11 August 2015 20 Tips for Eating in France without Breaking the Calorie Bank

France is on the travel radar screen for plenty of people these days, including people on diets. The big question is this: is France a diet disaster? Will you come home 10 lbs heavier? What’s a traveling dieter to do? On a recent trip to France, I scoped out the food situation through a dieter’s perspective. Yes there are delicious and unique high calorie foods, but it’s not all bad news. Here are 20 tips for navigating a calorie-conscious trip to France.

  1. Don’t plan to lose weight. It won’t be a fun trip if you’re worried about calories and weight. It’s not great conversation, and your companions probably don’t want to hear about much fat is in a éclair or slice of paté. The best plan is to just maintain your weight as closely as possible.
  2. Walk. Walking is the best way to see new cities or small towns in Europe, since many were designed to accommodate walking for transportation. Walking burns calories and keeps you active and fit.
  3. Don’t reward yourself for walking. Meals come with sufficient calories. You don’t need a big lunch, followed by a huge pastry or bowl of gelato just because you spent the morning walking.
  4. Stay hydrated with water. Bottled water is widely available, and most cafés will provide a carafe of water, even if you just ordered an espresso. Forget about supersized soft drinks. They aren’t available. And diet soft drinks will be hard to find and very expensive.
  5. Forget about iced drinks. In France, and most European countries, ice in drinks is rare. You might get chilled water, but it isn’t likely to come with ice cubes.
  6. Find restaurants that have an option for 2-course meals. Many restaurants have a fixed price menu, based on 3 courses: appetizer (entrée), main course and dessert. You can choose from a list for each course. Many restaurants have a 2-course fixed-price option as well, which will be posted on the menu board. You can have appetizer and main course, or main course and dessert. Picking the 2-course option is a great way to enjoy fine dining without overeating.
  7. “Tartare”, whether beef (boeuf) or salmon (saumon) means raw. Choose accordingly. Tartare is a popular menu item in France.
  8. Enjoy wine in moderation. Most restaurants offer wines by the glass, as well as in carafes or bottles. Wine has calories, so ordering by the glass is one way to avoid the temptation of drinking more alcohol calories than you need.
  9. Don’t skimp on breakfast and then find yourself starving and exhausted and cranky after a long morning or being a tourist. Many hotels offer a simple buffet style breakfast, and you can find petite dejeuner at local cafés, usually a hot beverage, OJ and a croissant and/or piece of fresh baguette. If you have to choose one, go with the baguette, since croissants are higher calorie.
  10. Here’s a strategy I used frequently: I wanted to enjoy the delicious pastries, so I sometimes just had a pastry and espresso for “lunch”, in mid-afternoon.
  11. Did I say walk? For the more adventurous, depending on your location, bike rentals are another great way to tour around. Bicycles are transportation, not so much a leisure activity, and many places are set up to give bicycles dedicated lanes.
  12. Tracking calories? I’m not sure that will work well for food at small bakeries or restaurants. Recipes aren’t standardized. One shop’s croissants might be 150% as big as another’s. And trying to track calories at high end restaurants probably isn’t worth the effort, since recipes are completely unique. Another consideration for calorie tracking: you’d need an international data plan for your phone.
  13. Sticking to modest portions in restaurants is rough way to control calories, but portion sizes are all over the map. At some restaurants, all the courses are modest in size. At others, they can seem overly generous to say the least. When in doubt, look around at what other patrons are served.
  14. Speaking of portions: pizza is typically served as a one-person meal. The pizzas are thin crust with a minimum of toppings. Nevertheless, a whole pizza might be a bit much if you’re trying to control food intake.
  15. Cheese is frequently offered as a dessert course. Cheeses in France are typically locally made, artisanal taste delights. If you do want to try a cheese course, pick lighter fare for your appetizer (ex: vegetables) and main course (ex: fish).
  16. Have picnic meals. This is one way to control your own portions. You can buy small amounts of prepared deli foods so you aren’t tempted to overeat, say 100 or 150 grams or different items.
  17. Don’t count on salads to save your from calorie overload. Salads aren’t necessarily just greens and vegetables. They can easily be a few greens and a pile of ham or sausage plus cheese and olives. Again, if you can look around at what other people are eating, that will help you decide.
  18. Fortunately fresh fruit salad is frequently available as a dessert choice. Even better, the fruit flavors are intense and delicious. I was never served a cardboard strawberry or tasteless melon slice. So if fresh fruit salad is an option, go for it.
  19. You’re in France. Don’t spend your visit eating hamburgers and fries. Try new things.
  20. After all that walking, take a break and relax at a café with an espresso or bottled water and watch the street scene go by. That’s why you came to France in the first place.

Donna P. Feldman MS RDN

Nutrition journalist at Radio Nutrition

Co-host: Walk Talk Nutrition podcast.

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