Quick: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of French food: Foie gras? Baguettes? Croissants? Pastry? Steak frites?
Delicious, yes, but not exactly dietetic. And yet, when you stroll a Parisian boulevard, almost everyone looks slim and healthy. So what’s their secret? Is it genes, environment, something in the food?
Actually, it’s the way the French eat, and the choices they make that affect their physique. Sometimes it’s called the “French Paradox”—a slim population eating very heavy foods—but it’s not really a contradiction when you see how French diners approach their meals.
Want an insider’s guide? We rounded up six très bon tips to get you French and fit.
1. Say Bonjour to a Healthy Breakfast
The French would sooner move to England than skip breakfast (in other words: never). But they’re not eating greasy layered breakfast–wiches. Instead, they’re fueling up with plain yogurt mixed with fruit; mueslix (like granola, but not toasted and no added fat) with milk or yogurt; small sections of baguette with real butter and fruit preserves (called “tartine”); artistically arranged fruit plates (because how food looks is as important as how it tastes); and coffee that’s not “venti” or “grande” but the real deal in a regular size cup.
The tip: Real food, including fat, and normal portions keep you going until lunch without snacking or feeling deprived.
2. Vote for Vinaigrette
Mixed green salads are always an accompaniment to popular Steak Frites and other French bistro and café favorites. But you rarely get a choice of dressings; the French go-to is delicious vinaigrette crafted from heart-healthy extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, chopped shallots and fresh herbs.
The tip: Mix up some tasty vinaigrette and say “non!” to fat-laden salad dressings such as Russian, Ranch, and Blue Cheese.
3. Go Ahead, Eat Bread
Crackling crusts, hearty loaves, substantial crumbs—French breads are made to be real food, using whole grains, not pillowy place holders. Take for example the whole wheat sourdough miche that graces most bistro tables. It’s chewy, tangy, and an excellent accompaniment to appetizers—but it’s not served until dinner arrives—a Parisian would never gobble down a basket of baguettes before their meal.
The tip: Say yes to bread made with whole grains, and eat it with your meal, not before.
5. Indulge in Chocolate
Good news for chocolate addicts; the French are big fans. However, they tend to order dark chocolate (think 60% or more cocoa), which has less fat and sugar than milk and white varieties, but also packs a big flavor punch in even the smallest bite. Enjoy it the French way, by savoring a small square after dinner.
The tip: Indulge in small amounts of pure dark chocolate. Skip the fatty add-ons, like caramel-sea salt, toffee and marshmallows.
5. Get to Know Your Butcher, Grocer, Fruit Seller, Cheesemonger…
Having a face-to-face relationship with the people who sell them their food is the French way. That’s how they know their beef is from healthy cows that roamed in grass fields; that the chickens were free range; and that all the products on display can be vouched for as organic and fresh.
The tip: Try visiting a local farmer’s market and see who you meet; find a neighborhood butcher if you can; ask questions and turn on your inner French charm to get the inside scoop on what’s best, what’s freshest, and how to make it at home in no time.
6. Linger Longer
French waiters would never rush guests through dinner; they expect diners to savor every bite and eat at a leisurely pace. For a dinner out, most Parisians also enjoy dessert, especially fanciful creations that look as good as they taste.
The tip: Even though you might not be able to linger over your meals every day, try following France’s dining lead on weekends. Eat at a leisurely pace, leave the electronics in another room, and save dessert only for when you truly have time to enjoy it.
Melissa Klurman is a culinary writer, travel expert, and mom, although not necessarily always in that order. Her work appears regularly in Saveur, Frommer’s, Working Mother, and Family Fun among other publications.
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