L'art de vivre (the art of living)

The other day, I experienced the rare occasion that both boys were asleep at the same time. This happens much like a lunar eclipse, and about as often. Of course, it lasted just short of 30 minutes, but during that break, I decided to soak in a bubble bath and give myself a facial. Something I haven’t done since Riley came along.

What’s gotten into me? I’m learning joie de vivre, the joy of living. My newest installment of my growing French obsession, French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano, has reminded me that not only is it not selfish to be good to yourself, it’s vital to a long and satisfying life.

We Americans are notorious for slamming the pedal to the metal, burning the candle at both ends, as if we find some moral redemption by enslaving ourselves to some self-sacrificial work ethic. The French don’t live this way. They are ever present, in the moment, experiencing their world with all five senses, and finding joy in even the most seemingly insignificant pleasures. 

One secret to staying svelte is to keep your eye on the big picture of overall wellness. It’s not just about eating the right foods, but it’s also about keeping your whole life in balance.

In order to achieve this balance, Guiliano suggests a few steps to recalibrate your life: First, keep a food diary to identify your food offenders (the extra calories you consume that don’t add anything to your quality of life but add to your waistline). Second, recasting: Eat a detoxifying leek soup for a weekend (she includes the recipe!) while you plan to slowly eliminate or make substitutions for those offenders. Third, make healthy choices that you can sustain over a lifetime. No crash diets or marathon workout sessions, just small adjustments that make a big difference over time without depriving you of meaningful pleasures.

These are some of the small adjustments she suggests: 

More water. Drink a glass first thing in the morning and last thing before you go to bed. Drink water all day long (she suggests at least two quarts). Plain water. Or water with lemon. Just don’t count Crystal Light, sugary juices or Diet Coke as water. Because they’re not. 

More fruits and vegetables. Duh. Why do I have to keep hearing this? The secret to preventing disease, slowing down aging, and maintaining a healthy weight is to EAT MORE FRUITS AND VEGETABLES. In fact, we should build our meals around them, not treat them as obligatory side dishes or fillers. And she encourages readers to enjoy produce that’s in season, so we experience its true freshness and taste (and it’s easier on the wallet). Yes, it’s less expensive to eat healthy across the pond, but consuming less meat and processed foods, and eating what is in season, makes up for the rising cost of fresh produce. 

Move more. French women don’t go to gyms. They don’t see the appeal of slaving away on intimidating machines to punish ourselves for eating chocolate. And let’s face it, French women are not going to do something that doesn’t bring them pleasure. Of course, they don’t see eating chocolate as a sin, either. Instead, they just move more. They make lots of small movements throughout the day, so they don’t have to concentrate all their activity into a 45-minute sweatfest on the treadmill. They do, however, walk A LOT. 

Eat less food more slowly, and use all five senses. The French are fully present during mealtimes. They don’t shovel a plate full of food into their mouths in 10 minutes like we Americans often do. They don’t eat standing up or in their cars or in front of the TV (or hiding in the closet eating junk food so my toddler doesn’t ask for some…Oh, is that just me?). They take time to taste all of the flavors in their food, to enjoy the presentation on their plate, to smell the aromas. They eat very slowly, so they are satisfied faster while consuming less. 

Make compensations and substitutions. Every morning, I have a bagel with crunchy peanut butter, something I picked up from my cross-country running days as a pre-race meal. But since I’m no longer running races (or enjoying the metabolism of a teenager), I’ve substituted the bagel for a bagel thin (100 calories). And I add a portion of fruit. This is what Guiliano means by making substitutes for food offenders.

There are no foods that the French see as guilty pleasure or as off-limits. They enjoy all foods in moderation and, in fact, take great delight in a varied palate. But they choose to make their calories count, like choosing to savor a small square of antioxidant-rich dark chocolate rather than gobbling a handful of processed Snickers bars. They pay attention to what they put into their bodies, and when. And of course, they don't feel deprived because their whole life is in balance; they don't depend on food to fulfill them. 

Another small change I’ve made is at bedtime. There is about a two-hour window after the boys go to bed that my husband and I have time to ourselves. We usually resort to catching up on our favorite shows on Hulu Plus in bed while snacking on some food that we didn’t want to eat in front of Liam. (We’re trying to teach him healthy eating habits, after all.) Sound familiar? Tell me we’re not the only ones who do this.

I’m not really sure why I snack. Comfort, maybe? Certainly not because I’m that hungry so soon after dinner. Comfort, and maybe just habit. So instead, I now sip a glass of water while we watch our shows. Or, I skip the shows altogether and read a book I enjoy, take a relaxing bath, or give myself a pedicure. I choose to do something that “feeds my soul” rather than my stomach.

That’s a central element to living like the French do. It’s hard to sum up the principles in this book, as I could pretty much quote the whole thing! But if I had to develop a mantra that defines French living, it would be this: Be good to your whole person. Pay attention. Practice l’art d’vivre!