Since I moved to France almost two decades ago, I have written extensively about the French lifestyle, especially those aspects of French culture and daily life that promote well-being on many levels.
I wrote an article about the local French school cafeteria that went viral around the globe. The French found it so incredible that the rest of the world was interested in their school lunches that the national news interviewed me for a story about my article on mindbodygreen (if you speak French have a look here).
I've also written posts about the "rules" French children and adults follow when it comes to eating (for example sitting down for meals, not snacking, eating whole foods), which have been popular.
But what about your average French woman? What does she eat on the average day? And why do we care?
When you look around a crowd in France—whether you are in a large city or the countryside—you are unlikely to see rampant obesity or even more than a few mildly overweight people. Nor are you likely to see a majority of men or women with ripped muscles, the toned arms of a disciplined athlete, or chiseled bodies.
Why? Because in France moderation and pleasure are the mantras of choice, the way they have been raised, and the manner in which they stay healthy and live life in general.
Deprivation, negative feelings toward food, cutting out entire food groups, and eating factory-made products are not the norm.
Most French women don't go to the gym to get ripped; they go because they know it's healthy, they've found an activity they enjoy, and they know they will feel better afterward (and look better in their skinny jeans).
But ask your average Frenchie how often they go to the gym? Once or twice a week at most. And unlikely before work, as most gyms won't offer classes before 9 a.m., so forget a five-day-per-week, 5 a.m. workout session.
Working out once or twice a week might not seem like enough, but French women are on the move constantly, clocking many walking hours and stair climbing a lot in any given week.
Taking a family stroll after lunch on the weekend can be the norm, but it's not even counted as "exercise." Nor is walking the kids to and from school, or going up and down the stairs of a seven-story apartment building with grocery bags in hand.
So, although gym sessions or tennis lessons happen only once or twice a week, the French move their bodies daily! If you happen to live in my neck of the woods, near the French Alps, fitness is second-nature with hiking, cycling, water sports, skiing, and more being part of almost everyone's weekend (and often weekday) life.
Just as will exercise and fitness, French women practice moderation when it comes to food, too. No food is off limits for most French women (including full-fat dairy, alcohol, sweets, and breads of all kinds); however, being careful about quantities and opportunities for "treats" is how they balance moderation, pleasure, and well-being.
A French woman may pass up the bread basket during lunchtime, but she is unlikely to say no to that coup de champagne and tarte au citron at a weekend dinner party.
It's never about deprivation or absolutes. It's about being smart with choices, quantities, and opportunities. And it's about eating healthy most of the time. Eating French-style is completely sustainable in the long run because you eat a bit of everything, even though the emphasis is on whole foods that come from nature.
It's all well and good to talk on and on about how French women stay slim. But just like the photos of cafeteria food made the point on how children eat at lunchtime here, I've asked my French girlfriends to photograph everything they ate during the course of one day to provide a visual reference.
These are not fancy food items, simply what is eaten by an average French woman on an average day. I asked them to photograph everything including drinks, snacks, and desserts.
Along with the photos, each friend summarized any food guidelines they apply to eating and well-being in general, in order for us to better understand their food choices as well as the lifestyle and cultural undertones.
They included exercise in a given week and how they recuperate from "overdoing" it on special occasions such as holidays, big weekends, and vacations.
Homemade buckwheat crepe with almond butter, raisins, and a cup of organic vegetable juice
Fish cooked with tomatoes, onions, ginger, and pepper; basmati rice; fruit salad
Snack at 5 p.m.
Apple, herbal tea
Dinner at 8 p.m.
Homemade veggie soup (carrot, potato, leek, zucchini) and salad of endives, half avocado, olives, sprinkled with pumpkin and flax seeds.
Cathy's health "guidelines"
- If she wants a sweet ending to dinner she has a few squares of dark chocolate (80 percent).
- Cheese is normally not on her daily menu but when she has some, it's usually goat cheese.
- Cathy also drinks up to 1.5 liters of herbal tea and water a day.
- For exercise she does Pilates once a week and at least two workouts on the weekend; hiking, cycling, skiing, snowshoeing, depending on the season.
- Work takes her to restaurants often, so when she eats at home she focuses on eating lots of vegetables.
