I'd been living in Paris for almost six months when one evening while my French friend and I were sharing a cheese plate at a bar in the 18th arrondissement, I noticed her looking at me with concern. She appeared to be taking issue with the way I was applying the creamy Roquefort we were enjoying to the piece of bread in my hand.
"You know, you shouldn't spread it across the whole piece of bread," she said disapprovingly, picking up the knife and a piece of bread to illustrate her point. "You should put the portion of cheese on the corner of the bread and just eat that part. That way you get to enjoy the flavor of the cheese more, and you won't be eating so much bread." It made so much sense—and I quickly realized that I had been eating cheese the wrong way my whole life.
My friend's effective tutelage in cheese etiquette is an example of the many French eating habits that allow the consumption of not-so-healthy foods in healthier ways. In fact, the year and half that I lived in France completely redefined my eating habits—for the better. Here are some of the lessons I learned.
Eat smaller meals.
While the notion that French women never gain weight isn't entirely true, one of the reasons they are less likely to (even with a diet that regularly involves bread, cheese, and cream) is because they eat less food in general. So rather than heaping their plates full of food, the French enjoy smaller portions of everything. They also usually eat their largest meals at lunchtime rather than dinner, which prevents them from going to bed with a full stomach and helps ensure a better night's sleep.
Stop eating when you're full.
Rather than making sure they finish up everything on their plate, as kids in many cultures are taught to do, most French people eat only until they are satiated. By being more attuned to how they feel while they are eating, they're less likely to indulge mindlessly in food. (The French aren't the only ones to practice this healthy habit: The Japanese have a similar concept known as hara hachi bu, meaning to eat until you're 80 percent full.) Once I made this tweak in mindset, I soon discovered that I needed to eat far less than I thought I did in order to satisfy my stomach.
Sit down and savor your meal.
In France, meals are something to be enjoyed and shared. As someone who was guilty of eating many of her meals standing up at the kitchen counter, I quickly learned the importance of turning my meals into a ritual and eating in the company of other people where possible. When you're caught up in conversation, you'll naturally eat more slowly, which is not only great for digestion but also means you'll likely eat less overall.
Drink in moderation.
While Mediterranean cultures are known to enjoy their wine, what they all have in common is that they usually consume it gracefully. Hailing from a country that regularly indulges in binge-drinking, when I moved to France I was surprised to observe that my 20-something friends rarely got excessively drunk, even though they regularly had a glass of wine in hand. Needless to say, the virtue of waking up hangover free after a night out soon convinced me that the French method of drinking alcohol was definitely better.
Satiate your sweet tooth sensibly.
There's no denying that a lot of French people have a sweet tooth, but the difference is in the way they satisfy it. One of the greatest revelations I had in Paris was that when a yearning for something sugary hit me, I could satiate it by eating just a small amount of something sweet—a square of chocolate, a teaspoon of honey, a slice of peach—rather than an entire dessert or confection. While it took some discipline at first, my body felt much better for it.
I've been fortunate to live in several different countries, but none of them influenced my eating habits as much as France. And it's safe to say that no matter where in the world I'm eating cheese, I never spread it across my bread.
Mikki Brammer is an Australian writer, editor and photographer with a penchant for wandering the globe, currently based in New York City. She has also lived in Paris and Barcelona. Her work has been published in AFAR, Lonely Planet, and many others and she is a contributing editor at Metropolis, Dwell, and Surface.