What French people eat: a Typical French Dinner

Everything you want to know about French meals but didn't want to ask. The main courses in a typical French dinner, a history of French dining, and much more.
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France is renowned for its gastronomy. But nearly as important, is how French people eat a typical meal. Having lived in France for the past 10 years, I will note that a traditional French dinner, even if it is at the end of a busy day, will usually pull out all the stops.

And if you are hosting a dinner party in France, holds on to your party hats (and wear comfortable shoes)!

Imagine the scene: Marie-Antoinette in the beautiful Palais of Versailles. (Pre- Head being chopped off of course). She is inviting you into a beautifully lit room, chandeliers glittering, the best cristallerie out on display for you, an elaborate dining table set up, and a large bountiful spread of dishes laid out before you. It was designed to impress, and impress it did. The spread was so impressive, the French gave this type of French dining a name: Service à la Française.

Funny enough, this is how we have dinner today in North America. An array of dishes spread out on the table, where everybody helps themselves. Marie-Antoinette didn’t invent it, but in a way, she did change the way French people dine. A typical French dinner today is a bit more complicated.

As you may remember the French Royal family was guillotined for her extravagance during the French Revolution. French nobles were fleeing the country, and an atmosphere of fear reigned.

Even after the revolution, people remained scared. Putting on such a display implied wealth, and wealth was likely to get your head chopped off. So meals in France began to be served the way we see it today, in a restaurant: Service à la Russe.

Now the Russians also suffered their own revolution 130 years later, but Service à la Russe has nothing to do with that. Named after a Russian ambassador in France in the early 1800s, in a restaurant today you expect to be served first the starter, then the main course and en suite the dessert.   

Each dish is brought out consecutively and eaten before the next plate is brought out. And let’s not forget the digestif at the end!

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

main dish illustration
Main dish

How many courses in a typical dinner?

You may be eating in a Michelin starred restaurant, or in a typical French household, but it is generally still done the same way. A traditional French meal at home with family and friends, with Service à la Russe will look something like this:

1. Entrées (starters)

The meal usually starts off with some appetizers or a light starter like escargot, or melon au porto in summer, or something heavier like French onion soup in winter. You can find more French starter ideas here.

These are usually served with apéritifs like a kir or pastis. The wine comes later. Even Sunday family meals will start off with an entrée (appetizer), it is not just reserved for dinner parties.

salad illustration
Salad

2. Salad or another light starter

Sometimes there is more than one starter, just depending on the size of the dish being presented and the cooking skills of the chef!

If a salad is served, it is usually just a few greens topped off with a vinigrette. Larger salads like the salad niçoise is usually considered a main meal, not a starter.

At times, depending on the host, a small salad could be served after the main dish instead of before.

main dish illustration
Plat (Main dish)

3. Plat principal (main dishes)

For the main dish, usually a combination of meat or fish will be presented, along with some vegetables and classic French pantry staples. Heavier meals like boeuf bourguignon stew or a coq au vin are served in winter.

But it could also be something lighter like a spinach quiche, savory crêpes, or charcuterie night, depending on the occasion. You can find more French main dish plat ideas here.

Since France is a wine producing country, wine is usually served with the meal. No beer, pop, or other sodas please.

cheese dish illustration
Cheese Platter

4. Fromage (Cheese)

After the main portion of the meal, comes the cheeses. Yes, it is after the meal, not as a starter. Depending on the number of people 3-5 different cheeses will be brought out in a cheese plate and served with baguette. If you are still hungry or did not care for the main meal, this is your chance to fill up.

There are rules to which cheeses to combine, how to cut the cheese and a whole lot of other cheese etiquette rules that you can read more about.

cafe gourmand illustration

5. Dessert

Dessert could be something light like a strawberry mousse, cake, or even something as simple as fruit. Now, if you are just having a small family dinner, dessert is usually skipped, if you have had cheese as well.

You can find more French desserts here.

6. Digestif 

After all that eating, it is time for a digestif. A small cognac or calvados might be served in a tumbler. You can read more about French digestifs here.

7. Coffee

And finally to top if all off, we need a bit of coffee! It is not the large cup of coffee North Americans are used to having, but rather a small espresso cup. You could potentially combine the café with the dessert, and have a café gourmand. You can read more about drinking coffee in France here.

Each dish is brought out separately and then taken back to the kitchen when finished. And if it is a larger dinner party, there will be a different bottle of wine with each course. As the French saying goes: “Repas sans vin, repas chagrin”, meaning “Dinner without wine is a sad dinner.”

(This becomes even more elaborate during big occasions such as at a dinner party or at Christmas.)

Wine bottle illustration
Wine Bottle

The Pros and Cons of the French Way

I will admit this is not always practical for the person serving the food. There is a lot of going back and forth with dishes, cutlery, and glassware. French homes used to be built with separate kitchens, but homeowners are now starting to embrace the “Cuisine Américane“, perhaps to accommodate all this going back and forth!

To translate literally, Cuisine Américane means “American kitchen”, or rather the open-concept kitchen and living room trend that is all over HGTV and Houzz these days!

While knocking down walls may not be a solution, French meal etiquette does have its benefits. For one thing, the food doesn’t get cold. And you don’t mix the flavors and the impact on the palate that the chef intends. It respects the meal and the effort that the chef has put into it. (“Bravo Maman! Bravo Papa!”)

A Dinner Party in France

The conundrum that this leads to is that, as a guest at a French dinner party, you are never quite sure how many dishes are coming and should be saving room for the next one.  

A French dinner guest may ask for a second helping while the dish is still on the table, but not after the host has taken it away. For example, if the Roast Beef has left the table, and the next dish is Green Beans, you don’t get to ask for the Roast Beef to come back after you’ve finished your beans!

And picky eaters beware, it is also quite rude to ask for changes and substitutes to your meal, unless it is for something serious like allergies. You are to eat what is in front of you!

Finishing the plate

Included in all this is the other quirk of French table manners:  you must finish your plate, otherwise, the host will be offended. So you can imagine the overeating that can occur if you don’t plan properly. 

Generally, the entire plate should be wiped clean with bread from the baguette before the next course is served.  On more formal dinners, plates may be changed between courses. The plate will, in any case, be changed before dessert.

In some cultures, if you consistently finish your plate, your host will worry that you didn’t get enough, and insist that you have more.  I’ve had to rescue my poor French husband on more than one occasion, where he assumed good manners dictate that he continue eating. 

On the other hand, a French host will only casually offer a second serving (or not). If the person is still hungry, but too polite to say otherwise, there’s always plenty of cheese and baguette at the end of the meal! You can read more about French dining etiquette here.

This may all seem very complex and extravagant, but it is actually meant to encourage a long relaxing meal, allowing for conviviality and good digestion. (And for our picky eaters, it is a way to ensure that everybody eats their veggies!) 

French people love to discuss and debate all sorts of topics, and a proper dinner among family and friends should take a good 2-3 hours. Bon appétit!

Shop Favorites:

24-piece Dinnerware set for 6 by Villeroy & Boch.

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If you are interested in learning the French words for each item on the menu, don’t hesitate to download our free flashcards. And if you enjoyed that article, you may want to read more French food facts and find out what’s for dinner at Christmas. Oysters anyone?

A bientôt!

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Key list of Traditional French Menu items
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What French people eat: a Typical French Dinner

This Post Has One Comment

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