For the last year I have been actively working to reinvent myself—-or, rather, to re-CLAIM my real self. Like many mothers, I love being a Mom, but along the way I lost my authentic self.My kids are now 20 and 21. It is time for me to find the “real me” again. One way I am doing this is by seeking a healthier body and a better body image. These play into identifying my personal style from my mid-50s and after. This is a process–there is no magic formula, no silver bullet. Many weeks it is two steps forward, and three back.
Today I’m sharing some of what I’ve learned about how French women (I suspect mostly the women of Paris and other fashionable neighborhoods, but I’m ok with that) eat all that great food but remain slim and fashionable. In another post I’ll give a fashion update, but today it’s about eating, not dieting.
Above are some of the books I’ve consulted this year. I must admit here that I was a sloppy librarian for once! I took notes from one book, but forgot to note the title! I am eating my own words to my college students–write the citation down first (or copy/paste it if online). Oh well….
A little background.
At the end of my 30s I lost a good deal of weight and kept it off for several years. At that time I attended and then led several sessions of a Bible-study and weight loss program popular in the 90s. It fell out of favor when the author decided to not agree with the Holy Trinity. Never mind theology, many of the principles are the same as with French eating. The gist is: Eat when hungry, stop when you’ve had just enough. The Bible study part was mostly to keep you mind on something other than food. It worked.
Americans have lost all reason on food. We eat utter garbage. We drive-thru. We’ve quit eating at tables and slump on the couch or before a computer. We don’t plan. We buy in bulk and not in season. We eat everywhere. We rarely are without something to drink. If we are middle class we eat out almost constantly and overeat each time.We take healthy stuff like popcorn and make it fattening. I’m guilty of some of these. I’m not much for fast food or chain restaurants so I’ve saved myself that. I do make healthy food choices, but got away from common sense portions. And, I love sweets.
Like many I endure depression. I’ve never, ever had it take away my appetite. Over the years I have learned to, occasionally, stop myself (or at least limit to a smaller amount) from emotional eating–eating to sooth. This year, cold turkey, I ended my addiction to McDonald’s Chocolate Chip Frappes–the only seriously “bad” eating habit I had. I was up to buying a medium sized one almost every work day. I could feel my pulse race as I got closer to the restaurant, felt it ease in the drive-thru and nearly had an anxiety attack on those days when the machine was down. Let’s look at this: Classic symptoms of addiction and the substance comes out of a machine and not a garden or an animal. Yet it is sold as a “desert.” Hmmmm…. Sugar, you see, is as addictive as CRACK. Yes, THAT crack. To make it worse, like my maternal grandmother, I like my “little bit of sweet” after dinner. Both of these had to be conquered.
“At least half our bad eating and drinking habits are careless; they grow out of inattention to our true needs and delights. We don’t notice what we are consuming–we are not really enjoying our indulgence, and therefore we think nothing of them and overdo it…. Perhaps you have given up caring about fashion. Or trying other new things? It may be easy for a wife, mother, full-time worker to neglect pleasure; perhaps a part of you even thinks its selfish. But you must understand that there is nothing noble in failing to discover and cultivate your pleasures.” ( French Women Don’t Get Fat, p. 29).
French Eating Rules.
Eat only when fully hungry. Wait for your stomach to growl. I knew this from the Bible Study, but just like at the beginning of that time, I had to wait over 24 hours for my stomach to be fully empty and growl. If you are seriously overweight it may be 48 or more hours. Yes, I kept drinking water. No this was not some faddish detox. No, you won’t faint. No you won’t see stars. Yes you will get anxious. Yes you will get grouchy. Just hang on until that growl.
Nothing between meals except unsweet tea or water. Americans think of fruit juice as “fruit” and not “sugar water.” It’s “healthy.” We drown our children in it and milk. What both do is make the stomach feel full. We are never truly hungry. Same with snacks. The French don’t do any of this. They don’t eat between meals.
