9 Rules for Eating and Drinking Like the French

Don't even think about eating lunch at your desk.

French cafe
Photo: F.J. Jimenez / Getty Images

After spending the better part of the last decade between New York and Paris, I finally took the plunge and applied for a French visa in 2019. It's been just over three years that I've officially lived part-time in France, and I've learned a thing or two about a country's food and beverage traditions.

Some may credit a certain je ne sais quoi to the celebrated French art of eating and drinking. Like many expats, I can confirm that there are a number of concrete guidelines—think of them like unofficial rules to eating and drinking like the French. The following is a practical list of French customs that will bring you a little joie de vivre, wherever you are.

1. Always end on a high note

Upon finishing a meal, the French tend to end on a high note—that is, with a dessert, digestif, and/or simple coffee. For lighter lunches, a small cookie or piece of chocolate with an espresso will do the trick, though for dinner, we recommend indulging a bit heavier on the dessert. And why not a splash of something strong, while you're at it?

2. Cheese comes after dinner, not before

Although it's common to order cheese boards while snacking, during meal time, cheese always comes after the main course, not before. In the States, we tend to nosh on dairy before the big meal, though the French prefer to indulge in a simple serving after the main course is served, with dessert to follow.

3. Lunch breaks are non-negotiable

We're not talking a 10, 20, or even 30 minute lunch break, and don't even think about taking one at your desk. Don't be surprised to see bistros, restaurants, and cafés completely packed with in-person diners during weekday afternoon hours. The French have long viewed mealtimes as sacred. No matter what the day holds, there's always a moment to pause for a meal.

4. Embrace full-fat everything

Forget skim milk and fat-free cheese. Although these items probably do exist in French supermarkets, they're hard to come by. Rather than limiting and restricting, the French welcome indulging in life's simple pleasures: meats, cheeses, and all of the sweets—in moderation, of course.

5. Savor coffee all day long

The French love their coffee, especially after a large meal. Rather than indulging in milky lattés and cappuccinos, enjoy short pulls of espresso (referred to in France simply as café) all day long. For a longer pull of espresso—or something more similar to an American-style coffee—order a café allongé. (Another hint: An espresso with a dollop of foamed milk is one of France's greatest treasures. These are known as noisettes, which translates to hazelnuts, because of the drink's colors.)

6. Dine at your leisure

Eating like the French requires a first, crucial step: slow down. The French live by the notion that food, family, and friends are all meant to be savored, and mealtimes are what bring all three of these things together. This is a large reason why you'll have to ask for your check in France, rather than the server dropping it off upon seeing cleared plates. Take your time, then politely ask for the check when ready to leave.

7. Never arrive empty handed

Dinner parties and at-home apéritifs, referred to colloquially as apéro, are staples in French culture, and rule number one is never to arrive empty handed. When in doubt, grab a bottle of wine and a small snack—think a bag of mixed nuts, hummus and crackers, or salty olives—and you're good to go. Should you have the time to prepare something homemade, even better (though this is certainly never expected).

8. Make sure to cheers properly

Clinking glasses before taking a first sip is customary around the world, though the French follow a few extra rules. Not only is it mandatory to cheers with everyone at the table, it's also imperative to make direct eye contact with the person you're currently raising a glass with, and to never cross arms with another person cheersing simultaneously.

9. Adopt the art of the goûter

While apéro tends to get all of the love, the French goûter is equally important. Although the tradition is generally meant for kids, many adults also partake in this simple delight. In short, when late afternoon hunger strikes, children generally receive a juice and something sweet to nibble on. For adults, the goûter can consist of a coffee and small cookie, pastry, or on warmer days, even a scoop of ice cream. For extra thirsty adults, I recommend the yet-to-take-off (though just wait and see) goûtero, coined by one of my forward-thinking expat friends. Simply start with a coffee, let the snacks roll, and seamlessly allow the caffeine to be replaced with wine as the 5 p.m. mark rolls around.

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