I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “It’s about the journey, not the destination”. I was recently asked to give a sort of “practical guide” on the logistics of the so-called four-course meal as most French families eat it. And that expression encapsulates what the French four-course meal is all about. I wanted to really delve into the subject, as I am really excited that more and more people are interested in it. Forgive me, as this is a bear of a post with few pictures, but I hope you will enjoy the “journey” as it were, and will find some of it useful and practical for your family. My aim is to share my experience, and start a conversation… So I very much look forward to your feedback, comments and ideas on this.
It appears more and more people in the United States are trying to adopt the French style of eating, given recent studies showing very low rate of child obesity in France compared to most other developed countries. Two very insightful books have triggered or increased this new found interest for the French take on food and kids’ food education: Bringing up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman, which touches on food but also talks more generally about the French take on child rearing. And French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon, an insightful and extensive analysis of the way the
French approach food and food education for their children (the “éducation du goût”, as the French call it, the “education of taste”, the very topic of this blog). Both books were very enlightening for me. As they both rightfully point out, the French aren’t very self-aware about their own practices. I was very much raised in the French tradition of the four-course family meal and have been eating this way since childhood without giving it much thought. Yet the way my mom instilled in me the love and appreciation of good food, the pleasure of cooking and savoring, the love of variety, is one of the things I cherish most about my childhood. Meals were always meaningful bonding times in our household. Dinner parties were festive occasions to connect with friends and share the pleasurable experience that is eating.
Now that I have my own child, instilling that same “foodie spirit” has been a priority for me, and at a very young age. Exposing my son to as many foods (variety, textures, flavors) as possible before age 2 is one crucial component. The other crucial component is the family meal. Even though being a freelancer isn’t always easy, I am very fortunate to be able to work from home, and thus have, most of the time, three sit-down meals with my son every day, with the help of my wonderful mom who looks after Pablo when I work. And especially now that Pablo and we eat the same things, we thus eat as well as Pablo, and are on the same 3 meals plus one afternoon snack a day schedule. I really have seen the benefits of it myself as an adult. I don’t feel hungry throughout the day, very rarely snack, and eat a whole lot more vegetables than I did when I was a young childless adult with
“looser” eating habits.
So what do our French four course meals consist of? 1/ a
vegetable starter, 2/ a main course usually with protein and starch, 3/ simple lettuce salad and cheese, 4/ dessert. I tried to break it down in a practical way here.
1. SOME PRECONDITIONS
The four-course meal really only works if there isn’t too much snacking during the day. If the kids just snacked an hour before dinnertime or throughout the day, they may not be hungry to eat a full dinner, nor motivated to try new things. The four-course meal “paradigm” only works provided you come to the table hungry. The French don’t get panicky at the thought of their children being hungry. They have an expression that calls hunger a “bonne maladie” (a good illness). There’s nothing wrong with being a bit hungry and have the patience to wait for dinner time. So if you’re trying to establish the French style meal in your household, limiting snacks definitely is a necessary shift to be made as well.
The other precondition for the four-course meal to not turn into a giant hassle, is that everyone eats what is served and on the table. There’s no cooking special dishes for different family members. Everyone has to taste. Of all the things being served, even a picky eater will like at least one thing (if you’re trying to get a child to try new things, I would try one new thing per meal, served with other known things the child enjoys).
It is also important that everyone eat each course together. If someone is finished with the starter before the others, he can wait a few minutes, tell a story, talk about the flavor, smell, texture of the foods, for example.
(Karen Le Billon describes in detail the French “food rules” in her book and blog, I highly recommend both as great sources of information and tips on the topic.)
2. THE LOGIC BEHIND THE FOUR COURSE MEAL
I have found that the main concern of most American moms I met was to get their kids to eat more vegetables. It seems to be taken for granted in the US that kids will innately dislike vegetables. Even my pediatrician was somewhat surprised that Pablo ate vegetables of all colors easily and thus didn’t need to take a vitamin supplement. The big advantage of eating this way, is that you get to eat the vegetables first, when you are most hungry.
