Exploring French, Italian and Serbian Eating Habits – Why Traditional Eating Is Best

In the previous post, I described why I want to adopt a more structured approach to eating. There I said that my choice is a normal traditional way of eating, which was much more common in the past. Such way of eating does not have any restrictions, you can eat whatever you want and as much as you want, but there is a structure. Or you can call it – a culture of eating. A culture of eating has more to do with customs and etiquette than nutritional considerations and calorie counting. Ironically though, with almost no attention to the nutritional science itself, adhering to those old customs and culture of eating often provides completely adequate nutrition and prevents excessive weight gain.

(Note that these ways of eating are generally very healthy and completely adequate for healthy people, but if you have some special nutritional needs or limitations, you need to discuss it with your doctor or dietician. This include special medical diets for certain diseases or nutrition for professional sports, etc. )

That being said, here are three cuisines that I will discuss: Italian, French and Serbian.

French eating habits

Breakfast

In France, people usually eat something sweet for breakfast. It’s usually just one croissant with a cup of coffee and perhaps a small glass of orange juice.

Lunch

Lunch is the biggest meal, which can consist of multiple courses, is often accompanied with wine and it can last quite a long time. Whether at home, in a restaurant or in business setting, French people tend to have lunch with friends, family, colleagues, etc… so it’s not just a meal, but a social occasion. After lunch, they sometimes have a dessert, it can be a cake or just fruit.

Snack

In France, adults usually don’t snack. Children have a small snack in the afternoon.

Dinner

Dinner is a smaller meal, it can consist of yogurt and fruit, or perhaps some leftovers from lunch.

All in all it’s three meals: sweet and small breakfast, large, delicious lunch sometimes with dessert, and a lighter dinner, without strict rules about what’s eaten in the evening. Two important things to consider: there’s no snacking, and there’s no avoiding of sweets, they can be a part of all three meals, moreover, they are usually the only thing eaten for breakfast.

For more info about French eating habits, and especially their comparison to American eating habits, take a look at this article: French Eating Habits

Italian eating habits

Breakfast

Almost the same as in France, a cup of cappuccino,  latte or espresso, accompanied with something small and sweet, it can be a croissant, some biscuits, or some fruit. Note that cappuccino and latte are drunk only for breakfast, after 11 AM Italians only drink black, plain espresso.

french-breakfast

A typical breakfast, in both France and Italy

Lunch

Again, lunch is the most important meal. It can have quite a complex structure, consisting of the following:

  1. Antipasto – (Starter) – It’s optionally eaten, usually on special occasions, and it can be some cold ham, cured meats, olives, pepperoncini, mushrooms, anchovies, artichoke hearts, various cheeses. Most often it’s skipped.
  2. Primo – It’s first course, often consisting of pasta, rice (risotto), or similar starchy foods.
  3. Secondo – Second course, consisting of meat or fish, together with a salad or a side dish (contorno) made of vegetables. Sometimes it includes fruit as well.
  4. Dolce – Some dessert, it can be ice-cream, cake or very often fresh seasonal fruit.
  5. Caffè – espresso.

vocna salata

Fresh fruit is often eaten as a dessert in Italy

Antipasto is typically skipped except in formal occasions,  primo and secondo are almost always eaten, as well as fruit.

Snack (Merenda)

Optionally eaten in the afternoon, but very light meal, often consisting of ice-cream, bread, fruit or yogurt)

Dinner

Usually it is a lighter meal, often consisting of the same things as for lunch, but in reduced quantity. Typically they eat only primo, or only secondo, and not both courses. However, if they are eating out in a restaurant, they sometimes have a full meal just like for lunch, or they can order a pizza. Note that Italian pizzas are usually very thin and not so filling, and that it’s not their everyday habit.

Serbian eating habits

Breakfast

Serbs usually have something salty for breakfast, and it’s not so light meal, like in France or Italy. It can be for example scrambled eggs with bread and salad, or a sandwich, or maybe canned fish with bread and salad, or a burek (a type of pie, typically filled with minced meat, cheese or potato) with yogurt. Also in the morning, Serbs typically drink a coffee, black, unfiltered coffee, known as Turkish coffee, sometimes with milk.

