An American in Paris

American fashion editor Susan Swimmer adopts a French lifestyle

by Susan Swimmer
susan goes french image
Photograph: Jake Chessum

Susan Swimmer: 47, New York City, fashion editor
Lives with: husband and two daughters, ages seven and 11
Height: 5 feet 4 inches
Starting weight: 132 pounds
End weight: 130 pounds
Overall result: "I didn't lose a ton of weight, but I felt healthier and slept better than I have in years"

As a longtime Francophile, I was intrigued by the idea of eating and exercising like a French woman for two weeks. Would I have more energy? Lose weight? Embrace scarves? Now, I’m pretty health conscious—my regular diet includes few processed foods and enough salad to feed a rabbit warren—but I will admit to a take-it-or-leave-it approach to breakfast, almost daily afternoon candy consumption, a surfeit of takeout meals and a penchant for late-night nibbling. Like many other Americans, I eat on the run, skip meals and overindulge in treats. Worst of all: My waist is thickening even though I spend at least an hour a day at the gym five days a week.

The French have a different approach. They believe food is to be savored, not shoved into one’s mouth while, say, posting a status update. That’s why, as part of my French plan, I’m supposed to cook a lot and use fresh, local ingredients, all with the goal of eating food that really tastes like food. Breakfast and lunch are to be large and leisurely, and my dinners are supposed to be tiny, with the home kitchen closing by 8 pm. I’ve been told to make my plates of food look pretty (note to self: garnish), use cloth napkins and silence the midmeal buzz of the BlackBerry. No snacking and no gym. Instead of swimming and lifting weights, I’ll walk to work as well as around the city. Here’s how my experiment turned out.

Facing a Monday start date, I use Sunday to stock up. I go to a nearby upscale grocery, where I cruise the aisles for fresh and French. No bags of frozen ravioli, no veggie puffs, no “buttery spread,” no low-carb bread. Instead, I drop a brick of European-style (meaning: super-high-fat) Plugrá butter into my cart, along with a free-range whole chicken. Brussels sprouts? Sure. Artichokes? Mais oui. And so on. My haul is colorful. My haul is minimally packaged. Before it’s served, my haul will need to be sorted, washed, peeled, chopped, sautéed, baked, boiled and grilled—a prospect I find daunting.

Instead of exercising as usual on Monday morning, I take a deep breath and prepare a breakfast extravaganza: a cup of yogurt with fresh fruit added, followed by a plain omelet and a hunk of French bread slathered with that extra-fatty butter. Eating so much so early makes me mildly uneasy, as does wondering what I’ll do with the hour-and-a-half hole in my schedule that used to be spent working out at the gym. Should I sort the linen closet? Assemble photo albums? Learn Mandarin?

Before leaving for work, I pack a home-cooked lunch—and since I’m meant to eat it in a civilized fashion, I also tuck in a cloth napkin and a porcelain plate. All of this gets shoved into a large tote for my 40-block, 40-minute walk to the office (replacing my normal subway ride).

I work in an office of multi­tasking type A’s who combine midday meals with all manner of jobs, so the possibility of a leisurely lunch seems remote. On my new regimen, I wedge my pretty plate in among my papers and just eat. In the beginning, the sound of my own chewing, heard for what seems like the first time, is somewhat annoying. But the cloth napkin is a big improvement over the scratchy doll-size paper freebies the deli gives me.

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

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First Published Mon, 2013-07-22 16:25

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