Mixed cereal with almond milk, almonds, walnuts, goji berries, and fresh pear, along with herbal tea
Chicken with leeks, rice, cheese, and bread
Pasta dish with peas, onions, and peppers, and a salad with beets, carrots, and vinaigrette
Delphine's health "guidelines"
- Throughout the day Delphine drinks water and herbal teas.
- On the weekend she may have up to two glasses of wine.
- She stays away from too much sugar and dairy products.
- She eats a lot of lentils, chickpeas, quinoa, and foods with omega-3s.
- When she overdoes it at a dinner party, the next day she drinks a lot of bouillon broth.
- Her weekly exercise includes Pilates and lower-body toning.
Large bowl of fresh fruit and yogurt, tea
Salmon with red pepper, cucumber, and avocado salad, followed by cheese and two pieces of fruit
Sausage, green beans, potatoes, cheese, bread, fruit, and applesauce
Vanina's health "guidelines"
- Vanina tries to eat light a few nights a week (a bit less quantity, lighter fare) to balance out when she eats at restaurants or larger meals.
- Her exercise in a week includes walking everywhere, Pilates, tap dancing, and tennis. She skis every winter and golfs a few times a month.
Pretty typical French breakfast of brioche, butter, honey, and coffee
Steak and green beans. Dessert is one spoonful of chestnut "cream" with coffee
This type of light meal is often served in France: a bit of charcuterie, capers, blue cheese, bread, and fruit
Catherine's health "guidelines"
- Eats until she is satisfied, never more.
- Never has seconds (unless she is a guest).
- For dessert, she has either cheese or a sweet—but not both.
- Always includes carbs in her meals.
- She eats moderately at breakfast, makes lunch her main meal, and has a light dinner.
- Depending on what she eats at lunch, she sometimes skips her afternoon snack.
- Every day she has a teaspoon of honey, one glass of wine, and bread.
- On weekend she enjoys a croissant or pain au chocolat.
- At lunch, she makes sure to include lots of vegetables.
Bread with butter and coffee
Salmon, salad, terrine of zucchini (she makes it herself with zucchini, eggs, milk, spices), and fruit salad for dessert
Generous portion of risotto and vegetable soup
Corinne health "guidelines"
- No eating between meals.
- Exercise every day. Type of exercise varies according to how she feels.
- Short, daily nap when possible.
- Same bedtime and wakeup time every day.
- Regular pampering.
- Homecooking for the family is key (she is a fan of the Thermomix kitchen robot for easy, fast, healthy meals).
Baguette campagne (dark bread) with either jam or local honey, coffee, fruit (this day it was a banana) and sometimes a plain yogurt, too
Chicken breast, rice, roasted veggies, and endive salad. Not pictured is a bowl of Greek yogurt for dessert
Usually two pieces of fruit (today it was banana and apple) or one piece of fruit and small handful of nuts
Large bowl of veggie soup, slice of ham, and bread.
Sophie's health "guidelines"
- A glass or two of wine on weekends only.
- Some form of exercise daily. Usually, she at least takes a walk after lunch and does more sports on weekends (tennis, swimming).
- Sweets or desserts a few times a week. She tries not to overdo it in a week, though.
- Once a week, eats just veggies in the form of salads and soups and gives her body a break from digesting meat, fish, and eggs.
- Choice of drink is water. On her no-meat days she tries to drink up to 3 liters of water to help "clean out" her insides.
- Every three months, Sophie gets a massage/facial and takes a day "off" from her family either by herself or with a friend
Bread or crackers with butter, honey, kiwi, and tea
Baked cod, salad with different vegetables, and a spoonful of rice
Vegetable soup, salad, lentil patty, steamed endives, and yogurt
Christine's health "guidelines"
- Throughout the day she drinks water and green tea.
- An ex-smoker, Christine takes care not to overdo the treats since she doesn't want to gain weight.
- Following a celebratory dinner, she goes heavy on the vegetables and fish or chicken.
- If she's hungry between meals, she has a piece of fruit.
- She stays away from bread, red meat, and alcohol.
- For exercise she swims in the lake year-round and does water aerobics up to three times a week, as well as zipping around town on her bike.