What the French Know About Food: Less is More


In Paris, there’s a bakery on every corner offering buttery croissants, but residents are still slim enough to fit into elevators the size of coffins. What do the French know? This is the third of several posts on food and lifestyle in the city of lights. Read the first one here and the second one here.

By American standards, the fridge in our Paris apartment is more appropriate for an office cubicle than a family of three. But it’s normal by Paris standards, and it reflects a general underlying assumption the French here seem to have about food: less is more.

Let me be clear that I’m not speaking of the cliché of the tiny portions in French restaurants. That may be the case at some five-star joints serving gold-encrusted truffles over a bed of straight saffron. (We wouldn’t know; we haven’t been anywhere like that for reasons of budget and toddler.)

What you don’t find, though, are the mad-cheap, mad-huge portions of a place like IHOP in the U.S. Three pancakes? 7 Euros, thank you. One espresso? 3 Euros, thank you. No such thing as a bottomless cup of coffee.

The French have a much stronger sense of the law of diminishing returns (Economics 101, anyone?) as it applies to food: one cookie may bring you much pleasure. A second cookie may bring you additional pleasure, but never as much as the first cookie. A third cookie may bring pleasure, but it’s even less than the second cookie. And so on from there.

The American philosophy? Keep eating cookies as long as there is a trace of pleasure. The French philosophy? Stop after the first cookie and really savor. It will never be that good again if you keep going.

French supermarkets sell packages of eight cookies rather than eighty. Ice cream comes in “family-size” cartons small enough to confuse your average American into thinking it’s a single serving. Even spaghetti sauce comes in dainty little jars.

Let me loop back to our fridge. Here’s my theory about why a teensy fridge cuts it around here. Parisians don’t panic at the idea of “running out” of something, so they don’t feel compelled to stock up. They buy what they need for the next few days without worrying about what they might need in the case of a surprise visit from a troop of boyscouts. One consequence, I think, is that there’s not an endless supply of sweets and salty treats awaiting consumption on the shelf. There might be a treat or two, but after that, it’s game over.

(Until, of course, you pop out and have to walk past all those bread and pastry shops.)


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