What are the courses in a formal French multi course meal? 2-7 courses

Full course French multi course meal

Are you considering hosting a multi-course meal at home or curious about how French people eat for special occasions? Here’s how a traditional French full-course meal is served in France. From the number of dishes served to the sequence and order to serve the different courses. 

Family photo in our Parisian apartment

I’ve been living in the South of France with my husband and three children since 2011. Thanks to our many French friends who come from different areas of France, we’ve learned the ins and outs of French culture that you don’t experience by reading books or going to a French restaurant.

One of the things I can’t stress enough is that French culture and customs are very diverse. There will always be variations and different customs surrounding a traditional multi-course meal that vary from family to family and by region.

What I’ve tried to do in this article is describe French dining traditions behind a multi course meal that French families enjoy for special occasions in the most general and broadest sense. 

Now before we dive into the details, let’s first establish what a full course meal is in general. 

What is a full course meal?

waiter in restaurant serving a woman one course in a multicourse meal in a French restaurant

A full course meal or multicourse meal is a meal with multiple courses served sequentially one after the other. Each seperate dish is it’s own course. After each course is finished, the next course is served. 

For example, If you were to dine out at a restaurant and order an appetizer, main dish and dessert, that would be a three course meal because each of the three dishes is brought out separately.

If, however, all the dishes (appetizer, main dish and dessert) were served simultaneously in bowls or plates and placed on the table so everyone could serve themselves, that would be considered just one course. This type of single service is usually called “family-style.” It doesn’t matter how many different dishes are placed on the table or pre-plated. As long as everything is placed on the table at once, it’s just one course. 

In other words, a multi-course meal is temporal because the courses or dishes are spread out over time. A family-style meal is spatial because all the meal components are spread out on the table simultaneously.

How many courses are in a full course meal?

A simple multi-course meal or full-course meal consists of at least 2 or 3 courses but can go as high as you like.

As you approach 8 or more courses, the entire meal becomes more of a tasting menu, with the size of each portion being much smaller. The more courses there are, the longer it takes to eat and complete the entire meal.

Serving multiple courses is one of the many reasons why French people spend more time at the table than in other cultures. Even for everyday dinners where cheese is usually a separate course. 

What is a formal full course meal the French way? 

man about to take the lid off of a blue le creuset pot to serve everyone for the multi course meal he just prepared

A French full course meal is a gastronomic or gourmet meal with several courses served sequentially one after the other.

This sounds just like the definition I gave you above for a multi-course meal. However, there are certain French dining customs and elements that don’t exist in other cultures, especially during a formal French full course meal.  

For example, a classic multi-course French meal usually begins with a light aperitif (a pre-dinner alcoholic drink) and ends with a digestif (an after-dinner drink). This isn’t always the case in other cultures. In between the before and after dinner alcoholic beverages are at least four separate courses served sequentially but can go as high as 7 courses, even when cooked at home. 

The courses don’t have to be brought out to guests pre-plated. This would be almost impossible to manage without help, especially for large dinner parties.

Instead, each course can be placed on a serving platter or in a big pot on the table so that everyone can serve themselves or pass their plate to be served that course.

This promotes a lot of conversations and sharing, which is part of the French dining experience. 

Examples of a formal full course meal sequence in France

2-course meals and 3-course meals are quite normal in everyday French dining.

Dessert isn’t an everyday thing, but more often than not, a cheese course is almost a daily thing. 

2-course meal

  • 1) Starter and main dish placed on the table
  • 2) Cheese course brought out

3-course meal

  • 1) starter
  • 2) main dish
  • 3) salad & cheese 

Below are some examples of a French full course meal from 4 courses up to 7 courses for special occasions. 

Keep in mind that an aperitif is not an appetizer or a starter dish. I’ll explain in more detail what each course entails in a moment. 

Also, don’t forget that good bread and good wine is also part of the meal. 

4 course meal:

  • 0) Apéritif
  • 1) starter
  • 2) main dish
  • 3) cheese course
  • 4) dessert
  • last) digestif

5 course meal:

  • 0) Apéritif
  • 1) starter
  • 2) main dish
  • 3) salad
  • 4) cheese course
  • 5) dessert
  • Last) digestif

6 course meal:

  • 0) Apéritif
  • 1) starter
  • 2) fish course
  • 3) main dish
  • 4) salad
  • 5) cheese course
  • 6) dessert
  • last) digestif

7 course meal:

  • 0) Apéritif
  • 1) soup
  • 2) starter
  • 3) fish course
  • 4) main dish
  • 5) salad
  • 6) cheese course
  • 7) dessert
  • last) digestif

8 courses or more:

Honestly, no one eats 8 courses or more unless you have hired help, you’re entertaining the President of France, or you’re eating at the home of a French Michelin star chef. 

