Living in France for so long, there is always a bit of a culture shock every time I return “home”. There are just those small little things that are not like what I’m now used to in France, and make me stop and think “oof, why do we do that!?” And when I say we, I mean those of us from good ol’ North America.
This is never truer than when it comes to French vs American eating habits. So let’s get to it, shall we? Allons-y!
1. Drinking a giant coffee on the go
To start off, we have that simple coffee in the morning. Or rather, we don’t. The quintessential Starbucks coffee on the way to work in the U.S. doesn’t really occur in France. There are a few Starbucks around Paris, but if you do see someone walking around with a giant cup of coffee, it is usually a tourist.
A regular coffee in France is a tiny espresso cup with no milk is the size of a shot glass. Or if it is that morning coffee with breakfast, it is in a bowl. (Don’t ask.) Even the more tourist friendly café allongé, will not be as big as the Starbucks variety.
Walk into any American grocery store and it will be filled with a wide variety of chips, biscuits, candies, etc. Both adults and children snack regularly between meals.
In France, there is only one acceptable time to snack, and it is mainly for children: le goûter at 3-4pm. And there are no chips involved. You can read more French snack ideas here.
3. Eating at the desk
Americans tend to eat fast. The meal is eaten quickly during the day, often while doing something else, such as working, commuting, etc. French people do not eat at their desk or in their car. Food is meant to be for pleasure, not just sustenance.
In France, the lunch break at work can be anywhere from 1-2 hours, eaten leisurely with colleagues or friends, and dinner is supposed to be a sit-down affair with the family.
☞ READ MORE: French Business Etiquette: 12 Pitfalls to avoid
4. Drinking ice-cold water
In the U.S. if you ask for water, it is served with a ton of ice cubes. And this given the fact that in the U.S. air-conditioning exists almost everywhere and is set to freezing!
In France, the waiter will serve a carafe d’eau at room temperature, without ice (and without air conditioning). Even when it is sweltering hot in the middle of summer.
5. The Restaurant Menu calls the main dish the “Entrée”
This is one of my personal pet peeves since this everywhere, even in Canada, where French is one of the two official languages. Entrée means entry or starter.
In France, it refers to the appetizer, while the main dish is referred to as the plat. The usual order is Entrée, Plat, Dessert. And yet on North American menus, it is used to describe the main dish, making it Starter, Starter, Dessert!
6. Substituting the chef’s prepared dish
Another one of the strange American eating habits is continually asking for substitutions to the dish that is outlined on the menu. There are often so many random requests such hold the sauce, put the cheese on the side, brown rice not white, etc.
Even airlines now offer meals such as dairy-free, gluten-free, etc. In France, very rarely will a client ask for something to be changed, especially in a high-end restaurant. The client is supposed to eat the meal as it is prepared unless there are severe allergies. Otherwise, pick something else!
7. Switching the fork and knife back and forth.
In both countries, the fork starts off on the right-hand side of the plate, and the knife on the left. To cut the food the fork is in the left, with the right hand manipulating the knife.
Without going into whether it is “elbows on the table or not”, in the U.S., we have the “zig-zag” method, where the fork moves to the right hand to pick up food, while the knife is in the left, on hold until the next exchange.
French people pick up their food with the fork on the left, and the knife on the right. It isn’t that French people are more ambidextrous, it just seems silly to go back and forth! You can read more about French dining etiquette here.
8. Huge portions
Portion sizes in the U.S., are dramatically larger than in France. Even the actual plate is larger, leading to a sizing distortion. From Supersize fries to Venti Coffee, Americans get more and expect more on their plate.
French eating habits consist of eating smaller meals mean that no “doggy-bag” is necessary, and meals are reasonably proportioned. I suppose this is why the French have a reputation for being slim, even though it is a bit of myth.
9. Waiters approaching all the time and hurrying you out
Eating fast is also encouraged by from waiters in the U.S., who keep checking to see if you need anything, breaking the flow of conversation, and hurrying the client out. A restaurant in the U.S. will often have 2-3 seatings in the evening and a higher table turnover.
In France, on the other hand, a reservation for 8pm means that the client will stay the rest of the night, till the restaurant is ready to close.
10. Tipping in the U.S.
Part of the reason for waiters in the U.S. pushing a client out fast is the tips. In the U.S., it is now expected to tip anywhere from 20-40% of the bill! In France, waiters earn an hourly minimum wage from the restaurant, and so are not expecting tips from customers. French diners will often leave spare change (1-5 euros) as a tip, but this is not expected.
It is understandable, of course, waiters in the U.S. do not earn a living wage from the restaurant. But there is still a bit of a sticker shock for that little French tourist who needs to pull out his calculator to see how much he should pay!
Any other French vs American eating habits you’ve noticed? If you enjoyed that article, you may want to read more about what a typical French meal is like. (Hint there is a lot of scurrying about with dishes.) A bientôt!
P.S. so did you guess which character in the cartoon above is French and which one is American? It is not the color of the outfits… If you need a hint, here you go. A bientôt!