So after you fill up somewhat on vegetables, you’re more likely to have a smaller or more reasonable portion of the main course. When you get to the cheese, you’re almost done with dinner, and that small portion of dairy fat helps give you the satiety feeling to hold you over until the next meal.
The simple taste of sweet at the end of the meal seems to be
just a reminder that eating is, and should be, a pleasure.
A very important benefit of the four-course meal is that it makes you pace yourself, and eating slowly (and chewing sufficiently) is key to portion control. A French doctor was telling me that when you eat slowly and really chew your food, your stomach shrinks and you need less food to feel full (more scientific information on this here). Plus it takes about 20 minutes for the brain to register that your stomach is full, so this way, you can really listen to your body’s cues in terms of the quantity of food you eat. This is why French families end up eating less food in more time than other cultures, as you have to wait a little from one dish to the next. And by the time you get to dessert, you just have room for a taste of sweet, not two huge servings of cake.
The other benefit of the four-course meal is to instill the art of anticipation. So much more positive than “patience”, isn’t it? You’re not “hungry”, you’re “in appetite”. You enjoy the actual process of the meal, rather than try to get it over with as soon as possible. I find that these are important lessons I want to teach my son, not just about food, but about life in general. Learn to enjoy anticipation. Take the time to be aware of your body and what it feels, learn delayed gratification.
3. THE NITTY GRITTY OF THE FAMILY FOUR COURSE MEAL
Here are the specifics of the four-course meal in our household.
The Vegetable Starter
Option #1 – Cooked vegetables eaten cold with vinaigrette
This is very convenient, as you can cook or steam vegetables ahead of time, and stick them in the fridge for the next 2-3 days. A couple of times a week, we cook (boil or steam) two or three vegetables, like green beans, potatoes, a whole cauliflower, leeks, artichokes, zucchini, asparagus (green or white). We put them in containers in the fridge for easy starters. We make a large batch of vinaigrette to last a few days (olive oil, red wine vinegar or lemon, salt, pepper, a dash of mustard). On busy nights, we just look in the fridge, and mix and match. Sometimes we will have only leeks with vinaigrette, other times, make a salad mixing a few different veggies. I always try to add some fresh herbs, whatever we have on hand (I’ve really appreciated growing my own for this purpose).
Option #2 – Raw vegetables with vinaigrette
This is what the French call “crudités“. One of our favorites is the tomato / cucumber salad (we might add feta or fresh mozzarella to it, or go for the authentic Greek salad with added bell peppers). Grated carrots are another favorite. Others: hearts of palm, beets, radishes (which we eat with just a bit of salt and butter, whole. Very much a fun finger food beloved by French children). This is another easy starter you can throw together in all of 10 minutes (grating carrots might take a bit longer, but we make a big batch and eat it over the course of a couple of days.)
Option # 3 – Vegetable soups, hot or cold
Soup is great. It’s healthy, it’s convenient, it’s comforting. Once a week, we spend a little extra time to put together a vegetable soup (either following a recipe, or a French friend told me he just throws in whatever vegetables he’s got on hand, with onion, herbs, let simmer, mix and there you go…)
We made a lot of variations of gazpachos this summer, always making a batch that would last a couple of days. For hot soups, just reheat, add a touch of cream or yogurt in it, and serve (the French mostly blend their soups). As Karen Le Billon describes in her book, this is a great strategy to get kids to taste new vegetables they might be resistant to try otherwise (a single vegetable soup or puree blended with some potato is perfect for that purpose.)
Some of our favorites are watercress soup, sunchoke velouté, cream of celeriac or broccoli, carrot ginger soup… I am looking forward to experimenting more with hot soups this winter.
Option #4 – Make it fun!
