What Do French People Eat?

Laurie Jo Miller Farr
French Breakfast

The easy answer to the question "What do French people eat?," is that they eat just about everything. In France, like in most developed countries, there are meat lovers and vegetarians, and there are people who prefer salty and others who prefer sweet. However, aspects surrounding food in France set the country apart from other countries.

History of Food in France

Food is a very important part of life in France, which makes it also a very important part of French culture. While the British are known for afternoon tea and Americans are known for their bottomless buffets, the French embrace long, lingering meals that feature several courses. This food culture is integral to the dynamics of daily life in France.

A fast-paced, 21st century lifestyle has brought changes to France. For example, giant supermarkets that resemble major American chains have found their way to France in the last 20 years. While France was once the epitome of multiple-stop shopping (bread at the boulangerie, meat at the boucherie, cheese at the fromagerie, and vegetables from the outdoor market), more and more French shoppers are planning their meals by visiting the superstore hypermarchés every week.

Despite this trend, it is still very common for French people to buy the most important items (breads and pastries) from independent shops. While everyday meat is typically purchased at the supermarket, many families still visit the butcher to reserve a choice cut for special occasions. Likewise, many French citizens walk to the baker each morning to get a freshly baked baguette or round pain de campagne for the breakfast table.

What Do French People Eat

While meals in France tend to be long, breakfast can be a rather quick affair. While dinner and lunch may seem like long meals with an overabundance of food, breakfast may seem particularly limited by American standards.

French Breakfast

The French may reach for the coffee pot before the breakfast plate. While the default type of coffee in France is strong espresso (if you ask for un café in a restaurant, you will get an espresso), it is common to ask for a café au lait at breakfast. This coffee is served in a large, rounded bowl or mug, and has a lot of warm milk added to it. Less popular options are tea or hot chocolate. Some typical French breakfast alternatives to accompany that first cup of coffee are:

  • Baguette with butter
    Baguette with butter
    A piece of baguette with butter or jam is usually enough for a French breakfast.
  • Tartines, which is toast with jam, is loved for its simplicity and the sweet flavor that goes well with coffee.
  • Flaky, warm croissants are a popular breakfast item traditionally reserved for weekends, although less so these days. When in France, don't even think of eating one without having it warmed.
  • Pain au chocolat is a delicious, luxury morning pastry. On weekends, the rectangular chocolate-filled variant on a croissant are always a treat for the children.
  • Sometimes, the bread/toast/croissants are accompanied by a bit of fresh fruit or plain yogurt.

French Lunch

You will find the most varied answers to what French people eat around the options available at lunchtime in France. Some French people abandon work for two hours to have a big meal served with wine. In urban centers, office workers may just grab a sandwich from a street vendor or from the takeaway display cases in a café.

Restaurant lunch: With this option, anything goes. A three- or four-course meal can consist of appetizer (salad, soup, or pâté), a meat or fish accompanied with a type of potato and a warm vegetable, followed by dessert and occasionally a cheese platter. This lunch is frequently served with wine. Of course, there are also restaurants serving lighter lunches with popular menu items.

  • Oysters on the half shell on ice are displayed in full view of passers-by. Products of the waters along the extensive coastline, the grade of oysters is important. Spéciale de Claire is a better quality than Fine de Claire, and Spéciale Pousse en Claire is the best of all.
  • Salad Niçoise
    Salade Niçoise
    Salade Niçoise appears on many café menus. Named for the famous city on the French Riviera, tuna and hard boiled eggs are the proteins in this dish that also features boiled potatoes, tomatoes, Niçoise olives, capers, green beans, and sometimes, anchovies.
  • Soupe à l'Oignon Gratinée is never better than in France where it's a meal in itself. Fragrant and prepared to perfection with caramelized onions and a crusty lid of grilled gruyère (Swiss) cheese, French onion soup is a true classic.
  • Charcuterie is a selection of handmade sausages, air cured beef, dried ham, and pâté. Expect stone-ground Dijon mustard, cornichons and small pickled onions to accompany, along with baguette and cheese. Add a bottle of red wine... et voilà, you have a French picnic to share on a park bench.
  • Specialty crêpes restaurants and street vendors offer both the savoury and sweet varieties as a main meal or as a dessert.
  • Croque Monsieur is a not-too-distant relative of the American grilled cheese sandwich. It's an open face sandwich of baked ham and cheese crowned with a velvety béchamel sauce. Its variation is Croque Madame, which adds a fried egg on top.
  • Don't forget the French fries!

Lunch at home: Some French people still go home at lunchtime, and many of these people eat a warm meal, usually not as fancy as the multi-course restaurant meal. This practice is more common in the countryside, especially in outdoor jobs, where an escape from the midday sun offers a much needed break.

Street lunch: As work schedules get tighter and commutes get longer, particularly in urban centers, many more French people buy sandwiches on the street or in the train station at lunchtime. Popular sandwiches are on baguettes, with the most traditional choices being cheese or ham and cheese. You may also be able to find boiled eggs, tuna, and salami.

French Dinner

Dinners in France vary depending on the day of the week, season of the year, and how big of a meal lunch was. Couples who go home for a decadent lunch often have a simpler dinner whereas those who eat a sandwich at lunchtime might eat a larger dinner.

Because France is large enough to encompass a few very different climates and topographies, the main meal differs from north to south and from the Mediterranean to the Alps. For Sunday supper with extended family and on special occasions, dinners become longer, feature more courses (especially the cheese platter), and the dinner table is set out with quality linens, cutlery, serviettes, and plates. Someone announces "à table" when dinner is ready and everyone heads for their seats.

If you're not a fan of steak or fish, try it in France, and you might well change your mind. Tempting, expertly made sauces are never far from reach.

  • For the famous bistro dish steak au frites, a lean entrecôte (ribeye) is grilled or pan fried, seared for a couple of minutes on each side and immediately served with a generous dollop of Roquefort or béarnaise flavored butter to melt on top of the meat. A mountain of crisp potato fries is obligatory, plus a simple green salad.
  • Fresh fish from the day's market, lightly grilled and served with potatoes and salad is another popular option.
  • Steamed Normandy mussels can be served with shallots and thyme in a white wine sauce for dipping slices of toasted baguette.
  • Bouillabaisse
    Bouillabaisse
    Bouillabaisse, originating in Marseilles on the Mediterranean Sea, is the classic French fish soup, a meal in itself.
  • Blanquette de veau, a creamy veal stew of white meat and white sauce, is the ultimate home-cooked meal and one of the most widely found dishes in France. It may be varied using lamb.
  • Slowly simmered chicken, Burgundy wine, mushrooms, onions, and bacon lardons are combined for heavenly coq au vin, an age-old French staple.
  • Boeuf Bourguignon, a sister dish to coq au vin, also hails from Burgundy and basically uses the same method with chunks of beef instead of chicken.
  • Cassoulet is a hearty one-pot meal originating in the southwest of France. The rich, slow-simmered casserole is a recipe built around meat (pork sausages, pork, goose, or duck) and white beans.

Enjoy Delicious French Cuisine

While there is no specific daily French diet, there are plenty of foods that are typical in French houses and restaurants. Coffee and wine are closely linked to the food culture as well. Visitors to France will appreciate the fine food as well as the simple, fresh ingredients.

What Do French People Eat?