An American in Paris

American fashion editor Susan Swimmer adopts a French lifestyle

by Susan Swimmer
susan goes french image
Photograph: Jake Chessum

My first night, I force myself to cook and eat a small meal of salmon (just three ounces) and a handful of green beans before 8. But I get whiplash switching between my meal preparation and supervising my children, Simone and Amelia, who ate dinner hours earlier. There’s homework to be checked and baths to be drawn and bedtime stories to be read. In the end my food is not savored, but since it is consumed before closing time, I give myself half credit. Once the kids are in bed, I’m left to ponder all I’m giving up for two weeks: energy bars, Diet Coke, snacking, cookies and candy, candy, candy.

I’m having trouble getting used to eating most of my calories before 2 pm. Whereas my breakfasts and lunches seem huge, dinners feel meager. On day four, I cook myself a steak, only to realize it’s three times the size I’m allowed. I eat off a luncheon-size plate, but honestly, my dinner could fit on a saucer. Yes, French servings are that small.

On day five, my hectic American lifestyle collides with my leisurely French-food program. I speed through breakfast (my day for volunteer duty at our younger daughter’s school), forgo walking to the office (post-­volunteering, only a subway will get me there on time), skip lunch (work crisis) and crash, starving, at 3:55 pm, with a 4 pm meeting to attend. With no time to forage the French way, I dive into my desk stash: prepackaged (but totally organic!) wheat-and-­barley cookies. I take them to the meeting, but my editor-in-chief exclaims, “Contraband!” and snatches them out of my hand. If I weren’t so weak with hunger, I’d have wrestled her for them.

I feel out of sorts, not like myself, and want my old life back. I’m sick of cooking; an energy bar makes for a much easier breakfast, and there’s no omelet pan to wash afterward. My walk to work today is a nightmare: 40 blocks of pouring rain and a dead iPod. My editor had predicted I’d have trouble going française, and I hate that she was right. Right now the only part of my French day that I like is my giant glass of red wine.

By the start of my second week, I realize the key to success is cooking in advance so that I have packable lunch options and ready-to-eat dinners. Sunday therefore becomes cooking day. The time I used to spend at the gym is replaced by meeting friends for a morning coffee, something I haven’t done in years, and also occasional breakfasts with my husband after we’ve taken the kids to school. There’s no denying I feel more relaxed now that I’ve slowed my once-frenetic pace (drop off kids! go to gym! get to office!).

Ten days into my challenge, I feel I’m in the groove. I indulge in cheese plates and haven’t been to the gym in ages—yet a pair of pants I’ve worn for years feels the tiniest bit roomy. I jump on the scale: a pound and a half lost. What’s more, I’m totally energized.

I see I’ve sacrificed something valuable by focusing on fast and low-cal foods all these years. Savoring a meal offers enjoyment that isn’t achieved any other way. Walking to work may not burn as many calories as a cardio-sculpt class, but there’s no denying my body is experiencing fewer aches and pains. I feel better overall and like the alone time of my solitary walks.

After two weeks, I’ve lost two pounds and slept better than I have in years. I finally feel as if I can control what I put in my mouth. Best of all, the changes I made amounted to diet tweaks, not a major overhaul, so the plan has been easy to follow. Now pass me another croissant, s’il vous plaît.

Next: A French Woman Goes Yankee

Previous: The Big Switch: A French Woman and an American Woman Trade Diets

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First published in the June 2013 issue

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