One thing my mom did when I was a child, which added to the fun of the starter, was to put a couple of options on the table, so I felt like I could choose and sample, like a mini “buffet”. So we can have a cucumber
salad in yogurt tarragon sauce, as well as a small bowl of radishes. Sometimes, we splurge with a few slices of saucisson (dry salami). For Pablo, since he’s about 8 months and eating finger foods, we put 2 or 3 veggies on his plate, say leeks, tomatoes, and hearts of palm. We’ve watched him really enjoy choosing and discerning the flavors. Sometimes, he’ll gobble up the tomatoes first, and sometimes, it’s the leeks.
In the same spirit, a couple of friends in France told me one of their strategies was to do “veggie buffet night”. They put a bunch of vegetables in little bowls with toothpicks, with some healthy dips. It’s fun, a change of pace, and very festive. Dipping makes everything taste better, doesn’t it? A great way to get kids excited about eating vegetables.
The Main Course
Ours is usually composed of protein (meat, fish, tofu, legumes…) and a starch/grain or other vegetable. At night, we may choose a hearty soup (say with lentils, or beans) with bread as the main dish, preceded by a salad.
Option #1 – The kind that cooks quickly.
We pan-fry a lot of things, whether it is sole fillets, leg of lamb steaks, beef patties, which only take a few minutes to cook. We usually serve that with boiled potatoes (white, blue or sweet), rice, quinoa or vegetable pasta as starch. We cook the starch 20 Min before dinner, and then just keep it warm, then we prep the meat or fish to be cooked in the pan just before sitting down to eat the starter. We savor the starter, then take a little break to go cook the meat or fish, and serve it with the starch.
Option #2 – The kind that takes a bit longer, like a roasted chicken, a casserole, a gratin, a roast, a stew.
We prepare it about 1 hour before sitting down for dinner (most often, I do easy recipes taking about 15-20 Min to prep, and then 1 hr to simmer or so (such as the chicken Basquaise, roasted duck, Cornish game hens…) Dishes cooked in the crock pot are a great option as well. In that case, as we sit down with the starter, we may put the hot dish on the table to cool off a bit while we enjoy the starter, and then serve.
Salad & Cheese, the optional third course
The French usually enjoy a plain salad after the main course to help digestion. It’s not a mixed salad with lots of things in it, it is a plain lettuce salad with vinaigrette (I like to add a shallot and some fresh herbs to it). The lettuce can vary from butter lettuce, to delicious lamb’s lettuce (“mâche”, if you have a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s near you, they sell it), endive, or any other kind of lettuce. We prepare this before the meal, and set it on the table (with the vinaigrette at the bottom, tossing it just before serving) so it’s ready to go. I know it feels strange to have salad after the meal, but you should try it some time, it really helps digestion and is a great palate cleanser.
A small piece of cheese can be served with it or right after it. The fat in the cheese helps trigger the satiety feeling in the brain. Of course, I never knew that growing up, I just knew I really enjoyed concluding my meal with a piece of cheese! (Pablo seems to prefer that to dessert as well).
On busy week nights, I rarely “cook” or make a dessert, that is mostly for special occasions. Dessert is most often a yogurt (can be cow, sheep or goat’s milk, regular or Greek Yogurt, often plain with just a sprinkle of sugar, or with fruit), or a piece of fruit. Simplicity is key.
For sample meal ideas, check out some of Pablo’s menus.
4. FOUR COURSE MEAL PRACTICE RUN!
So let me walk you through it. Let’s say tonight’s main course is one of my mother’s specialty, chicken Basquaise. We eat around 7pm.
- At 6pm, whoever is cooking starts the Basque chicken. Prep time is about 15 minutes. Cooking time about 50mn to 1 hr. By 6:20pm, the chicken is under way in the Dutch oven… and we can deal with bath time, picking up toys, etc.
- At 6:45pm, we start getting dinner ready. I open the fridge to see what vegetables we have. We cooked a cauliflower and some green beans yesterday. I toss together some cauliflower, green beans and cherry tomatoes, drizzle some vinaigrette. I grab some marinated olives too.
