It’s no secret that French people love food. And rightly so, considering how delicious French cuisine is.
Not only did French people invent and refine many cooking techniques, including poaching, flambéing, and braising, but they also developed a set of French eating habits distinct from what foreigners might be used to.
Some of these food an eating customs might take you by surprise on your first trip to France.
I began studying French when I was 12 years old while growing up in New Zealand and continued through high school and university. I’ve visited France 3 times, including a 2-week visit as a high school exchange student and a 6-month trip for university study abroad in Paris.
Now I live in the U.S. and write about food and cooking. French Together founder Benjamin Houy invited me to share my experience learning about French food habits from my foreigner’s perspective.
In this post, I’ll share how French food habits differed from the British-influenced New Zealand and American cultures that I am used to. You’ll learn some tips I developed to avoid being hungry all the time. And you’ll discover how you can practice French eating habits at home without traveling to France.
French people eat dinner quite late
Most French people eat dinner at 8 pm or later. Some French families, especially if they do not have young children, may start dinner as late as 9 pm or 9:30 pm. The first time I went to France, I was a teenager and used to dinner time at 6 pm or 6:30 pm. You can imagine how hungry I was by 6 pm and confused that my host family wasn’t eating dinner by 7 pm yet. “Are they going to skip dinner?” I wondered.
It’s not clear to me why French people eat so late. Alysa Salzberg, French Together writer and an American expat living in France, guesses that the later meal times developed from typical French working hours. “French people eat late because most standard job hours are 9 or 10 to 6, instead of 9 to 5 like in the States,” Alysa explains. “So, by the time everyone gets home, gets settled, and a meal is prepared, it’s about 8 pm.”
Looking at French history, we know that dinner has traditionally been a lighter meal compared to lunch and this continues to be the case. As early as Roman times, Europeans typically ate a formal meal in the late morning while the sun was up, and this meal was known as dinner. This habit of the largest meal at noon proceeded through the medieval ages and Renaissance period. However, peasants dined with less routine compared to the middle class, eating when and if they could. With modern times came electricity. The convenience of electricity meant mealtimes extended later into the evening as we no longer rely on natural sunlight to cook and illuminate the dining table.
French people usually eat a smaller meal for dinner, such as a soup or salad with bread and a dessert (often a yoghurt or a slice of cheese). Considering French people famously don’t snack, they must survive a long break between lunch and dinner. The solution is that lunch is the biggest meal of the day. Americans and people from Commonwealth countries may have a simple sandwich for lunch, like ham, marmite, or peanut butter sandwiches. But French lunches are typically more substantial. For example, I remember having a huge cafeteria lunch at the host school with other French students. The lunch came with salad, bread, a main dish, cheese, and dessert. It seemed like far too much food the first time I saw it, and the lunch break was longer than what we got in New Zealand.
You too may be served a surprisingly large lunch. But now you’re wise to the French late dining habits, the only way to stave off hunger pangs in the early evening is to fill up during lunch. So enjoy your big French lunch and remember it will need to last you 8 hours or more until your next meal.
What French people eat is different
As mentioned earlier, French people are famous for not snacking. There have been books written about the paradox of how the French stay slim despite eating indulgent and rich foods. One explanation is that they don’t snack.
I recall going to the Louvre with my art history class one time, and one student started snacking on carrot sticks that she prepared in a plastic baggie. The professor noticed immediately and tsked at her for eating in the Louvre museum and for eating at a random hour during the day. He called her un lapin and told her that French people avoid grazing throughout the day because it’s not healthy.
You might notice that it’s unusual to find granola bars, packages of crackers and cheese dip, or potato chip packets in French supermarkets. I mean it is actually hard to find foods that you can carry in your bag to snack on. The closest snacks I could find would be wedges of la vache qui rit and small chocolate bars. Even French children who have le goûter afterschool tend to eat less processed foods like homemade crêpes or fresh bakery goods.
If you’re used to snacking, this can become a problem because you won’t find protein bars and trail mix. Many French food shops won’t sell you a snacking portion of cheese or salami. Restaurants are closed most hours of the day. You can probably find a pastry at the bakery but bakeries close in the afternoon. The best thing to do is get used to eating enough during mealtimes and drink a lot of water when hungry. If you’re simply used to the habit of chewing, you can find some chewing gum to keep your mouth busy when you get the urge to snack. If you’re really hungry, you can stop by a brasserie, café, or wine bar which tend to be open throughout the day and serve food.