UNESCO Recognized the traditions of the formal  or classic French full course meal: 

A beautiful table setting

In 2010, UNESCO recognized the multi-course gastronomic meal of the French and its traditions by designating it onto its representative list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”

You might be thinking that it’s the food that was designated and you would be wrong. 

The UNESCO status isn’t just about the meal and goes beyond eating to satisfy hunger. It’s more about the traditions and social practices behind the French gastronomic full course meal as a way to bring people together to celebrate special occasions while enjoying “the art of good eating and good drinking.”

The main qualities and elements of a formal full-course French meal that earned it the UNESCO designation.

Kids helping prepare a French full course meal for a special occasion.

  • A fixed meal structure ( an Aperitif, starter, main dish, dessert, after diner digestive drink)
  • Choosing Fresh, good quality products, preferably local products with complementary flavours.
  • Putting thought into choosing recipes that complement each other and careful presentation of the dishes. 
  • Pairing wine with the food.
  • Laying out a beautiful table setting.
  • Most importantly, the rituals and conversations associated with each meal that bring people together and strengthen social ties to emphasize togetherness. Often, the entire family gets involved in the cooking process, including the children. This is how French dining traditions gets transmitted from one generation to the next. 

Just to be clear, a gastronomic french full course meal is not a daily event. It’s meant for special occasions to celebrate a milestone, a birthday, Christmas, a wedding, reunions, achievements, and even funerals. 

If you want to learn more, you should readHow to explain the gastronomic meal of the French to your mom.

Individual French courses explained: 

Beef Bourguignon in pot on table

So you want to throw your own full course meal the French way. Here’s what you need to do and an explanation of each of the different courses. 

1) Decide on the number of courses.

How many courses you serve as the host or hostess is up to you but remember, the gastronomic meal of the French is about bringing people together, not slaving in your kitchen and ignoring your guests. 

You can include anywhere from 4 to twenty courses, but anything beyond 7 courses could be difficult to manage. If you choose too many courses, you may not have time to prepare everything properly, especially if all the courses are hot and you have a lot of dinner guests.

Seven courses may sound like a lot but remember, several courses can be prepared in advance, and served cold such as the salad, cheese plate, dessert and cold starters. 

It’s also not necessary to pre-plate everything which makes large multi-course meals go so much smoother.  In a home setting, the cook usually brings out the courses in a big serving platter or pot and serves everyone or people serve themselves.

It’s really fun to eat this way, gets the conversation flowing, and the whole meal starts to take on a life of its own with a lot of movement. 

The number of courses will also affect the length of time it will take to complete the dinner.  

For example, a 4-course meal can take two hours to serve and eat, depending on the number of guests. A 7-course meal might take 3 to 4 hours. 

2) Select complimentary recipes and a sequence to serve the different courses.

Here are some general French dining customs for a multi-course meal: 

  • Dishes should be served cold to hot: If you offer several starters, serve the cold starter first, the soup, and the hot starter. 
  • Fish before meat: It’s French custom to serve the fish course before the meat if you have both as separate courses. 
  • Salty before sweet: Cheese is served before dessert in France. A French person would never serve something savoury after the sweet dessert.
  • Clear the way for dessert: When serving the dessert, all other dishes are usually removed so that only dessert dishes are on the table. 

When it comes to the order to serve courses, it’s common knowledge that the order, of course, goes starter, main dish and dessert. 

However, once you go above 3 courses, there is no universally accepted way to structure the order of the courses and what you serve before, in between and after the starter, main course and dessert.

Courses can be served in a variety of sequences. Below is a list of possible courses to include in a full course meal. You don’t need to include every single course known to fine dining. However, if you were, your French meal would proceed something like this: 

  • 0) Apéritifs & horse d’oeuvres (pre-dinner drinks)
  • 1) Amuse-Bouches, L’amuse-gueule: This is usually served in a French gastronomic restaurant to whet your appetite as you wait for your first course to arrive. 
  • 2) hors-d’oeuvres
  • 3) 1st Starter / Appetizer: a cold starter:  Starters should be served after the soup unless it’s a cold starter. 
  • 4) Soup / Potage
  • 5) 2nd starter: Hot starter: Served after the soup unless its a cold starter.
  • 6) Fish course
  • 7) 1st main course (Poultry)
  • 8) 2nd main course (Beef)
  • 9) Salad
  • 10) Cheese course:
  • 11) Desserts
  • 12) Coffee & mignardise (a bite-sized dessert, also known as a petit four)
  • Last) Digestif (after dinner drinks)

Different courses in a French multi course meal explained.