- I take a whiff of the chicken, because after all, life’s all about smelling the roses dinner. A great way to be “mis en appétit” (literally, “put in
appetite”). Anticipation is key to enjoyment. As Pablo walks (toddles rather)
into the kitchen, we show him and have him smell the aromas. Dinner is going to be fun.
- I grab a bag of mâche (lamb’s lettuce), give it a quick wash. I pour some vinaigrette in the bottom of a bowl, throw the lettuce in, add salad servers and put it on the dining room table. (If I have an extra 5 minutes, I cut up a shallot and add some parsley, or chives, or basil, or all three.)
- Now I set the table: I put everything we’re going to need, so I have to get up as little as possible during the meal. Besides the obvious plates and silverware and napkins (I often put a small plate for the appetizer and a larger plate for the main course, but that’s extra dishes and not an obligation), a jug of water (we only drink water at dinner, no juices or sodas), whatever serving spoons we may need, salt and pepper, butter, bread (only eaten as accompaniment to soak up some vinaigrette or with cheese, and in reasonable quantity, definitely not as an appetizer!) We keep a few different kinds of cheese in a Tupperware, I put it on the table too (on an inspired night, I might present them nicely on a plate or platter). The cauliflower green beans salad I’ve just prepared, and the olives (as the fun sidekick starter!)
- It’s 7pm, time for dinner. The chicken is done, we set the hot Dutch oven on a table mat on the table. And we sit down.
- We enjoy our cold vegetable salad, Pablo loves asking for more olives. Then we put the smaller plates aside, and serve the chicken Basquaise. Everyone soaks up the juices in their plate with a bit of bread.
- We toss the salad, and whoever wants some can have some. I always try to give a few leaves to Pablo, he seems to really enjoy the tangy vinaigrette and chews on the leaves forever. That is, until the cheese is offered… for Frenchie Pablo does love his cheese! Everyone picks which cheese they want to try tonight.
- Then, (and technically, that is the first time of the meal I have to get up from the table), everyone chooses what they want for dessert (if they
want one.) I bring a couple pieces of fruit, and some plain yogurt sprinkled with a bit of sugar. No choice is give on the
main course, so it’s nice to have that little flexibility for dessert.
- Dinner usually takes about 45 minutes.
Meal summary: about 10 different kinds of vegetables, some dairy, some protein, some starch/grain (bread in this case). And a happy family with full tummies!
The important is to look at it as a moment of connection, relaxation, enjoyment, conversation and laughs.
5. GETTING ORGANIZED
See? The four-course meal is much simpler that it seems! Just a matter of being a bit organized. Here are some of the things we do to help us stay organized:
- – Make a meal plan for the week (I usually post it on Sunday nights on the blog). It helps get a good variety of foods and vegetables throughout the week, to try new recipes, to make shopping easier, to balance out nights with quicker/easier dinners, and nights with a bit more cooking
depending on the time I have. Last minute meal planning often leads to quick options like pasta or processed foods, which is fine once in a while in a pinch, but not what I want on an everyday basis. (Even on a crazed night where dinner has to be improvised in 5 minutes, a first course could be cherry tomatoes and hearts of palm, and the main course, canned sardines, a slice of ham or warmed up tofu with vegetable noodles.)
- – I am a big fan of farmer’s markets. I try to go on the weekend and pick up whatever is local, organic and seasonal. It helps me compose the meal plan. Otherwise, we try to shop 2 or 3 times a week, so we cook the foods as fresh as possible.
- – Twice or three times a week, whenever we have time, we cook two or three vegetables to eat cold during the week.
- – Sunday night (or once a week) if possible, we make something that takes a bit longer (a hot soup or gazpacho, grated carrots), to cover a couple meals in the week.
So… there you have it. The French four course meal, in a nutshell! Are you tempted to give it a try, or still skeptical? Share your thoughts in the comments!