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FOOD AND DRINK

Things you should never do when dining in France

The French love their food rules, so here's how to get through the minefield of a French dinner unscathed, according to Paris-based author cook book author and teacher of French cooking classes Susan Herrmann Loomis.

A person prepares a slice of foie gras
A person prepares a slice of foie gras (Photo by Stefano RELLANDINI / AFP)

Don’t ask for more food

Sure, the French often serve smaller portions, but asking for more would “clearly be a faux pas”, said Herrmann Loomis.

“It would be an insult to the chef or cook to ask for more. If they offer more, of course, then you’re safe.”

And if you’re still hungry just remember that there is still cheese and dessert to come. 

Don’t get your steak well done

These days French chefs may be used to the fact that some people are sensitive to the sight of the slightest trace of blood in a steak, but in France it has been known for chefs to refuse to grill an entrecôte “bien cuit” (well done). 

Either go for “à point” (medium) and get used to it like everyone else – or just order the chicken.

Don’t put your bread on the plate

While it may be tempting to put your bread on your dinner plate like you do back home, resist the urge in France, said Herrmann Loomis. 

“In France the bread goes on the table. They think it’s odd if you try to balance a piece on your plate. It’s a custom.”

Don’t put butter on the bread

“The French just don’t do it except at breakfast, and then they slather it on,” Herrmann Loomis told The Local.

“But the French don’t serve butter with meals so don’t expect any.” And don’t put any on your croissant either, it’s made of butter.

Don’t drink anything but wine or water with dinner

“Americans often drink coffee with their meals and I have seen people ask for it here,” Herrmann Loomis said. 

But this isn’t the French way to do it. Here it’s wine or water. Also on the banned list of drinks is coke (maybe for kids but it’s not typical). Beer is OK depending on the meal – it goes great with choucroute, for instance, or mussels. 

Cut into cheese correctly (or let someone else do it)

There are so many faux pas with cutting cheese that you’re bound to go wrong from the beginning. 

For a start the cheese comes after the salad, before the dessert. 

But most importantly, you have to cut it the right way. Cut the cheese in the direction it’s already been vit, never cut off the point and don’t leave the cheese board looking a warzone, she added.

Don’t cut up the lettuce

Cutting the lettuce with a knife and fork is a faux pas in France, Herrmann Loomis said. 

“If you cut the lettuce it is an insult to the cook and suggests to them it was not prepared correctly. The right thing to do is just fold the lettuce leaves and put them in your mouth.”

Don’t eat with your hands

It might sound like obvious advice, but you’d be surprised at what some people think is good dinner table etiquette. 

“Don’t take a chicken leg and pick it up,” Herrmann Loomis explained. “Use the knife and fork.”

Leave the ketchup alone

Basically no one in their right mind should ask for ketchup at a French dinner table or in a French restaurant unless you’re having French fries, but it still happens. 

Your addiction to the red sauce can cause all sorts of problems in France, especially if you want it on your omelette – but you’re just going to have to quit it. The same goes for BBQ sauce, unless you’re at an American style joint, and don’t expect any “French dressing” on your salad. Where do you think you are?

Don’t spread your foie gras

“Many French people are proud of foie gras; when it is served cooked and chilled, take a generous slice, set it on the toast that will be served with it, and enjoy. Don’t treat it like a mousse, and try to spread it,” Herrmann Loomis advised.

“This controversial delicacy and like all fine foods in France you have to treat it with the respect the locals think it deserves. And a big part of this is resisting any urge to spread it on bread before you eat it. It’s not a Brussels paté, you’ll be told.”

“And while we’re at it, don’t talk about animal cruelty when there is foie gras in the neighborhood. It’s a traditional dish; the French copied it from the Egyptians a gazillion years ago, so if you really have a problem with it, take it to Egypt.”  

Another version of this story was published in 2013. You can sign up for cooking courses with Susan Herrmann Loomis at her website here.

Member comments

  1. Well, I’m sure its all true but personally I don’t care if the “chef” is upset. He’s a cook, and should stay in the kitchen and get on with his job – cooking food for which people pay.

  2. I completely agree about cutting the cheese. How it irritates me when someone cuts a large chunk taking the point – effectively leaving the next person with the back skin!

  3. A question for all you out there :Is it acceptable to ask that magret de canard be served ‘bien chaud’? I like duck quite a bit but it is often served tepid or even near room temperature. How can I ask for the duck to be served hot? Thank you!

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SCHOOLS

Are packed lunches really banned in French schools?

School children in France are entitled to a lunchtime meal of three, or even four courses – but what if you prefer to provide meals yourself? 

Are packed lunches really banned in French schools?

French school meals are, famously, pretty good – children get a three or even four-course meal of properly prepared dishes and the menu (including cheese course) is usually published in the local town newsletter so everyone can see the types of meals being served.

