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The French art of eating well, good habits start early

Paris Brest cake - a soft choux pasty concoction filled with cream and strawberries

Ah those books and articles that persuade us that all French women are slim… Wrong! Not all French women don’t get fat. French women are real not fantasy figures able to hold off weight in a magical way. But… and it’s a big but (excuse the pun). But statistically, French women tend to be more slim than women in say the UK or the US.

Much has been written on the topic. Books, magazine articles, blogs and recipes galore. But in the end I think that it boils down to a few key things.

So how do French women stay slim?

Willpower, choice and lessons learned early in life. It takes willpower to walk away from the boulangerie and the patisserie, to say no to all those gorgeous cakes. It takes immense effort to eat just a little bit of cheese when there’s so much to choose from. And the wine. And the gastronomy which is so good it has UNESCO listed status.

But it’s more than just willpower. It’s also about habits that back up the willpower from a young age.

The French aren’t massive snackers

French kids are not encouraged to snack between meals. The only exception is after school/before dinner. Having lunch at noon, dinner is generally around 7 pm to 8 pm or later. It’s a long time for kids to go without food so a small snack is given at around 4.30 pm. Known as goûter, which literally means to taste, it’s an institution in France. And it’s almost exclusively a sweet treat. Cake, biscuits, a piece of baguette wrapped around a chunk of chocolate. Or slathered in nutella.

Some kids grow out of the snack phase when they become adults. Some don’t. That’s where the willpower comes in.

And of course some French people snack or else there wouldn’t be rows and rows of sweets and biscuits at the supermarket. But I’m astonished by how many of my French friends simply don’t snack.

A decent lunch helps

Part of the reason they don’t snack is because a decent lunch is de rigeur in France. Almost everyone takes a break at lunch time, often for two hours. This gives plenty of time to either prepare something wholesome or to eat out and relax over a three course meal. Again this is something that’s taught at a very young age.

From the earliest age at school, kids are served a four-course lunch. And it’s not chips and pizza. It will often include classic French dishes. Vegetables and salads play a big part. Dessert often features fresh fruit. Cheese isn’t the crappy industrially produced stuff kids love – it’s hardcore full on proper cheese – Camembert, Brie etc. High fat content is limited. Vegetarian options are increasingly being featured. Water is served with meals. Ketchup is limited. Children are also encouraged to leave a little time between courses, not to scoff it all down without tasting and appreciating. The emphasis is on a lot of healthy options, a little of the rest.

Kids get used to this way of eating and it carries on into adulthood.

Fresh and seasonal food

Street markets are a way of life in France. They’re not a special once a month farmer’s market. And not an expensive option. Markets are daily, they’re everywhere and they are marvellous. Having access to seasonal and local produce influences eating habits, menus tend to be reflect what’s available – especially fruit and veg. And more people prepare food from scratch rather than resorting to ready made meals. Though it must be said, pre-prepared meals are growing in popularity.

Specialist food shops are very easy to access. Artisan bakeries, amazing patisseries – and even here there’s one thing that stands out as different to me. In the UK I’m used to Greggs – big cakes on the whole. Here in France “Petit Four” style cakes (miniature) are always available alongside the full grown version. This makes it easier (for some, not for me I have to say, I blame it on not going to school in France for long enough to learn good habits) to choose a small version of a cake. There are cheese shops with knowledgeable staff and charcuteries in almost every town. Even the supermarkets are impressive, usually with fish stalls, butchers and cheese counters.

All this makes being able to create meals from scratch much easier. And people love to cook in France. It’s said that every day of the year, two cookery books are published here.

The foundations for healthy eating are laid in childhood and that makes a big difference. And the art of quality over quantity, a lot of the good stuff and a little of the not so good stuff is a way of life taught early.

5 tips learned from French women about how to stay slim.

Janine Marsh is Author of My Good Life in France: In Pursuit of the Rural Dream – ebook, print & audio, on Amazon everywhere & all good bookshops online, and My Four Seasons in France: A Year of the Good Life

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