While I was in college I studied abroad in Lyon, France — the gastronomic capital of Europe. Nothing solidified my food views and my relationship with food quite like those six months I lived in France.
In the U.S., we tend to focus on what people eat, the latest fad diet of "eat this and don’t eat that." But living in France taught me to ask about more than just what; it taught me to ask how. It’s how you eat and how you approach your food. And once you change the way you think about food, you begin to cement lifelong healthy habits.
To understand both the what and the how of food, try adopting a French mindset. Living in France made me change my relationship with food in five specific ways.
1. I connected to the people who grew my food.
France was my first foray into farmer’s markets, and I’m so glad Americans have adopted this habit. Every Sunday I walked over the Rhone River to the expansive farmer’s market along the Saone River. There were so many fresh vegetables, phenomenal rotisserie chickens, roasted potatoes, drool-worthy cheeses and more.
I saw and spoke to the people who grew and made the food. I learned which rotisserie guy’s chicken was better, where the good cheese stall was and so on. I learned that food takes on a different meaning when you truly connect with it and the people who grow it. It takes on a sense of terroir (as they say in the wine world), and you see the characteristics of the place, the land and the people in the food.
2. I learned that food should not be treated with passivity.
You enter into a meal with passion and purpose. If you go into a restaurant in France you’ll see people deeply engaged in conversation and their meal. They’re not looking around, on their phones (at least in 2005 they weren’t. I sincerely hope that hasn’t changed), or otherwise distracted. They're deeply present in their meal and their company. And shouldn’t that be what a meal is about? Nourishment both on the plate and through companionship over the meal. It was belly-and-soul nourishment at its finest.
3. I stopped demonizing food.
I didn’t go into the cheese stall and hear women lamenting over how the cheese would go straight to their hips. I heard joy and appreciation as people stood over the creamy and pungent cheeses and selected theirs. So I started having my daily brie or Camembert with deep gusto and satisfaction, and I found I didn’t want half the brie wheel. Just a wedge to finish off a meal completely and utterly satisfied me. I traded demonizing food for enjoyment — true, lasting, simple moments of savoring every drop of life.
4. I became passionate about wine.
The Rhone River is known for its lush Cotes-du-Rhone and drinkable Beaujolais varietals. I went to festivals celebrating the harvest and talked to producers, who would tell me why certain years were better than others and what they battled during the bad years. Grapes sometimes produce better wine during years of struggle because it forces them to concentrate their flavors and push through to survive. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
I learned to appreciate the depth and beauty of terroir and the people behind my glass of wine. Wine became a moment of appreciation and soul-nourishment instead of a transitory beverage. And a moment of appreciation and soul-nourishment demands a different mindset with which to approach it.
5. I learned how to cook, using few fresh ingredients to create something nourishing and comforting.
Even living in the gastronomic capital of the world, I saw beauty created by the humblest ingredients. Wonderful, nourishing food didn’t have to be complicated. I stopped viewing food as a sum of its parts. I didn’t approach cooking and food thinking about carbs, fats, and proteins. I approached food for its entirety—the entirety of its lushness, beauty, satiating qualities.
Lyon is known for its sausage, and my go-to meal I’d create was lentils, sausage and a pat of butter. But that meal to this day still brings me so much joy and comfort.
I felt set free by food instead of being entrapped by it. I was healthier, felt better, had more energy and felt so much joy around food and life. And the pounds just dropped off. Fresh, real foods combined with an active lifestyle (I walked everywhere) and true enjoyment of the food made for a wonderful combination. It was just easy.
A healthy lifestyle shouldn’t be hard when you build a solid relationship with food as your base. I learned that food takes on a different meaning when you truly connect with it with love, passion and authenticity.
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