Haute cuisine or hot dogs: What do the French really eat?

The land of fine dining where everyone sits down to a freshly cooked meal and a carafe of wine every day? Er, not exactly. In fact the French absolutely love fatty and sugary junk food. Here's what they really eat when they think no-one is looking.

Haute cuisine or hot dogs: What do the French really eat?
Photo: Thomas Samson/AFP


Even really small French towns have a pizzeria or pizza truck, some places have pizza vending machines and in Paris you can go and get your pizzas made by a robot

French people eat on average 10kg of pizzas a year and in 2015 they were second in the world league table of pizza-eaters behind only the USA, but well ahead of the actual inventors of the pizza, Italy.

IN PICTURES Paris’ new robot-staffed pizzeria

Data from 2016 showed that there were some 13,000 pizzerias in France and 5,000 pizza trucks.


This sugary chocolate hazelnut spread – which is actually Italian in origin – is close to a national obsession in France.

Baguette with Nutella is a popular goûter (after-school snack) for children and we can only assume that it’s the comforting memories of childhood that make French adults go so bonkers over the sticky spread.

In a list of the 10 most-sold groceries in French shops from 2020, Nutella jars of various sizes claimed four of the top spots, while Nutella flavoured biscuits claimed a fifth.

In fact the French love Nutella so much they will brawl for it. A couple of years back, a 70 percent Nutella discount at the Intermarché supermarket chain turned into a ‘riot’, with customers jostling and battling each other to get their hands on the pots.


McDonald’s early years in France were a bit rocky, with French farmers trashing one site in protest. These days, however, France is McDonald’s most profitable market outside the USA and pretty much every French town has a McDo (although planning rules often exile them to retail parks on the outskirts of town).

By 2017, more burgers were sold in France than the classic jambon-beurre sandwich, although interestingly just 30 percent of burgers were sold at fast food or take-away joints, the rest were at sit-down restaurants.

McDo aside, many French restaurants pimp up their burgers and a good restaurant will serve a delicious handmade burger, cooked to your request (although it’s better rare or medium rare) with toppings often including a classic French cheese.

It’s considered correct to eat them with a knife and fork, which sounds mad until you see the size of some French burgers.

READ ALSO What explains France’s ravenous appetite for hamburgers?

McDonald’s is often the subject of protests in France, but remains very popular with French diners. Photo by Elliott VERDIER / AFP

Ready meals

Head to a French supermarket and you will find several well-stocked aisles of frozen or chilled ready meals.

Yes, French people are not all hot-shot chefs and many are either too tired, too busy or simply can’t be bothered to start sautéeing beef cheeks and braising shallots when they come in from work.

A survey from 2018 found that 83 percent of French people eat ready meals ‘sometimes or often’ and the effect on waistlines is becoming apparent with more than half of French people now overweight or obese.


One national stereotype that is true – the French really do love their cheese.

The average French adult eats 25.9 kg of cheese each year – equivalent of half a kilo a week or 70 grammes a day. And of the 96 percent of French people who eat cheese, 47 percent of them do it on a daily basis. 

For comparison’s sake, Americans consume a measly 15.4 kg per year and the British a mere 11.6 kg.
And of all the comfort foods that people turned to during lockdowns last year, cheese was the most popular, with an increase in sales of 8 percent in 2020 compared to 2019.
The French are not the world’s largest consumers of cheese though, on a per-person basis that is the Danish.
French vocab

La malbouffe – junk food

Un resto rapide – a fast-food restaurant

Les plats preparés – ready meals

Les additifs – food additives (not les préservatifs, those are condoms)

Un goûter – an afternoon snack, sometimes also referred to as un quatre heure because of the time it usually happens)

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Reader question: What time do the French eat dinner? 

If you're looking to book a restaurant or want to invite your French friends or neighbours round for dinner, here's a look at what time the evening meal is normally eaten in France.

Reader question: What time do the French eat dinner? 

They might be neighbours, but the French certainly don’t follow Spanish dining habits of having the evening meal at 10pm, but having said that dinner in France is usually eaten later than in the US or Scandinavian countries.

Of course, dinner time in France varies between families and regions, but here are some guidelines.

Lunchtime tends to run between 12 noon and 2pm – that’s when restaurants operate their lunchtime service, so that’s when it’s time to eat. Remember, the French simply do not eat at their desks – al desko is not a thing here and, frankly, France is better for it – so you can also expect many offices to be closed during this time.

Following the restaurant opening rule, the evening meal period starts from around 7pm. That’s when the tables are ready and a lot of restaurants won’t accept a booking before 7pm.

If you want to eat after 2pm but before 7pm you need to look out for a restaurant that advertises ‘service non-stop‘, these are quite common in tourist areas and big cities, but are generally not the best restaurants. 

Eating out

A lot depends on where you are. If they’re eating out, Parisians tend not to book a table before 8pm to 8.30pm – and plenty of restaurants (not just fast food joints) remain open until midnight.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that means Parisians don’t eat until late every evening. Most don’t go out for a meal every night, and may dine a little earlier when they’re at home.

In most towns, cities or villages, restaurants and bistros open for evening service between 7pm and 7.30pm, although tourist resorts often have places that are open all day.

In smaller towns, you may find that restaurants don’t open every night – shutting on Monday is common – or shut their doors earlier, perhaps, than you’d expect, so your window of opportunity for a meal may be slim – especially in the colder months.

Eating in

Again, there’s no hard and fast rule here, families have different habits and of course there’s nothing to stop you eating in front of the TV as soon as you get in.

But you could take your cue from the TV schedules. 

The traditional evening meal in France is considered a family affair – around a table, lots of chatter, more good food, and an all-round convivial experience that rolls along merrily for an hour or so. They usually run from roughly 7.30pm until 8.45pm.

READ ALSO Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

It is considered poor form, in this traditional French familial round-table scenario, to have the TV on during meals – and it’s true that broadcasters schedule their primetime material to start just after 9pm. So, if you want to be done and dusted in time for Top Chef, plan your meal to end a little earlier, and make sure someone else has to load the dishwasher (or do the washing up, if you’re in a lower-tech household).

Younger children, however, may eat earlier, so that the evening meal doesn’t run into bedtime. 

Celebratory meals / Sunday lunches

These can be very special. Sunday is family day in France. In some – less touristy – parts of the country, most shops don’t open at all (with the exception of the boulangerie/pâtisserie where you can buy a lovely big dessert for your family meal). This type of meal can easily last two hours, sometimes longer if the French weather’s feeling generous.

Basically, they’re a longer, chattier, open-ended version of the traditional family meal mentioned above. Wine may be involved. Salad almost definitely will be – as it’s considered something of a palate cleanser. 

Restaurants are open, from around 12 noon to 2pm, if you prefer to eat out. But there’ll be no midweek plat du jour to take advantage of. 

The real meal deal

The truth is, there are no real rules on evening meals beyond having to wait for the restaurants to open if you want to eat out, so the above map should be taken as a suggestion only.

Your French neighbours may be a little surprised if you tell them you eat at 6pm, but it’s a personal thing. And if you live here you may find that your mealtimes shift to fit in with your, increasingly French, daily life.