On lessons learned from the French, portion size outweighs calorie content as the key to preparing healthy meals.
So last we talked about varying food as the first of a three-prong method of eating like the French. The second of these prongs is perhaps even more important, and certainly something I’ve learned from living over here in France: portion size.
A bag full of groceries
When I first started dating my husband, about a year after coming to France, we would take turns making dinners at his apartment – at the time mine was a tiny 18-sqm studio with only a kitchenette. Sometimes I’d come over with a bag full of groceries to prepare one of my tried and tested recipes, and other evenings he’d whip something up that he’d learned from his mother.
My meals tended to be spaghetti with meatballs, chicken stir-fry, grilled cheese with ham, macaroni and cheese, burgers – good ol’ North American grub. I even made my grandmother’s Southern cornbread dressing with a honey glazed ham for New Year’s Day dinner the first year we were together. But it’s my husband’s meal choices that really make this story interesting.
A hearty meal
Whereas I would cook up a pot of spaghetti that could feed us and 15 of our closest friends, a green salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and red peppers, along with a side of garlic bread – delighted with the prospect of blowing him away with my culinary talents – he would plan out and prepare an entrée, plat, cheese course and dessert.
To give you an idea: Radishes with baguette and sea-salt butter as an entrée, followed by a slice (no bigger than two-inches wide) of Quiche Lorraine, a yoghurt, some nuggets of dark chocolate to satisfy our sweet tooth, and to top it all off a bottle of fabulous Medoc something or other wine. Alternatively, he might start us off with two slices of cantaloupe melon, followed by a chicken leg each in an apricot butter sauce, the requisite yoghurt or a few bites of cheese and then end off with a scoop of ice cream over a poached pear.
You can imagine how I felt after a few nights of this. A little out-done maybe, shown-up and unrefined in my recipe selection for sure, but most of all I felt like I was over doing it. It’s not that my husband (then-boyfriend) didn’t enjoy my food. I have a rather eclectic repertoire of recipes from the places I’ve lived which keep things interesting –
Southern fried chicken, Floridian coconut shrimp, Maple butter pancakes with the accompanying syrup, Montreal smoked meat sandwiches and of course boxes of Kraft Dinner that my mother would send over. It’s not that he didn’t like it; it’s just that he couldn’t even begin to finish the heaping mounds of food I’d pile onto his plate when it was my turn to do the cooking.
I’m not that hungry tonight
Eventually, he had to tell me. And I have to admit that I probably didn’t take it as well as I could have. “Trésor (a sweet name French people call each other), may I just have a half portion please?” He would ask. “I’m not that hungry tonight.” And how sweetly he would say those words each night I was cooking. At first, I told him that he could just leave what he didn’t want on his plate. Of course, I didn’t know this went against everything he’s been taught as a child about polite manners. Ultimately, he had to ask me if he could serve himself. This is when I swallowed my pride and took notice of the fact that something was fundamentally different between his way of eating and my own.
He not only ate slower, he ate much, much less than I did. And he never deprived himself of anything. He ate just enough to satisfy himself and then he moved on.
At the beginning, it seemed to me that he and I were eating more food when he was cooking than when I was. I mean, really, with the entrée, plat, cheese and dessert plus a baguette and wine, how much bigger could one meal get?! But the truth is, the only time we had to lie back on the sofa after dinner and unbutton our pants, moaning ‘oh my god, I ate too much’, was when I was in charge of dinner.
Portion control and serving size
Since then, I have learned a lifetime’s worth of wisdom about portion control and serving size. And a little about diet too. Would you believe me if I told you that if you eat the four smaller courses like the French do, including the cheese/yoghurt course to aid digestion, you will end up eating less and being completely satisfied by your meal? I won’t be offended if you think I’m pulling your leg. I used to think so too.
Don’t take my words for it. Give it a try:
Instead of a plate of mixed green salad, followed by a plate of spaghetti with garlic bread and ending off with a piece of apple pie – which is a very traditional meal at my mother’s house – try an entrée of sliced cucumbers (no more than eight per person) with a dash of creamy French vinaigrette sprinkled with dill, followed by a small chicken breast grilled in a tablespoon of butter with a half tablespoon of sour cream and fresh parsley stirred in at the end of cooking to make a delicious sauce, then a yoghurt, and end off with three squares of Lindt 70 percent chocolate. Wash all that down with a nice glass of red wine.