Meals are a daily ritual to be observed seriously. Being an American and lazy in the morning I do still grab McDonald’s a few times a week, but I’ve switched to the much healthier breakfast burrito which features only real food and has a sensible calorie count. I never get hashbrowns. I skip the orange juice, too. Also I’m a typical American worker–I usually eat at my desk because lunch time is when my students are able to call me for help. I do still like to get lunch out on payday, but it is now usually a small salad. (Warning: Many fast-food salads have as much fat and as many calories as combo meals). Wendy’s and Chick fil et have sensible salads in a small size. Dinner–if I’m not hungry, I just don’t eat. Simple. But as I go along I’ve gotten my eating to sensible enough portions that I’m now usually hungry for a lite dinner. A salad with some protein if I’m alone. Or a sensible portion if I cook for my son.
Preparing Food is Part of The Ritual. I couldn’t agree more! If I buy dinner out, I always end up hungry much, much faster than if I cooked at home. A great deal of pleasure goes into the making of a meal when you cook real food. You don’t have to be a professional chef to make an acceptable, healthy meal. I love to cook. My Mom taught me to plan and my income all of my adult life has made cooking at home absolutely necessary. I cringe when I hear what my kids spend to eat out. I tut-tut when they come home feeling sick from yucky food. Prepare the meal together. It takes practice. So does planning meals. Just try. Add a night a week till you get it. Set the table. Use real forks and plates. Drink out of real glasses. Use placemats or a table cloth. Turn off the t.v. Put away the phones. It’ll be awkward at first. Pay attention to the taste, texture, aroma and feel of the food. You’ll be feeling full much sooner and you won’t feel sick or bloated afterward. You also won’t be able to beat yourself up for eating too much.
No seconds. The French eat much more slowly and more mindfully than we do. They also eat in courses. But most important of all, they stop just at the point of merely satisfied–not stuffed. They don’t worry about wasting food, either. Gluttony is the sin–not waste to the French. When I cook for my son I immediately take the usual 4th serving (most American recipes serve 4 or 8) out and put it in a container for lunch. Remember, if you get fully hungry later, the food is there–just heat it up and enjoy it.
Only Fresh, In-Season and Natural Ingredients. Most of what is sold in Wal-Mart’s so-called “grocery” section (or most Supermarkets in general) would not be consumed in France. Happily, I was not raised eating convenience food and, due to my budget, I’ve never acquired a taste from it. Sure, I’ve bought things from time-to-time. I occasionally buy Potstickers or Egg Rolls or Pierogis. “Convenience food” to me is pre-washed salad! I’ve always skipped the inner aisles of the supermarket aside from staples and canned tomato sauce or a few canned veggies.
Eat Real Bread, Real Cheese, Real Butter. American bread is insanely awful. Even most of the so-called “whole grain” bread is dreadful. Few substances on Earth are as bad as American white bread topped with a cooking-oil “spread” that folks insist on calling “margarine” though it is something even worse. Today Almond Milk (contains sugar) and Rice or Soy milks are fashionable. The greatest culinary crime of all though is fake cheese–cooking oil based processed cheese. Those plastic wrapped “singles” that bear no resemblance to real cheese. Just use the real stuff.
Portions, Portions, Portions. The French “get” portions. A serving of meat is about the size of a deck of cards. Yes, honestly. A half chicken breast the size of your plate is not only from a chicken bread to grow to an unnatural shape and size, but it is at least two servings! A glass of wine–served in the appropriate wine glass, of course–is a good thing. An entire bottle is not. A single pat of butter is fine–a stick is not. A few bites of a decadent desert it something to savor–not pig out on.
Toss the Salad: The French taught Panerra how to do salad. Americans eat “green” salad rather than “tossed” salad. We pile a salad high with fatty cheese, bacon and croutons, then dump on an enormous quantity of fatty, chemical laden dressing. Again, portions! A teaspoon of each of the goodies–not 1/2 cup! And two tablespoons of real salad dressing–good olive oil (or similar), a nice vinegar, a few herbs, a dab of mustard, salt * pepper. No guar gum or high fructose corn syrup needed. Assemble it all in a large bowl, pour on the dressing and gently toss to coat with the dressing. Then serve it. By the way, the French eat this after the main course and before the cheese course.