Below are the courses in a French meal explained.

Remember, you don’t have to include all of these courses.

The only obligatory courses are the starter and main courses, but cheese and dessert are considered a normal part of the multi-course meal in French culture. It’s up to you to choose which other courses you want, a dessert, a salad, a soup, a second starter, etc. 

1) Apéritif (A predinner drink and small bites)

Kir: French drinks, Aperitif made with Creme de cassis and alcohol, wine, champagne

An apéritif is a word that refers to the time before dinner starts to enjoy one or two light alcoholic pre-dinner drinks (the apéritif) usually accompanied by small bites. In a home setting, the aperitif is usually taken standing or seated in the salon before anyone sits down at the diner table. It’s where the conversation starts. 

The light alcoholic beverage is meant to open or whet the appetite, and the salty bites help stimulate thirst

Examples of aperitif drinks: 

  • Champagne
  • Vermouth (over ice)
  • Light wine
  • Kir (white wine and creme de cassis)
  • Kir royale (bubbly and creme de cassis)
  • Pastis with water and ice (popular in the south where we live)

For children or people who don’t drink, Champomy is a popular drink to serve. Champomy is a brand of fizzy apple juice that comes in a bottle that looks like a champagne bottle. 

See my guide: 77 French Aperitifs: Ultimate Guide To Predinner Drinks.

In France “Apero time” (l’heure de l’apéro) is also a time of the day to meet friends for a drink, usually between 6 or 7 pm for a quick drink and conversation before heading home or to a restaurant for dinner. You’ll usually be served something salty (for free) such as pretzels or olives with your drink.
See my guide: French aperitif tradition demystified: Meaning & must know musings

Savoury bites to serve during and with the aperitif

Hors d'oeuvres to go with the predinner aperitif drinks during a multi course meal in France

Typically, the salty bites or hors d’oevres served with the aperitif drink before the meal begins are finger foods because they can easily be eaten with hands while holding a beverage and chatting. 

The small bites can be as simple as a bowl of olives and pistachios, which is often the case. Or the small bites can be more elaborate hors d’oeuvres prepared in advance and laid out on a table for people to take at will. (see next section on hors d’oeuvres).

2) Hors d’oeuvres

Hors d'oeuvres served before the meal on a table

Hors d’oeuvre (french for outside the work) is just that. They are small and savoury bites (never sweet) served outside of the main meal, not part of the meal. 

There are many types of hors d’oeuvres that can be served along with the apero (short for aperitif.)

Types of Hors d’oeuvres

  • Canapés: bread, toast or puff pastry with a savoury topping. Canapé means sofa our couch in French, and the analogy is that the topping sits on the bread like people sit on a couch. 
  • Amuse-bouche or Amuse-gueule: (mouth amuser): A single, bite-sized portion. It’s usually served in a restaurant and chosen by the chef to show off their culinary skills.
  • Crudités: Assorted raw vegetables served as an hors d’oeuvre. Usually, there is a dipping sauce. 
  • Bowl of nuts: 
  • Olives: 

Apero is big business in France and French culture. Here is a video demonstrating a product that helps you whip up a quick but delicious hors d’oeuvres to serve with the aperitif. There are literally thousands of videos on youtube geared towards French people looking for ideas like this to help with their big dinners. 

3) Soup Course

Aïgo boulido: Provancal garlic soup for Christmas meal

It’s rare to serve both a soup followed by an appetizer unless you’re looking to increase the number of courses in a meal. The soup usually is the starter. 

However, if you want to serve both a soup and another starter, the soup should be served first unless the starter is a cold dish. Remember, the general rule of thumb is to serve cold to hot dishes. If the starter is hot, you server the soup before the starter.  

Types of Soup:

  • Soup à l’ognion: Onion soup, known in the English-speaking world as French onion soup, is made with a meat stock and onions. On top of the soup sits a chunk of toasted bread covered with melted cheese. 
  • Potage: A thick soup usually pureed to achieve that creamy texture. Vichyssoise is an example of a potage. 
  • Bisque: A smooth and creamy French soup made with a strained broth of crustaceans (lobster, langoustine, crab, shrimp.) Tomato bisque is not real bisque because it doesn’t have a crustacean broth. 
  • Garbure: A thick French stew type of soup traditionally made with stewed ham, cabbage or other vegetables, cheese and stale bread.
  • Oille: A type of french farmhouse stew or potée made with various meats and vegetables.
  • Bouillabaisse: A traditional Provençal seafood stew from Marseille
  • Tourin / tourin d’ail doux: A type of smooth French garlic soup. Different regions have different recipes, but it is very garlicky. 
  • Gaspacho/Andalusian gazpacho: A cold soup of raw, blended vegetables. It’s not a French soup, but it’s an excellent soup to serve in the summer. 
  • Velouté: French for velvety is either a sauce or a soup. Velouté soup is French, where cream or egg yolk is added at the end of the preparation to thicken the soup. 
  • Consommé: A crystal clear soup usually made from beef stock and vegetable stock similar to a bone broth. 

