French food comes alive during the holidays. In fact, some of the country's finest foods are reserved for Les Fetes (the holidays). Oysters, foie gras (there's a vegetarian version of this French classic, if you can believe it), la buche de Noel (a gorgeous winter cake), fine chocolates, papillotes (beautifully wrapped candies or chocolates), and amazing wines and Champagnes, of course.
This list may sound delicious — it tastes delicious too — but it's long enough to derail even the best of healthy intentions during the holiday season. And it's not just French cuisine that can pose a problem to the health-minded. Holiday food isn't always friendly to those who love it.
But if you pay attention to how things are done on this side of the Atlantic, you'll find that pleasure is not the enemy of well-being! Just do like the French, and all will be well:
1. Indulge in only two big holiday meals.
France is a predominantly Catholic country, which means a majority of the population celebrates with a large family dinner on Christmas Eve. The next big holiday meal is New Year’s Eve. Between the two, we revert to our normal eating habits.
The holidays aren't a monthlong carte blanche for eating whatever happens to be in front of you. Instead of stocking up on sugar-heavy and other rich foods, opt to eat with the holiday spirit only during those two celebratory meals. Continue with a diet of whole, real, nourishing foods on non-celebration days.
2. Approach dessert with moderation.
The French do desserts so well, it’s hard to resist. But during Les Fetes, there's moderation on several levels that allows the French to eat the world’s most delicious patisseries without gaining an ounce.
First, dessert on Christmas is a single slice of buche de Noel — not a plate full of sugar cookies, iced cupcakes, and bread pudding. One dessert, one slice (okay, sometimes another slice ...). Second, we always make sure to include festive fruits like clementines and fresh lychee with the meal. Fresh fruit offers a natural alternative to sugary sweets and can fill you up in a more satisfying way.
3. Drink with a meal.
Wine and Champagne are a part of every celebration in France, and the holidays are no exception. But rather than spend the whole day with a glass in hand, the French pair wine and Champagne with food. Drinking for the sake of drinking isn't really something the French partake in. Rather, great wines are a component and complement to an amazing meal, to be enjoyed and sipped slowly with others, in moderation.
4. Get fresh air, no matter the weather.
On December 25 in France, you'll see many families outside walking off some of the extra indulgences from the evening before. Whether they live in the countryside, suburbia, or the city, French families love to take a long leisurely stroll together. There's no reason to stay away from being active just because the weather is cold and the days are short!
5. Make the holidays a family affair.
Is there anything more stressful than one family member taking on the bulk of preparing a holiday meal extravaganza on their own? Cooking and preparing the table in France is a family affair, even for a regular weekend meal. During this time of year, the holiday meal preparation is usually divided up so that everyone participates.
6. There’s no food guilt.
Rather than demonize delicious food, the French revel in it! There’s no guilt whatsoever in eating some of the season’s delicacies. In fact, the opposite is true: it's a great source of pleasure and honor to share delicious food with loved ones. By removing negative connotations from food and drink, the French enjoy a healthy relationship with foods that aren’t served more than a few times a year.
7. Resolutions aren’t necessary or extreme.
January in France isn’t the month for an aggressive detox, gym membership sign-ups, or giving up sugar forever. Since moderation coupled with pleasure is part of the cultural fabric, we don't feel the need to eat only salad and water the whole month of January to make up for holiday eating. Simply increasing our intake of vegetables and laying off the bread and cheese is basically how the French get back on track.
Curious what a typical Christmas Eve meal looks like in France? Here's a snapshot of my family’s meal:
- Appetizer: Champagne served with delicious olives or fresh nuts. Children will be served “Champony,” a nonalcoholic version of Champagne for kids.
- First course: Oysters and foie gras served on dark, toasted bread
- Main course: Chapon (rooster, which is usually reserved for special occasions), a vegetable side dish, creamy polenta
- Cheese: Living near the mountains, we serve a selection of local cheeses such as Beaufort, Tomme de Savoie, Reblochon, and the creamy Mont D’or
- Dessert: Buche de Noel, chocolates made by a local chocolatiere, clementines, and lychees
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