The concept of a proper meal at lunchtime is an important one. “The diet of a school-age child is essential for their growth, mental development and learning abilities,” the French Education Ministry says in a preamble about school meals on its website. “It must be balanced, varied and distributed throughout the day: for example 20 percent of total energy in the morning, 40 percent at midday, 10 percent at four o’clock and 30 percent in the evening.”

And it’s not all about nutrition, the social aspect of sitting together and eating a meal is also important – the ministry continues: “Mealtime is an opportunity for students to relax and communicate. It should also be a time for discovery and enjoyment.”

All schools provide meals in a canteen and most pupils take up the opportunity – however it’s also possible for pupils to go home at lunchtime so that they can eat lunch with their parents.

The idea of taking in a packed lunch (panier-repas) is much less common in France – but is it actually banned?

The rules on lunch

At écoles (up to age 11), the local authority or établissement public de coopération intercommunale (EPCI) is responsible for providing quality school meals. This generally involves meals being provided via a central kitchen, and then delivered to the school’s kitchen, where it can be kept warm, or reheated as necessary.

The system is slightly different in collèges and lycées (attended by children aged 11 and up). In those establishments, catering falls into the purview of the wider département or region – and is routinely managed directly by individual establishments, which will have catering staff on site to prepare meals. Often, meal services are outsourced to private businesses, which operate the kitchens.

There are various rules and regulations in place regarding what food is offered, and how long a child has to eat – which is, in part, why the school lunch period is so long. Children must be allowed a 30-minute period to eat their meal, from the moment they sit down with it at the table. 

Then, they’re given time to play and relax before afternoon classes start.

READ ALSO What you need to know if your child is starting school in France

At a minimum lunch must include a main course with a side dish, a dairy-based product, as well as a starter and/or a dessert. Meals must also, the government says, be composed of 50 percent sustainable quality products (including 20 percent organic).

Some local authorities go further and serve only or mostly food that is organic, locally sourced or both.

Water and bread must be freely available, but salt and condiments can only be added in preparation – no sauce bottles or salt and pepper on the tables. 

Daily menus are generally available to view on school websites and many town newspapers or newsletters also publish them.

Parents pay a fee for the school lunch, which is calculated according to income and can be free in the case of low-income families.

Packed lunch

But what if your child doesn’t like the school lunches and you don’t have time to pick them up, cook a full lunch and take them back in the afternoon everyday? The obvious solution would seem to be to send them in with a packed lunch, as is common in the UK and USA.

In theory this is possible, but only in certain circumstances and with very strict rules and caveats. 

The Ministry, in a written response to a Senator’s question in 2019, said: “The use of packed lunches [home-supplied meals] by primary school students can provide an alternative to school meals. This method of catering is authorised in particular for children with a medically established food allergy or intolerance, requiring an adapted diet.”

READ ALSO How to enrol a non-French speaking child in school in France

It added: “the preparation and use of packed lunches in schools must follow certain rules. First of all, it is important to respect the cold chain”.

The cold chain is a term applied to food handling and distribution – it’s usually used by food-preparation businesses, but in the context of a packed lunch it means that food prepared at home must be kept in appropriately cool conditions until it is ready to eat. It would be the responsibility of parents to ensure that the food is delivered to school in containers appropriate for the job (ie an insulated cool bag).

Once at the school, it is up to whoever manages the kitchen to ensure that food is properly reheated. This becomes the sticking point at which many parents’ requests to send their children to school with a packed lunch, rather than go to the canteen, or eat back at home, are refused.

The reheating concern suggests that schools are also expecting parents to prepare a proper meal – rather than just throwing some sandwiches and a cereal bar into a bag.

Unless there’s a genuine and proven health reason for your child to eat a home-prepared meal, most parents will probably find the school won’t budge on this – even in cases of a strike by kitchen staff or lunch monitors.

READ ALSO Just how much do private schools in France cost?

The Ministry’s written response explains: “[A]s this is an optional public service, the municipality can justify its refusal to admit the children concerned by objective material and financial constraints, such as the need to equip itself with additional refrigerators, or for additional supervisory staff to supervise them during lunch.”

As well as the practicalities, for some schools this is an equality issue – because of the varied fee structure for school lunches what happens in effect is that richer parents are subsidising a good quality lunchtime meal for poorer students in the class; if everyone brought in a packed lunch and therefore stopped paying the fee, the lower-income kids would miss out. 

What about allergies or other health issues?

Children with allergies or other health issues that require a particular diet must be accommodated. An individual meal plan – known as a projet d’accueil individualisé (PAI) can be set up. More details (in French) are available here, on the government’s website.

It also becomes easier for parents to provide home-produced meals in such instances. As ever, it is up to the parents to ensure any meals are appropriately packaged and transported to school.

Not all schools

Some individual schools in France do permit pupils to bring in meals from home. They must be taken to school in an appropriate cold-storage container, and they will be stored in the kitchen area until they are needed, when meals will – if necessary – be reheated.

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