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The French Holiday Challenge PART 3-Meal Structure

by | Sep 6, 2017 | Uncategorized

Hello and welcome to PART 3 of “The French Holiday Challenge!”

Today we’re going to go over the progression of the French holiday meal from beginning to end.

There are two elements in today’s discussion: a video from me and this blog post. Watch the video below first as I take you to a French pastry shop to see the traditional Yule Log cake made by a top pastry chef. Then read the blog post below.

If you missed PART 2 of the Holiday Challenge, a link to it is provided at the bottom of this post for your convenience.

Part 3 – The French Holiday Meal progression from start to finish

In PART 3 of the French Holiday Challenge, we’re going to go over the overall progression of the meal experience.

As I mentioned previously, the traditional French Holiday Meal is the “Gastronomic Meal of France” and respects a well-defined pattern.

The order in which dishes are served is fixed in French tradition and has been a part of France’s cultural heritage for centuries.

This meal structure and its characteristics have been recognized by Unesco as a “world intangible heritage.”

It begins with an Aperitif and ends with a Digestif

In between the two phases above, there is the meal with at least four dishes:

  • A Starter Course,
  • A Fish and/or Meat Course with vegetables
  • A Cheese Course  
  • A Dessert course

Part 2 of the Challenge helped you bring together some ideas for the dishes you might like to serve for the Starter, Main, and Dessert Courses of the meal.

So let’s go into depth around the other parts of the French Holiday Meal that we haven’t covered yet: the Aperitif, the Cheese Course, and the Digestif.

But first, let’s review the overall progression of the meal:

The Overall Structure of The French Holiday Meal from start to finish:

  • The “Aperitif”: Before Dinner Drinks with Light Snacks
  • Starter Course
  • Main Course
  • Cheese Course
  • Dessert Course
  • After Dinner Hot Drinks with Chocolates or Candies
  • The Digestif: After Dinner Cordials

L’Apéritif (Before Dinner Drinks & Light Snacks)

In France, when all the family is ready and the guests start to arrive, they don’t sit down to dinner immediately.

Everyone gathers around, most often in the living room, to have drinks and light snacks to chat and catch up on news. This also gives late arrivals the time to settle in.

So it’s a tradition to have a selection of drinks ready and glasses to go with them:

Selection of Drinks:

  • Champagne
  • Wine – red or white
  • Whiskey
  • Fruit Juice & Sodas for children
  • Water

Selection of glasses:

  • Champagne flutes
  • Wine glasses
  • Whiskey glasses if serving plain or over ice, tall Highball glasses if serving a whiskey cocktail (Highball glasses can also be used for sodas, etc)
  • Regular glasses for sodas, fruit juice and water

Light Snacks to serve with drinks:

I usually have 2-3 snacks that I prepare for the aperitif. Here’s a shortlist of 5:

  1. Mini Blinis with Tzatziki (or any greek yogurt with dill & cucumber), smoked salmon, and alfalfa sprouts (if you’re not serving smoked salmon as a starter)
  2. Small Endive leaves with Roquefort cheese mixed with creme fraiche (or sour cream) and a walnut half on top. Or chop a small celery stalk into 2 1/2 inch lengths and fill with Roquefort and creme fraiche mixture. Optional: black pepper on top
  3. Small toasts (white or whole grain bread) with a small slice of foie gras and a slice of fresh fig on top or fig or apricot jam
  4. Slices of authentic aged Parmesan Reggiano cheese (this goes well with whiskey)
  5. Spears of dried, pitted prunes wrapped with a strip of smoked bacon.
Mini salmon blinis

Remember to make everything small enough that it can be eaten in one bite, or two bites maximum.

Have small napkins (you can use paper ones here if you like) on hand to pick up the snacks.

If it’s not a formal holiday dinner and you’re serving champagne at dinner or guests have had wine for the Aperitif, you can ask them to keep those glasses and bring them to the table. In this way, they can continue using them for that particular drink during the meal.

Drinks to Serve with the Main Meal


Water (sparkling and/or flat) is served in France throughout the meal.

In formal meals, water glasses are filled before the guests arrive at the table.

White wine:

White wine is served in France for the starter course

Red wine :

Red wine is served with the main course and cheese course


You can opt to serve Champagne with the dessert course if you like

Cheese Course:

A French Holiday Cheese Platter would have a selection containing an odd number (3 or 5) of cheeses :

  • a goat’s cheese
  • a blue-veined cheese (Roquefort or Stilton, for example)
  • a soft cheese (like a Brie or Camembert)
  • a hard cheese (such as a Comté or Beaufort)
  • a fresh soft cheese.

Cut out a small first slice from each of the cheeses to make it easier for guests to serve themselves.

