One of my favorite parts of traveling is trying local food, but more important, the culture that surrounds it. It varies from country to country. If you visit New York City, you’ll notice most people eat on the go, and it’s less a relaxing activity and more something people do just to keep them fueled for their day. When I spent four months in Greece a few years ago, the first few weeks drove me nuts because people would spend two to three hours eating dinner and my inner New Yorker was screaming “OH MY GOD HURRY UP!” It took a while to get adjusted and appreciate the laid-back vibe that accompanied meals there.
Over the years, I’ve explored the food culture of several countries, but when I think of the place that had the most lasting impact on my attitude toward food and how it’s consumed, it was actually my most recent trip to France. I visited a tiny little town tucked away in the French Alps — Samoëns. I had been invited to the town for the grand opening of Club Med’s newest resort, Grand Massif Samoëns Morillon. The resort has three restaurants that serve local dishes made by local chefs each day. After dining on exquisite French food with the French for a week, I had some major food revelations. Here are a few of my favorite takeaways.
1. Carbs are not the devil
In the U.S., no matter where you turn — TV, Instagram, Twitter, your neighbor — you’re bound to find someone boasting about the weight-loss effects of a no- or low-carb diet. I’ll save my comments on how this contributes to a fatphobic society for a later post, but let’s focus on the health aspect of this for a second. Yes, starving your body of nutrients that it was designed to run on for a long period of time will cause weight loss. Is this the best way to achieve weight loss? More and more research is leading us to believe it is not. I myself got caught up in the no-carb craze last year when I tried the keto diet for a few months. But it didn’t take me long to realize this is not a lifestyle that is manageable (or enjoyable) for me. This is something the French have always known.
Almost every meal I had in France contained a small but satisfying amount of carbs. And no, I’m not including the carbs in zucchini as carbs, I’m talking bread and pasta — you know, the fun carbs that you actually enjoy eating. This isn’t hurting the health of French citizens. In fact, France has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world because they understand that starving yourself of something is not an effective or healthy way to live.
2. Moderation is key
This kind of ties into my first lesson, but seriously, order a dish at any American restaurant, and it is probably three to four times larger than the meals I ate in France. I never felt hungry or wanted more after the smaller meals I enjoyed in Samoëns. In fact, I felt more energetic because I never overate, sending myself into a food coma.
3. Dessert doesn’t have to be full of sugar
I have a sweet tooth. I will probably never turn down a warm brownie if it’s in front of me, but one of the best things I took away from my dining experience in France was a new idea of what dessert should be. Cheese, fruit and mildly sweet pastries were the norm, and they were absolutely delicious. Of course, I did indulge in some sweeter desserts — gelato, chocolate fondue — but because the portions were smaller and more reasonable, it didn’t feel like an absurd amount of sugar to be consuming.
4. Meals should be savored, not rushed
I grew up in New York, and it’s hard to shake that hurry-up-and-eat mentality, but once you do, it’s a game-changer. Every bite is more enjoyable when you take the time to sit down and explore its complexity and layers of flavor. Dining should be a relaxing and fun experience. A time to sit down with friends and family, eat, talk and celebrate the flavors in front of you. I am making an effort not to eat in front of my TV anymore, not to eat while I work and not to eat while commuting. It’s a hard lifestyle change to make, but one that comes with a lot of rewards.