started to develop theories about how “the people here” could eat croissants and drink wine and have – gasp – butter! every day and still not be overweight. Suddenly the conversation was all “OMG” and “calories” and “hitting the gym” and “how do they manage”. They seemed to think that we all here have a secret double-life when it comes to eating, because “no way” could we eat French cuisine and not roll on the floor. I was fascinated (and a little sad). Their whole energy seemed to be turned upside down. It was clear that food for them was inexorably linked with the moral obligation for a guilt trip.

Not two hours later:

A girls night out. Picture a dozen of my friends in a nice restaurant (actually a house boat on the river Seine turned into a restaurant and moored right behind Notre Dame cathedral – life is so hard…). We were happy to catch up after not having seen each other for several months, laughing and chatting. When the moment to order came, we glanced at the menu, each of us placed her order, together we decided on some wine and on we went with our evening.

The conversation of the two American ladies was still ringing in my ears and I observed my friends during dinner: the difference in attitude towards food could not have been more marked.

It turns out the so-called “French paradox” is nothing but attitude!

The so-called “French paradox” is nothing but attitude and joie de vivre!

So here are the ingredients of a French woman’s “diet”as lived by my friends.  They are simple, efficient and beautiful. It has, I’m happy to say, nothing to do with dieting.

It’s elegant eating.

  1. Relaxed Awareness. When it came to order, all of us naturally chose only a main course, which means that we decided in advance how much would be enough. Some chose meat, some fish, some went for a copious salad. The portions were just right to feel satisfied, but not more than that. None of us believed that a plate loaded with stuff would be worth our money. Neither did we touch the stuffers and fillers: cocktails, starters, baguette, desserts, sugary drinks. Yet I don’t think the idea of counting calories crossed anybody’s mind!
  2. We took our time. 2 1/2 hours to leisurely order and savour our food and our wine. Dining is not something that can possibly be rushed. Dining as in savouring, smelling, enjoying, feeling food simply takes time. People are always amazed about our long lunch breaks – but: how else can you possibly eat real food? At the end of the evening we all felt pleasantly satisfied – and no more.
  3. We enjoyed and respected our meal. Not one person bothered about having broccoli instead of French fries or foregoing the sauces. No one chose diet coke instead of wine and water. No one wanted to get a different version of what was suggested. We trusted that the chef was composing a perfect balance in our plates. We did however play close attention to and commented on the way the food was cooked and what we liked about it, and what other restaurants or meals we liked too. (One of the favourite sports in France is to talk during meals about all kinds of fabulous meals. Raving about canard à l’orange whilst eating Blanquette de veau, so to speak)

At the end of the evening we had hugely enjoyed each other’s company, had a pleasant meal, a most enjoyable glass of wine and this was this. Not once did I hear the word “calories” and no one even thought about feeling “guilty” for having real food with wine in our plates.

And this, mes amies, is all there is to it when it comes to elegant eating, the French paradoxe and healing your relationship with food. You can sell those diet books on eBay and get yourself a bottle of wine now. Bon appétit!

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