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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Pace Yourself When Eating

As France may be the gastronomic capital of the world, one could imagine that I have eaten well here. Compared to the way I used to eat in the United States, I eat like royalty here. I actually believe that I eat more food here than I do back the United States, yet I have lost weight.

If you come to France and have the chance to eat with some French people, my best advice is this: Take your time.

When I was visiting Julie's cousins in Auvergne in February of last year, we got up around 10 am and had a glass of orange juice a piece. I was pretty hungry and asked if they had anything to eat for breakfast, and they told me that I should wait, that we'd eat lunch around 1pm. For someone like me that is used to eating every couple of hours, this is not easy, but I had to respect them. We went out shopping for baby clothes and I had to try my hardest from sneaking clementines out of the trunk of their car.

Around 1pm, I was getting so hungry that I was shaking. We sat down to the table and started off with a little appetizer, which I devoured in a few seconds' time. After that came the quiche. Everyone was handed a huge slice and once again I made haste to make sure it didn't escape from my plate. I was ignorant enough to think that would be all before the cheese and dessert. Of course I was wrong.

Just after, Sylvie brought out a boudin noir, which is a very heavy blood sausage. For me, it is very tasty for the first few bites or so, but once I'm about halfway through, it is pretty hard to finish. I was handed a massive helping of this. I made it about three quarters of the way through before I felt like food was escaping my stomach and now finding storage in other organs throughout my body that had more space. What was embarrassing was that I was probably the only one out of ten people, including kids, that was too full to finish. And then the cheese course was brought out. When we finished, a fruit basket was set on the table, and I proceeded to spend the next two hours trying to eat one clementine. Everyone else was pretty full, but no one seemed to feel it more than I did. They thought something must be wrong with me, since Americans are supposed to be gluttons and eat way too much. They heard I was starving, so why couldn't I finish everything?

The answer? It's about the pace of eating.

Last year, the Economist magazine came out with a graph measuring the "Simple Pleasures in Life". Part of it measured the average amount of time a citizen of a given country spends eating, and the other axis measured the amount of time spent sleeping. On average, France is number one in the world in both categories. The French average a little less than nine hours of sleep and close to two and a half hours eating and drinking each day! Americans on the contrary spend just over one hour a day eating and drinking, though sleeping just a little less than the French.

When I was in high school back in Saint Louis, we were allotted 27 minutes for lunch each day. That is essentially enough time to eat all of your food, throw away the wrappers and trash, and go back to class. Considering I ate off campus most of the time, that meant we had to make a dash for Burger King, Subway, or Lion's Choice, eat in about five minutes time, and come back to class. Even then we were usually late, which encourages us to eat faster.

Furthermore, in American restaurants, everything can seem rushed. Waiters will ask you repeatedly how your meal is going, if you are close to finished, if you are finished, if you need a check, and so on. I somewhat went through reverse culture shock the first time that I came home after a year abroad to find that I was paying my check within 25 minutes of arriving to have a leisurely brunch.

In France, still to this date, French kids have two hour lunch breaks. This allows them to go home, prepare lunch or eat lunch with the whole family, take the time to digest, and head back to class feeling relaxed and satisfied. Unfortunately, two issues make this unnecessary at times. A lot of times, school is too far away for kids or teachers to return home, so after taking their time for lunch in the cafeteria, they still have to sit around until class begins again. The second issue is that fast food restaurants are becoming more popular, which is further defeating the purpose of the two hour lunch.

The long lunches can apply to cafés and bistros as well. When you pay to sit at a restaurant, you are paying for your table as well. You own it until you decide to leave. The waiter will only come over when it looks like the people at the table are ready to leave (leaning back in their chairs, not talking, getting their wallets out). A couple of times, I've even gone to sleep in a café without anyone bothering me, since I had at least ordered something to eat.

What I have noticed is that when one tends to eat quickly, one can eat a great proportion of food and still be hungry. However, there is a lapse between the time that your stomach senses that it is full and the time it takes to send the signal to your brain that you have eaten too much. Often times, people who eat quickly will eat a lot, but then will feel sick to their stomachs as a result of eating too much too quickly.

The French, however, probably eat more food in one sitting than most Americans do. However, when one takes their time to eat, becoming full is not a sudden impulse that stops people from eating. It becomes gradual, like rolling up to a stop sign while applying light pressure on the brake. After you start to become full, the French will usually have a cheese course, which is supposed to help with digestion. After that, there may or may not be a fruit or dessert course, which is usually something light that takes the taste of a heavy meal away.

In addition to pacing oneself during a meal, eating a large meal once a day helps a person resist the urge to snack or eat smaller meals throughout the day. The French believe that the reason why Americans have such a comparatively high rate of obesity is because we tend to eat several smaller meals. When one partakes in one of these marathon French meals like the one discussed above, it becomes difficult to want to eat at all the rest of the day. Just a couple of weeks ago, I ate a long lunch with Julie and her father. I didn't eat another meal until the next day at lunch time, aside from a small salad I made for dinner. This was one of many times since I have lived here that I have been too full to eat for close to a day after a heavy meal. So while the French can eat more food in one sitting, the Americans seem to eat more food over the course of an entire day.

In sum, if you find yourself in France, take your time when you eat. Your food isn't going anywhere.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

1 comment:

  1. I can't stand going to restaurants where waiters are always asking if they can take my glass, my plate etc. It's so annoying- it's like they're trying to get rid of you. I've had instances (many) where waiters have actually taken my plate when I haven't finished...The french way sounds good. Nice blog by the way. Vic