Breakfast is a more filling meal, because usually there is no lunch break, so you need a larger breakfast to keep you going till lunch which can sometimes be after 3 PM.

Lunch

Again, it’s the most important meal, but in quantity, it’s usually smaller than in Italy or France.

Typically, lunch starts with a soup, after that we eat main course (glavno jelo), which can really be anything, but complex dishes containing meat, vegetables and potatoes or rice are very common. It’s usually just one main course. Some typical Serbian meals eaten for lunch include:

Pasulj (Bean stew, usually with bacon, ham or sausage)

Grašak (Pea stew, typically with vegetables, potatoes and generous amounts of meet, typically young beef, cut in cubes)

grasak

Grašak with meat balls – one of the possible Serbian main dishes

Paprikaš (Stew with meat, potatoes and bell peppers)

Kupus (Stew with cabbage and meat, sometimes potatoes) etc…

The formula is usually similar: Meat cut in cubes (beef or pork) or sometimes meat balls + some vegetables + potatoes (optionally)

On some days, instead of such stews, Serbs will eat steaks, roasted meat, or fish as their main course. In such cases, they will always have a side dish (usually potatoes or cooked vegetables), and fresh vegetable salad.

Desserts are not usually eaten around lunchtime, but some fruit can be eaten just before or just after the lunch.

Snack

Around 6 PM,  a snack is usually eaten, and it’s typically either fruit, or some dessert –  a cake, an ice-cream, or something like that. It’s also a typical time for drinking a second coffee in the day, usually again, Turkish coffee.

Dinner

Dinner is a lighter meal without a predetermined structure. It can consist of leftovers from lunch, it can also be the same as breakfast, but lighter – heavy dinners are typically avoided. Or it can consist just of some fruit with yogurt or milk.

What they have in common, and take home message

All of the mentioned cuisines are healthy, they will all promote healthy weight (if you eat like that constantly, you won’t be too thin nor too fat, but you’ll tend towards a weight that’s healthy and natural for you), and they are all deeply based on tradition. What is eaten is less important, but how and when these things are eaten is the most important question. So here are the things all these cuisines have in common:

  1. A fixed structure of meals is always present, consisting of three meals, and sometimes a snack in the afternoon.
  2. Snacking is generally quite limited or avoided. No more than one snack a day.
  3. Sweets are never avoided and they have their place in meal structure. Having a dessert is a thing.
  4. Lunch is always the most important meal.
  5. Dinners are typically light.
  6. Breakfast can be very light (Italy / France), or more concrete (Serbia), depending on the amount of time between breakfast and lunch.
  7. People usually eat together, and when they can, at the table.
  8. There are no restrictions. Junk food and fast food are nor forbidden, but they are eaten very rarely, because in their place, people eat normal, structured meals.

Here are the main reasons why I think all of these eating habits are probably the best ways of eating:

  1. They let you enjoy your food and share pleasure with others. Eating is a social occasion and ritual not just the process of feeding your body.
  2. You will not be deprived of anything including sweets.
  3. You’ll learn a bit about structure and moderation. You’ll build patience, having sweets only when it’s time for sweets, but when such time comes, you’ll enjoy it even more.
  4. All of these eating habits include a lot of variety, and fruit and vegetables are always present.
  5. No calorie counting or obsessive thinking about carbs, proteins and fats.
  6. Some time will pass between meals, and you’ll sometimes get hungry. Being hungry, you’ll enjoy your meals more. With time, you’ll instinctively know when you’re really hungry (around meal times), and when you want to eat just because you’re bored.

Now, I can imagine that the biggest obstacle to adopting such habits is work. But then again, it’s worth trying to adopt at least some of these principles. With time, you can adopt more of this.

My personal choice is combination of Serbian lunch and dinner, with French/Italian breakfast. I will also eat sweets only when it’s time for sweets (after lunch or as an afternoon snack). 

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