Give it a try for a week varying the menus while sticking to the portion size. I’d be so interested to know how it turns out for you.
Changing cooking habits
Our dinner last night is a good example of how much my eating and cooking habits have changed in the years since those first days of dating a Frenchman. Two nights ago, I made a rather North American concoction out of left overs – 300 grams of ground beef, one red onion, one red pepper, one cup of Basmati rice, one beef bouillon and one cup of water. I sautéed the onion and red pepper in a tablespoon of butter and boiled the rice. Then I added the beef and, once it was cooked, poured in the water and the bouillon, letting it reduce to make a sauce.
Whereas in the old days, I would have served this with a salad for one meal between the two of us, this week I made two dinners out of it for my husband and I – one with a small Greek salad as an entrée (small for two people = 1/3 cucumber, two small black tomatoes, a few olives & 40 grams feta cheese; sprinkled with olive oil, sea salt, ground pepper and oregano) and the second time with a small bowl of beef stock veggie soup (two ladles full each). Both meals were topped off by – of course – a yoghurt, a few prunes and Mirabelles and a couple of squares of chocolate.
Notice that the proportions are generally about half of what I would have normally served back home. And notice too that we don’t worry too much about using non-fat butter or products like that. You can eat rich, delicious food because you end up not eating or wanting so much of it. In fact, the opposite is true: You eat such rich food that you are satisfied by a small portion of it.
Half everything on the plate
The half rule is how I thought about portion size when I first began trying to make this change from over-serving (and thus overeating) to healthy portions. I halved everything I put on the plates. The funny things is, after about a week or two of this type of eating, your body starts to crave the next course and so you’re satisfied with what you’ve had, ready to move on. It’s really quite amazing how that happens.
If you are like me eating a yoghurt after dinner would be about as strange as eating an omelette for dinner. Of course, the French do both. And now I do too. But it wasn’t always like that. I had to get accustomed to it. The thing about the dairy course is that it helps with digestion. I personally find that cheese in the evening is a little heavy, so I prefer a yoghurt. And the benefits of yoghurt are phenomenal. With bifidus, or the bifidobacteria, in yoghurt, this course does wonders keeping you regular while the creamy, rich texture is so fulfilling you feel genuinely satisfied for the rest of the evening. I find, however, that yoghurt is not the same in North America as it is in France. The closest I’ve come at home to what we have here is Greek yoghurt, unless you make it yourself.
A note on bread: Many people I’ve talked to, including my own precious stepdad, think that the French example gives them license to eat a tremendous amount of bread. This simply isn’t true. The reason is a matter of substance rather than quantity. That is, real French baguette is very light and airy – not nearly as dense as our bread in North America. So when I used to serve three slices of garlic bread made from a large white crusty loaf, this was more bread per person than eating an entire baguette would be. Generally in France, a demi baguette should suffice for a couple for one meal. The French use the baguette for saucing (mopping up the sauce left on the plate) after the salad and after the main dish and then they have a slice or two with the cheese course (bread doesn’t accompany yoghurt). Let’s say the average would therefore be about 4 slices of baguette per person. In sheer substance, that would compare to about one piece of sliced bread back home.
All this comes naturally to me now. I wouldn’t dream of serving an overflowing plate of spaghetti any more. And even when I’m back at my mother’s house, I yearn for my Perle de Lait yoghurt after dinner. But it took time to get the hang of this way of eating – by trial and error mostly, and paying very close attention. It helped me enormously to live with someone who has learned from a thousand years of common knowledge how to eat this way. For my husband, there is no other way to eat properly.
He eats regularly beginning at 8.00am with his coffee and toast or cereal, lunch at 12:30pm and dinner around 8.00-8.30pm. Snacks aren’t a part of his diet except for the occasional aperitif – a few handfuls of olives, nuts or a few rounds of saucisson. But now I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll pick up on this thought next time with prong numéro three of ‘Eating like the French’.