Living In France Completely Changed How I Eat. Here's What I Learned

Photo: Pietro Karras

Whenever I thought about post-grad life, I envisioned hole-in-the-wall apartments, cubicles, crowded subways, and sad desk lunches. Although it sounds overly pessimistic, I was convinced these things were a rite of passage into "adulthood." But come senior year of college, I was feeling pulled in a very different direction. And by different direction, I mean a whole other country.

Throughout college, I did everything I could to learn more about food, from reading Michael Pollan and Dan Barber to spending spring break of my senior year volunteering on an organic farm. When it came time to decide what my next step would be, I knew one thing for certain: It had to involve food in some way, shape, or form.

So I packed my bags, took a big leap of faith, and moved to a small village in the French countryside to teach middle school English, and, more importantly, to fully immerse myself in their gastronomic culture. Over the course of close to a year, I foraged through countless markets, experimented with making everything from beef bourguignon to baguette from scratch, and cringed as I tasted escargot, tripe, and gizzards for the first time.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, France was slowly yet steadily working its magic on me and completely changing my relationship with food in the process. Here are a few things I learned:

1. Be more mindful with your meals (even if it's hard!).

When I heard that lunch lasted an hour and 15 minutes, I was skeptical, to say the least. I knew my unease was so unattractively American, but I couldn’t help it. Spending that much time away from work felt wrong and incredibly unproductive.

But after just a few weeks, I came to appreciate the time I was spending to actually sit down at a table with my co-workers, respect the food in front of me, and really taste what I was eating. The French don’t view lunch—or any other meal, for that matter—as a means to an end. It is the main event. And although I’m back in the hectic, go-go-go work atmosphere of NYC now, I still take a break to consciously consume my lunch every day. Because in addition to helping clear my mind and increase productivity, it eases my digestion, prevents me from overeating, and decreases my midafternoon snack cravings.

2. Fat is not the enemy.

While many Americans reach for skim milk or low-fat yogurt, the French embrace full-fat dairy in moderation. Because when you strip fat out of a product, its taste is compromised (this also, by the way, explains why most low-fat foods are higher in sugar—you have to make up for it somehow).

In addition to being less processed and infinitely more flavorful, full-fat dairy is far more satisfying, which means less midday munching or after-dinner grazing.

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3. Rethink how often you snack.

At most, the French eat one snack, or goûter, a day, usually between 4:30 p.m. and 5. They don’t keep sugar-laden energy bars in their desk drawers, they don’t sit in front of the TV with a jar of roasted almonds, and they definitely don’t give snacks to kids as a way to occupy or appease them.

Soon after I arrived, my snack cravings started to subside as well. I wasn’t abstaining for fear of committing the ultimate French faux pas; I just wasn’t hungry and had a feeling what I was eating (three full meals with protein, fats, and healthy carbs) and how I was eating (slowly, sitting down, at a table) had something to do that with.

4. Embrace the concept of terroir.

There’s a reason, despite my best efforts and meticulous attention to detail, I can never recreate the ratatouille I ate on repeat in France. It just doesn’t taste the same. The reason? Terroir.

Although typically used in reference to the grape harvest, the concept of terroir can be applied to food, too, to describe the combination of geographical factors (i.e., climate and soil) and abstract factors (i.e., culture) that affect the way a specific ingredient will taste. This nuanced, 360-degree relationship between land, people, and food explains why even the smallest supermarkets in France sell regional specialties—buckwheat flour from Brittany, salt from Île de Ré, apples from Normandy, and lavender EVERYTHING from Provence. Embracing super-regional food allowed me to savor flavors and appreciate the connection between the food and the land it's grown on.

5. Cut back on food waste.

Although this was a topic I was vaguely aware of before moving to France, I’ll admit I never seriously thought about it. But when you work at a middle school where students toss out unwanted food into clear, see-through bins that essentially function as food waste "measuring cups," it’s hard not to. Even at the local market, farmers would advise on their favorite ways to cook with underappreciated veggie scraps such as carrot tops, beet or radish greens, and broccoli leaves.

Now that I’m back, I’ve made a conscious effort to plan meals strategically, organize my refrigerator correctly, make ample use of my freezer, and cook root to stem whenever possible (here are seven easy ways to reduce food waste, if you want to try it at home!).

Want more secrets from France? This ingredient calms anxiety, tames inflammation, and more.

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