Your guide to a traditional French Christmas Dinner

Wondering what's on the menu at a traditional French Christmas dinner? Go behind closed doors and see how French people like to indulge at Noël.
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The French take their food very seriously. They also take Christmas very seriously. And so, as you can imagine, out of the many French Christmas traditions, eating is one of the most important! I’d venture to say that in France it is even more important than the gifts, and we all know that gifts are important 😉

In North America, we tend to cook a big meal, spread the whole thing out on the table, and then sit down and eat. But having lived in France for the past 10 years, I have to point out that typical French dinner is a bit different. The French dinner is a spectacle. (And no, it is not just my French family that does all this.)

☞ READ MORE: Quiz: Do you know your French Cuisine?

If you are French and have been saving your fine china all this while, Christmas is the moment to bring it all out. Presentation is key. Even for ordinary meals, French people will use their fine napkins and good wine glasses, so you can imagine that they don’t hold back at Christmas (even if they there are little ones around!)

And as in a restaurant, there is a specific order: first the Starter, then the Main course and en suite the Dessert.  The French meal at home can be just as formal.

Each dish is brought out consecutively and meant to be focused on before the next one is brought out. This way each dish can be eaten at the right temperature rather than get cold from sitting out.

At a traditional Christmas dinner, all this goes up a few notches. And yes, usually each course is brought out separately. The meat dish and the vegetable dish will not be on the table at the same time. I’m usually in awe watching the hosts scurry back and forth, especially as guests are not expected to help.

Along with the dishes, the crystal ware is usually changed as well. Different wines will accompany each course, which means different glasses.

a) Aperitifs (snacks)

As soon as guests start to arrive, a series of apéritifs will be brought out. A cocktail of guest’s choice, such as the famous Pastis, Kir Royale, or Mixed liquors (such as a whiskey coke).

Along with that will be a few “Amuse-gueules, which could be everything from peanuts in a bowl to an assortment of elaborate canapés.

☞ READ MORE: 15 Easy French appetizers and hors d’oeuvres

aperitif illustration

b) Entrées (starters)

Once all the invitées have arrived, everyone moves to the dining table and the starters will be brought out. There could be one or many starters such as

Yes, these starters are all very expensive, but the food is the focus of people celebrating Christmas in France, not gifts.


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c) Plat (main Meat dishes)

Once everyone has their fill of appetizers, we’re off to the main meal. Unlike North America where the turkey tends to be enormous (no Turduckens here!), the French version is almost subdued.

Because there are so many starter dishes that are delicacies, the meat will be smaller:

  • Roasted beef
  • Small Turkey
  • Ham
  • Capon (a large chicken)
Main dish illustration
Main Dish

d) Vegetable dishes

Along with the main meat dish, will also come the vegetables such as:

  • Mushrooms
  • Green beans
  • Baked broccoli with lardons (bacon)
  • Salads

e) Wine

Have I mentioned wine yet? There will be wine, likely a different one with each course. If you were planning on nursing your whiskey coke from the aperitifs, I can inform you that you were mistaken.

You could maybe continue to drink it with your foie gras, but you better have started on wine somewhere before the roasted ham was brought to the table. As the French saying goes: “L’eau fait pleurer, le vin fait chanter”, meaning “Water makes one cry, wine makes one sing.”

☞ READ MORE: Easy Guide to the French Wines

Wine bottle illustration
Wine bottle

f) Cheese

Once all the main dishes have been removed from the table, a platter of fromage (cheeses) will be brought out. The number and variety will depend on the hosts but there will usually be a minimum of:

  • Goat cheese
  • Roquefort
  • Camembert
  • Compté

You can read more about the different types of French cheeses here.

☞ READ MORE: The Proper way to cut cheese

cheese dish illustration
Cheese Platter

g) Champagne

Some French hosts might prefer to bring the champagne out with the starters, but chez nous, we have it with the cheeses and desserts. Champagne is French, so no Christmas meal could be complete without it.

☞ READ MORE: Different types of Champagne you need to know before buying another bottle

h) Bûche de Noël 

The grand tradition of a French Christmas is the Log Cake. It is usually a chocolate log cake, but I suppose you could go wild and try a coffee log cake or if you’re really out there: strawberry!

☞ READ MORE: French desserts that are too blissful for words

buche de noel French christmas dinner
Buche de Noël

i) Digestifs

With all that eating, everybody is going to need a digestif! Bring out the cognac or the brandy and relax.

☞ READ MORE: Amazing Digestifs after that big meal

j) Tea or Coffee

It is the end of the dinner, and if you’ve been keeping track of the glasses we’ve had so far cocktail glass, wine glass, champagne glass, digestif glasses and now finally tea and coffee cups. The guests likely can’t stay overnight (plan for a designated driver), so time for a bit of caffeine.

☞ READ MORE: How to order coffee in France (without feeling dumb)

k) Regional French food

There are variations of course, depending on what region of France you are from. In Corsica, they will bring out some charcuterie, while in Lorraine, they might bring out a quiche lorraine.

We might live in Paris, but our family is from Provence in the South of France, so they have beef, rather than a turkey. In Provençale cuisine, we also have an additional tradition of 13 desserts (!). 

Thirteen different desserts, like calissons d’aix-en-provence and nougats de montélimar will be displayed next to the dining table for guests to help themselves as they please.  (It’s a good thing I don’t have a sweet tooth.)

☞ READ MORE: ABC of French Cuisine (the Food Dictionary)

French Dining Etiquette

One of the quirks of French table manners is that you must finish your plate. Otherwise, the host will be offended. So as a guest, planning is key. Take a bit of everything, but not too much. This too is not so easy to maneuver, because you’re never quite sure how many dishes will be coming!

While this seems very complex and extravagant, but it is actually meant to encourage a long relaxing meal, allowing for conviviality and good digestion.  French people love to discuss and debate all sorts of topics, and a proper Christmas dinner among family and friends should take a good 4-5 hours.

And have I mentioned the vin chaud? This too should make an appearance somewhere during the Christmas meal. Thankfully, there is no eggnog in France! (There is a non-alcoholic version of vin chaud however, so there is that.)

So sit back, relax and enjoy a long leisurely Christmas dinner with your dear ones.  And while you are relaxing, do be sure to check out some of my favorite French Christmas songs and traditions.

From my family to yours, Joyeux Noël! (I hope you brought a stretchy pair of pants!)

☞ READ MORE: France in Winter: Visiting when it is cold (Brr)

Shop Favorites:

24-piece Plate set for 6 – by Villeroy & Boch

12-piece red and white wine glass set for 6 – by Libbey

38-piece cutlery set for 6 – by Belleek

8-piece serving dishes – by Godinger Silver Art Co.

Champagne flutes for 6 – by House of Hampton

23-piece tea set for 6 – by August Grove


If you enjoyed that article and are looking to learn a few French words related to Christmas, don’t forget to download my free printable Christmas flashcards here.

Joyeux Noël and à bientôt!

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Your guide to a traditional French Christmas Dinner

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