Have a different knife for the hard cheeses, soft cheeses, and blue-veined cheese so you don’t mix flavors.

Have a selection of bread in a basket for guests to pass around and serve themselves:

  • crusty bread like a baguette (cut into 2 inch wide slices)
  • whole-grain and nut breads (sliced about 1/2 inch thick)

Jams can accompany the cheese platter. Traditional jam-cheese pairings are:

  • fig jam with goat’s cheese
  • pear jam with Roquefort
  • apple jam with Camembert
  • black cherry jam with hard cheeses like Comté, Beaufort, or Gruyère

Hot Drinks: Coffee and Herbal Teas

Coffee or tea in France is traditionally served after dessert, not along with it. But if you prefer, by all means, have hot drinks with your dessert.

The French serve coffee but also offer herbal teas for those who don’t like coffee or who don’t want to drink caffeinated drinks late in the day.

Typical French herbal teas to serve after a holiday meal:

  • Mint
  • Chammomile
  • Verbena

Dried sage leaves infused in hot water are one of my favorites. (Sage is good for digestion)

Chocolates or candies are served with hot drinks for a holiday meal:

            In the Alsace region of France, spice cookies or “Bredele” are served at Christmas.

            Dates stuffed with walnut halves and rolled in sugar are served by my French in-laws.

Digestifs and Eau de Vie

  • Grand Marnier or Cointreau
  • Cognac – served in a tulip or balloon-shaped glass (can be served with ice if it’s too strong for you)
  • Armagnac- aged brandy similar to cognac served in a cognac glass (without ice)
  • Aged Rum
  • Pear “Eau de Vie” – a colorless fruit brandy- served in a tumbler glass after the bottle has been placed at least 1 hour in the freezer
  • Calvados (Apple Brandy) – served like cognac
A bottle of Grand Marnier on my dining room table

So there you have the order of a grand, traditional French Holiday Meal!

If it were the very long version, you could have up to 2-3 starters, both hot & cold, and an alcohol-based sorbet in the middle (before going on to the main meat course) to cleanse the palate.

But I’ve done the simplified version here.

The most important thing to remember is the serving of dishes separately so hot dishes are served hot and chilled dishes served chilled.  Also, the pairing of wine with the dishes is important, and the harmony of the dishes amongst themselves too.

If your French Holiday Meal was “très” successful:

If your French Holiday Meal was a roaring success, you may have guests that overstay their welcome. How do the French get rid of guests politely after a long holiday meal?

If people are staying too long, well after the Digestif has been served, an old tradition in French etiquette signaling “it’s time to leave” is to serve a fresh-pressed fruit juice like orange or grapefruit.

Normally, if guests see their hosts bring out a pitcher of fruit juice long after the Digestifs have been served, they should decline the offer and prepare to leave. They can also drink a glass of juice quickly, then politely head for the door.

I was served fruit juice late after a dinner 30 years ago and quickly understood the message!

This is such an archaic rule of etiquette that there’s a risk your guests might not get the hint and instead stay even longer!

Would you like help planning your menu?

If you’d like guidance in planning your holiday menu and to go more in-depth about French-inspired ingredients for your home-cooking, then consider signing up for The Finest of France Cooking Essentials Course.

The course includes:

  •             my Checklist of French Pantry Ingredients
  •             videos on how to select and use the ingredients to enhance your holiday meals and home-cooking
  •             a recipe and shopping guide to easily find the ingredients online.

There’s also a FREE BONUS 30-Minute Prep Call with me included in the course!

I’ll guide you in setting up a French pantry with the Checklist ingredients and using them in holiday recipes. During our call, I’ll answer any questions you have about creating a traditional French Holiday Meal.

Inside the course, they’ll be direct links to French pantry products to order easily online. If you want to leverage your local store, I’ve checked that they’ll be available there too.

With “The Finest of France Cooking Essentials Course” you’ll get off to a great start to cooking simple, varied, and delicious French-inspired meals. You’ll be able to put together a French Holiday Meal easily as you’ll have the essential ingredients you need on hand.


I hope that your menu is coming together and that you’ve thought about the order of the dishes you’ll serve.

As you can see, there are many more courses served in a traditional French Holiday Meal than in a regular, everyday dinner. So the appropriate cutlery and glassware for the different courses will reflect that.

In PART 4 of the French Holiday Challenge, I’ll be discussing table-setting and decoration.

Table decor is important in France where a lot of beautiful tableware has been produced for generations.

The French believe you can’t enjoy good food to the fullest if your table isn’t inviting to your guests.

They feel that the decoration of the table is as important as the food served during a holiday meal.

A beautiful table keeps the family at the table, enjoying the meal and their time together.

Go to PART 4 of the French Holiday Challenge here…

You can go back and review PART 2 here...

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