Try New Things: “Gastronomic boredom leads to lots of unhealthy eating.” (French Women Don’t Get Fat, p. 34). Yep, it’s Tuesday so here come the tacos…yawn, nom, nom, nom, nom. Vary your diet–and not just between Taco Bell and Subway. Even a simple cooking magazine like Taste of Home can get you started on new foods. Or save the money and look at Pinterest. Pick one new food and find a recipe.
Rate Your Foods: Eat the most of your favorite in each meal. Don’t skip the others, just get the most enjoyment within the sensible portion.
Beans Are Not For Poor Folks. Beans are healthy and can be fixed in so many more ways than just simmered with a ham bone and served over corn bread. They are a super protein source and cheap, too.
Don’t Buy It: I’ve usually done very well with this one. I know I can’t leave ice cream alone or chips and dip, so I don’t buy them. Just quit buying the junk you binge on. Just quit.
Enjoy the luxuries: Chocolate is its own food group in France, as are cheese and Nutella. But a one inch square of chocolate or cheese is a serving, 2 tablespoons of Nutella is a serving and there are no seconds.
Exercise Naturally: The French get most to their exercise in the course of their daily life–not at the gym, though working out is trendy everywhere these days. This one is much harder for most Americans. We live in places that are designed to be car-dependent. For most, walking to work or school simply isn’t an option. Few of us hang our laundry or walk up stairs to an apartment. We American women don’t dress in high heels very often anymore, either. We could certainly use lessons in good posture–in itself maintaining good posture is tremendous exercise for our back and tummy muscles.
My Personal Changes:
I keep a head of ice berg lettuce on hand. I usually prefer nicer greens, but a classic wedge salad is often the perfect lite dinner. Maybe with a small amount of cheese or some beans or a little leftover meat, maybe just with dressing. It satisfies.
A healthy breakfast. When I don’t buy a burrito (or an occasional payday splurge for a bigger breakfast sandwich) I have a breakfast bowl: A serving of vanilla Greek yogurt with a serving each of: Grapenuts cereal, almonds, wheat germ and at least one type of fruit. Often this last me my whole work day if I wait and eat it at the office.
I keep excellent dark chocolate. I’m a big-time milk chocolate fan, but I don’t mind dark chocolate. I buy really, really high cocoa content dark chocolate now. It’s just enough as that “bite of sweet.”
I keep mini peppers. They have more vitamin C than orange juice and have other great nutrients. They are great plain or stuffed with goat cheese.
I keep goat cheese instead of cream cheese. Just as nice, but much healthier. But if we have a family event, the cheese cake is the real deal. I just have a smaller piece.
I walk outside more: I still try to make myself go to the gym, but when possible I go for a 1-2 mile walk outside. A fitness tracker that posts to Facebook is a great way to motivate yourself. I love Map My Walk.
I just eat. Even alone I sit at the table, no phone, no tv, no laptop, no book even. I just eat. Amazing how much nicer it is and how much less is consumed.
I do not weigh myself more than once per month. It’s about how I feel, how my clothes fit and that I make progress. A bad day is just that–ONE day. Just do the right thing at the next meal and let it go.
Treat myself: Even though I’ve lost a tiny amount of weight so far, I have lost about an inch around. I’ve bought some new clothes guilt-free even though they are the same old size still. Why? They feel fresh and invigorating! I’ve made due for so long. Don’t get me wrong–they’re still bargains, but they’re new. I don’t enjoy used clothing so I don’t buy it. The nice clothes also encourage me to stand up straight, to not try to hide, to eat at a nicely set table and to just make me feel a little more confident. I threw out some of the worst old ones too.
In a later post I’ll talk more about re-identifying my personal style. I hope this post was encouraging to you. Please read the books above or visit their author’s blogs to learn more about French eating. I’ve presented my take on it and what I’ve found helpful. These may not be the tips that “do it” for you. Leave me a comment or recommend another French eating resource.