Eatable Europe

By - August 25, 2005 (Updated: November 30, 2014)

Living in Europe has shaped some profound changes in my lifestyle. One of the most significant is how I view food.

Gone are the microwave meals and fast food mega-combos. I’m exposed to produce I’ve never even seen before and I consider the dining process much differently than I once did.

Attitudes toward food in Canada are slowly starting to shift as people begin to contemplate what the food they are consuming is doing to their bodies. But while organic foods and restaurants are becoming more widely available, the line up at the drive-thru window still seems as prevalent as ever.

Then there was me … a veggie hating, deep-fried loving, junk-food junkie. Reflecting back on it now, it wasn’t even that I liked the stuff that much; it was just available.

I worked in a business park, surrounded by big box stores and fast food joints. My meals consisted of a burger or deep fried ‘chicken’ part, way too many fries and a litre of cola.

At home I ate white bread, white pasta and foods that I could pull out of the freezer and eat within five minutes.

Life conspired to change my evil ways. Slowly, I began to consider what my lifestyle was doing to my body. Then we came to Europe.

The first time I went to a grocery store here, I observed some major differences. My Canadian supermarket had aisles and aisles of frozen foods and pre-made meals. There was a whole aisle dedicated to sugary breakfast cereals and another for potato chips and still another for soda.

But here there was produce; fruits and vegetables I hadn’t even seen before, let alone knew how to cook. There were hardly any chocolate-frosted marshmallow puff type cereals and the potato chips and soft drinks were fewer in number than the fresh fruit juices.

Most notable to me was the bread. It was all freshly baked. There was no bleached white Wonderbread here. When I took it home, it lasted two days before it went stale. That really opened my eyes to what was keeping my Canadian white bread ‘fresh’ for two weeks …

In addition to the foods themselves, I quickly noticed that the whole ritual of food consumption is different in Europe.

In North America, food tends to be about quantity. We don’t even seem to care about how good it tastes anymore, as long as it’s served quickly and there is loads of it. We gobble it down and are then hustled out the door so the next customer can wolf down their meal.

It took me a while to get used to actually asking for the bill. I altered between thinking it was bad service on the part of the waiter to have to be reminded, to thinking myself rude for asking before he had time to bring it to me.

Then I learned that here, your table is yours until you choose to vacate it. You can linger as long as you like — and are in fact expected too.

On our first few occasions of dining out, Andrew and I ate our food quickly and immediately requested the bill. The waiters looked at us like we were crazy and then gave us that pity-filled: “Ah, you’re tourists” look. It was a look that said: “I’m sorry you haven’t yet learned the art of enjoying the dining experience”.

Now, Andrew and I enjoy a drink while we linger over the menu. We don’t think the service is dawdling if we have time for a conversation between courses. Moreover, we take the time to enjoy our meal and each other’s company afterwards.

And as for those veggies I didn’t know what to do with … I am taking pleasure in experimenting with new recipes and cooking meals from scratch.

None of this is to say that I never indulge in junk food or that Belgium is a fast-food free Eden where everyone eats tofu and drinks soy-milk.

The North American take-out spots are all here and they don’t show any signs of dwindling business. It makes me sad to think that attitudes here could shift and become like those in North America.

But, so far anyway, it seems that Europeans still view eating as an important event, where quality still wins out over quantity.

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Alison Cornford-Matheson
Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities. Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She loves to discover hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She has visited 45 countries and is currently slow travelling through North America in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+
Alison Cornford-Matheson
- 23 hours ago


  1. Comment by Drew "The Geek"

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Drew "The Geek" August 26, 2005 at 08:42

    Food is definitely different in Europe… and the eating habits vary based on the culture too. Consider the spanish; some only start eating when most of us are considering going to bed! Which leads me to the fact that if you want a meal in Brussels at 5pm, then you will likely need to search for a while. The restaurants here seem to open at 7pm or later which is ok, as long as you remember to have a little tapas first 🙂

  2. Comment by Diana

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Diana September 12, 2005 at 14:41

    Just wanted to say Hi. Stumbled here somehow, and dont know how. Am Canadian who now lives in London England and hating it. Am moving to Belgium in November to live on my new farm…(am squeeling) with my dog, cat and 8 horses. Can’t wait. My poor husband will have to commute to London. I did 7 years in UK with not a girlfriend to show for it. (they dont exist there) anyways, just thrilled to read of your positive experience in the move. So refreshing. All the best, Diana from Montreal, and eventually Toronto.

  3. Comment by Diana

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Diana September 12, 2005 at 14:43

    Sorry this is for food only right? Well, have been starved for quality produce in England and so looking forward to exploring Benelux food. My husband and I are both serious foodies so happy to see this up. Good luck! Diana again

  4. Comment by Peter

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Peter October 5, 2005 at 10:00

    When you look at the Europeans, they estimate themselves rather high on the culinary scale. Although this is true for dining out, this sure isn’t always for the day to day dinner. For a foreigner it doesn’t show at first sight, but the Belgians have developped their own version of the fast food chain : the “fritkot”, something that can only be described as a shack where the main menu is french (who came up with this name?) fries and meat on the side. When you do a count on any particular trip through any city, you will realise how serious this business is. And this is where reality kicks in : where as I can order Sushi (and about 5 other types of foreign food) to be brought to my girlfriends place in New Jersey, most of my Flemish friends don’t even know what Sushi is, and would visit a Fritkot about 3 to 4 times a week (sometimes as a dinner, sometimes just as a snack in between). So the art of food depends much on the group of people where you’re in.

  5. Comment by François

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    François February 11, 2011 at 04:00

    Nice one 🙂

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