France is known the world over as a country of culinary masterpieces but the thought of cooking French food doesn’t have to be daunting. The average French person doesn’t cook gourmet meals or eat as fancy as you may think. Let’s take a look at what it’s like to eat like the French.
Breakfast- the most important meal of the day
You’ve probably heard that expression a million times in your life. Be prepared to ignore it for your time studying abroad in Paris. France, and most of Europe, treat lunch as the biggest meal of the day which means that breakfast is small and light. The typical Parisian breakfast is a bowl of “le Kellogs” with milk and/or fresh fruit or a little bread with jam (la confiture) and coffee or tea. Fun fact- milk is not always refrigerated in France. The milk not from the refrigerated section is safe to drink but will have cream on top. It is very hard to get out and the milk always seems to have remnants of it when you can get it out. It is less expensive than refrigerated milk and that is why I tried it a few times but I recommend sticking to cold milk. Omelets are served at lunch and not breakfast.
Out for Lunch
Lunch is the biggest meal of the day in France. There are three main ways to have lunch: at a sit-down restaurant, grabbing a sandwich on the go, or bringing something from home. If you choose to sit down at a restaurant you will have several options for lunch ranging from salads to a meat dish with vegetables. If you are grabbing something on the go, you may want to stop by a boulangerie and buy a baguette with lettuce, cheese and a meat. If you want something more homemade but don’t want to bring from home, you can always stop at an épicerie where they have a selection of fresh cut meats, produce and other grocery items. Convenience stores are also great places for something quick, especially snacks. Every Parisian stops and eats lunch. Working through lunch is a no-no and will only alienate you. Wanna make French friends quick? Invite them to have lunch with you on or off campus.
Contrary to popular belief, the average French dinner is not elaborate nor takes hours of preparation. Heating up a small cut of steak or chicken on the stove, steaming some fresh veggies, having a small salad with lettuce hearts (les coeurs de la salade) with oil or dressing and a small yogurt as dessert is a perfect French dinner. When it comes to the amount of food to cook, keep in mind the French do not usually have as much leftovers as Americans. As bringing your lunch to school/work isn’t a part of French culture, schools and work places have a cafeteria on campus or people go out to eat. The concept of cooking lots of food at home and eating leftovers during the week is not really popular in France. As a result, French families only buy a few days worth of groceries at a time and cook enough for one meal.
In recent years, food shopping in Europe closely resembles food shopping in the US with major food supermarkets that also sell home products. In the past, Europeans used to go to open markets and butchers for meat but the “one-stop shop” has caught on. Big supermarket chains in Paris are: Monoprix (like a Target with food and things for home), Franprix and Picard (for something fresh but frozen). Having the familiar set up of the grocery store will come as a nice constant while you are transitioning to your new Parisian life. If you want to be old school, you can still go to the open markets and the butcher (la charcuterie) but this may not always be cost and time effective. Convenient stores in Paris are nothing like 7-11. They are essentially an épicerie but with little to no fresh meats and vegetables/fruits. They are a great place to pick up quick things like pasta or salad dressing. Convenient stores and épiceries are not ideal for actual food shopping as they are higher priced with a smaller selection but are great when you forgot that one ingredient and don’t want to run back out to the store.
American students are used to food products having nutrition labels. European countries do not place nutrition labels or any other label on their food. For example, if you need gluten free or kosher, food products will not have labels showing they are. It will take a little more work but it is pretty easy to maintain your diet needs abroad. When food shopping, ask where the section of “sans gluten” or “cachère” is in the food store. There is usually a small section dedicated in each grocer but you do have to ask as again it is not marked. You can also do online searches for organizations or groups in Paris whose website recommends restaurants and grocers for that specialty.
Eating in Paris is an art form but it doesn’t have to be expensive or take several hours. You can eat French and stay within your budget and dietary needs. The most important thing to remember is that the French love to eat. Dining isn’t just satisfying a need; it is a time to relax, savor the delicious tastes and bond with friends. Visit the French and eat like one too!
Here are some great websites on specialty restaurants and grocers in Paris
Andrea Bouchaud studied abroad in Paris, France for a year. She is a Rutgers University alumna and the author of e-book Twenty in Paris: A Young American Perspective of Studying Abroad in Paris available on Amazon. For more tips, information and blogs on studying abroad visit www.twentyinparis.net