Speaking of pastries as snacks, it’s uncommon to eat pastries every day. When I visited France, I only saw French people eating a pastry for breakfast, if ever. My relatives baked me fresh croissant and pain au chocolat when I first arrived and stayed at their house. The next time they baked me fresh croissant (freshly baked from premade frozen croissants purchased at Picard, of course) was when I was leaving France. The only people who ate pastries more than once a week were other foreigners who couldn’t resist la boulangerie française!
Another major difference that stood out was that French food had a lot of fat and not a lot of sugar. Yoghurt was usually lightly sweetened and the labels did not boast “light” or “0% fat” as you typically see on yoghurt labels in the U.S. Bread is frequently eaten with butter and a sprinkle of salt. Many French people finish off a meal with cheese instead of dessert. And even desserts are not as sweet as what Americans and the Kiwis are used to.
For example, many items in the bakery rely on fat for flavor, including viennoiseries and custards, rather than cloyingly sweet cakes and muffins that you might find in an American bakery. Perhaps the emphasis on a higher fat diet also keeps you full longer which keeps the French from snacking in between meal times.
Peanut butter is hard to find
Growing up in New Zealand, I was used to having a section in the supermarket dedicated to peanut butter. When I moved to the U.S., the size of the peanut butter section quadrupled compared to in New Zealand. There are all kinds of varieties of peanut butter from the mass-produced and sugar-laced Jif and Smuckers to artisanal brands and sunflower or almond butters. In bigger French supermarkets, you may find a jar or two of peanut butter. But in smaller corner markets like your local Monoprix, you’re unlikely to have peanut butter at all. Never fear, there’s usually Nutella, which might serve you just as well. However, if you crave a favorite brand of peanut butter that you cannot live without and you were dreaming about spreading it over freshly baked, crusty baguette, you may need to bring a jar with you.
How French people eat and habits you can practice at home
You don’t need to move to France to practice French eating habits. There are many habits that you likely recognize from your grandparents or immigrant families. Obviously, you will find exceptions to many of these generalizations about French eating habits. And younger generations, like the Millennials and younger, are changing the traditional French eating habits to adapt to a faster-paced lifestyle and globalization trends. However, some traditions still hold true if you visit France today, especially for formal dinners and during the holidays. Let’s learn what I observed and how French eating habits differ from Americans habits and the British-influenced Kiwi culture I grew up with.
French people never eat in transit. Along with no snacking, it’s unusual to see French people eating a cheeseburger recently purchased from a McDonald’s drive-thru while sitting in their SUVs. I don’t remember seeing French people eating while walking around town or on the métro in Paris either. French people still consider it important to sit down at a table to eat and use proper etiquette, which may mean even using a knife and fork to eat a hamburger.
French people tend to cook more at home and don’t frequently eat at restaurants. Restaurants are for special occasions. French people eat a larger variety of food, including meat or fish with bones and offal. It’s not uncommon to see boudin noir displayed in the glass case at the front of the butcher shop or liver served on a menu. Sure, there are American foodies buying ramps and whole fish at the farmers market. But this is still the exception.
French portion sizes are also smaller than American restaurants where an American main dish could be twice or thrice as large as what a French restaurant might serve (looking at you The Cheesecake Factory).
During formal dinners, French meals may be served in multiple courses rather than serving all the food on the table at once. Historically, French dishes used to be served simultaneously with diners helping themselves, similar to how Americans eat today. This is called service à la française. However, French dining changed to service a la russe (Russian style) after the Russian Ambassador Alexander Kurakin popularized the dining style in the 19th century that we associate with formal French dining today where multiple courses are served sequentially and diners are served individual portions of food.
The benefits of service à la française are the ability to impress diners with a bountiful table spread and requiring fewer wait staff to serve the food. It also requires less dinnerware and flatware. The advantage of service a la russe is that the food can be served hot, and everybody eats at the same time and gets a chance to try every dish. Alysa mentions that eating sequential courses allows you to enjoy “the taste of individual types of foods,” such as the main course vs cheese, and it gives you more time to socialize during the meal while waiting in between courses.
However, Alysa notes that the formal dining tradition of service a la russe usually happens when French people entertain guests or at certain restaurants. Most people, especially younger people, will eat one course for a typical dinner, especially during weekdays.
Two other unexpected differences I discovered while living in France was that salad was frequently served after the main course during formal multi-course meals. This could have a palate-cleansing function before dessert is served, according to Alysa. She reminded me of how complex the timing of salads could be. With friends and family, she wrote, salads may be served with the main course. In the case of a menu prix fixe, the salad may come before the main course. During summer, salads may be the main course, such as in a salade niçoise or salade composée. Much of the timing of salads may come down to tradition and personal preferences.
How French restaurant dining habits differ
In the U.S., it is common that restaurants may be open throughout the day or if they close, it is only for brief periods between lunch and dinner to allow the restaurant to prepare for dinner service. Not the case in France. French restaurants tend to only open during French dining hours, which means 12:00 to 2:30 pm and 8 to 10 pm. They are often closed on Sundays and Mondays as well as during the summer for 4 to 6 weeks over the customary August break.
To avoid showing up to a full or closed restaurant, it is important to make a reservation to dine at a French restaurant. When you reserve a table at a French restaurant, it’s yours for the whole evening. The wait staff never bring l’addition until you ask for it, which means you can sit at your table until closing time without being bothered. It’s rare for French restaurants to turnover a table the same night or to have unannounced diners, which means that if you don’t plan on showing up to your reservation, it’s critical you call to cancel as early as possible to give the restaurant a chance to fill your empty table.
One major difference between French and American menus (cartes) is that American menus sometimes call the main course an entrée. L’entrée is always the appetizer in French dining, and it is expected that you order a three-course meal when dining at a restaurant if it serves multiple courses: l’entrée followed by le plat (main) and finally le dessert (which can be in addition to or replaced with cheese). French people also don’t tip like Americans because gratuity is included in the meal prices. However, you can optionally tip if you choose and you will see diners leave some euro bills on the table as a tip for excellent service.
Finally, one French dining quirk I was not used to is the menu prix fixe. This is a set menu that gives you one or two choices for the main and dessert and the other items like salad are fixed, much like what you would encounter at a formal American dining event, such as at a rehearsal dinner or catered business dinner. Un menu prix fixe is typically an excellent value compared to ordering à la carte, as long as you like the items offered in the set menu. I usually only see set menus at very high-end restaurants in the U.S. But in France, you’ll find the menu prix fixe at the full range of French restaurants from high-end to modest.
How the French shop for food
French families visit Carrefour once a week to shop at l’hypermarché just as suburban American and Kiwi families do. However, urbanites like Parisians, especially those who don’t have cars, are likely to shop like New Yorkers and Londoners, which is at the local corner market or deli or bodega. But no matter whether urban, suburban, or rural, French people love to shop at the weekly or semi-weekly marché de plein air, also known as the farmers market.
To support French cooking habits, French people have to shop regularly so they have food to cook. And the food tastes vastly different in France than in the U.S. because French people care a lot about eating seasonally and having a large variety of produce, poultry, meats, cheeses, and fish. When I first moved to the U.S., I found American food to be very bland. My husband, who is American, explained to me that industrial agriculture grows food that is shippable and unlikely to spoil at the expense of flavor. This allows you to enjoy the same foods all year-round and at a very cheap price. According to Vox reporting on a USDA study, Americans spend “$2,390 per year on food consumed at home” whereas the French spend $3,241 per year and a higher percentage of their disposable income on food.
In France, it is common to visit a local butcher, fishmonger, wine shop, and cheese shop to buy groceries instead of buying all your food from le supermarché. A lot of French people know their neighborhood well and may have developed relationships with the neighborhood butcher, fishmonger, and cheesemonger who prepare the same order each week for their favorite customers. These experts pick the produce, fish, or cheese according to your dining and entertaining needs. Perhaps this is how it used to work decades ago in the U.S. and perhaps it still does in smaller towns. But most urban and suburban Americans shop at the big-chain supermarkets where food is pre-packaged and nobody handpicks anything for you.
While French food habits and customs may seem distinct and quirky at times to foreigners like me, there are recognizable similarities across all cultures that we can appreciate, including taking holiday feasting very seriously and the importance of sharing a meal among friends and family.
Are there any distinct French food and eating habits that I missed? Do you notice any changes to French food habits among the younger generations that eschew old traditions? How did you adapt to being very hungry before eating a late French dinner?