4) Appetizer/ Starter (French: Entrée)

main dish of meat and potatoes during a multi course French meal

In French, the starter dish or appetizer is called an Entrée, French for “beginning” or “entry.” Entrée does not mean “main course” like it does in the united states and parts of Canada. It confuses French people to see this switch up on American menus.

The entrée aka starter dish is always served before the main dish and after the soup unless it’s a cold starter. (cold dishes first, then hot)

Example starter dishes: 

  • Oeufs mimosa
  • Oeufs cocotte
  • Gougères au fromage
  • Pâté en croûte
  • Escargot

5) Fish dish

baked fish in a pan on table next to wine glasses and wine bottle

The fish dish can be the main course; however, if you’re serving both a fish course and a meat course as one of the main dishes, it’s tradition to serve the fish course first because the meat usually has a more robust flavour and fish a more delicate flavour. 

6) Main Meat or poultry dish (French Plat principal or Plat)

Boeuf en croûte: Beef wellington: French Christmas food in France

Next after the fish course is the meat or poultry dish. Le plat de résistance.

This main course will most likely be accompanied by some sides, potatoes, vegetables etc. In a restaurant setting, these might be plated for you together in advance, but in a home setting, they may all be placed on the table separately for everyone to serve themselves. 

Example main dish

  • Daube: a type of French stew with a side of potatoes
  • Roast Beef 
  • Roasted chicken 
  • Hachi Parmentier (French version of shepherd’s pie)
  • Magret de canard
  • Coq au Vin
  • Cassoulet: a type of French stew with beans, sausage and confit de duck. 

7) Salad

The gastronomic multi course meal

Usually, the salad course is a simple plate of lettuce mixed with a light vinaigrette.

If it’s more than just lettuce, or if it’s a dinner salad, it may be listed on French menus as salade mixte or salad composée.

Now on to the never-ending debate.

Do you serve the salad before or after the main dish? I really think it’s up to you and what you’re accustomed to.  I say this because, in France, different regions will serve the salad before and others after the main course.

For example, in Bresse, salade is sometimes served before the main dish. In Limousin, and in most parts of France the salad is served after the main dish. If the meal is light, the salad might be served as the appetizer before the main dish. The choice is yours based on your customs and your menu.

Some salads are versatile such as salade Nicoise, a classic Mediterranean dish from Nice France, on the French Riviera. You can serve it as the starter, a side dish and even as the main course, something I have done since we have vegetarian friends. 

salad Nicoise from Nice France

What’s in salad Niçoise? 

It’s usually made with lettuce, potatoes, tuna packed in oil, soft boiled eggs, green beans, olives, tomatoes, fresh olives and topped with a simple Niçoise dressing.

About salad dressings:

Salad dressings tend to be very simple and light, olive oil, salt pepper, lemon juice, maybe a little Dijon mustard. By the way, in France, there is no such thing as a dressing called “French dressing”

7) Cheese (Fromage)

stinky cheese board

Cheese is an integral part of the French multi-course meal. Many French people eat cheese daily as a separate course after the main meal. 

The rule of thumb in France is salty before sweets, so the cheese course is always served before the dessert or as the dessert. 

This may be different than what you’re used to if you’re from the United States or England, where the cheese is sometimes served after the desert. 

Sometimes the salad and cheese courses are combined into one course. I’ve been to social diners where the cheese was plated for me, but more often than not, there is a cheese plate, and guests can choose which cheeses they want. 

There are well over 1000 different types of cheeses made in France, so which one do you choose? Well, I choose the cheese based on my guest’s palette. In other words, don’t put out a stinky Epoisse cheese if your guests won’t appreciate it. But always put out good quality cheeses. 

All cheeses can be placed into one of three categories.

You can choose One soft cheese, one hard cheese and a third cheese. This should be plenty because the cheese course is really small. People usually take a few small pieces with bread. It’s quite filling. 

  1. Pressed cheeses: These are hard cheeses that have been pressed to remove moisture and whey and induce ripening. Well-known french pressed cheeses are Comté, Cantal, Mimolette
  2. Soft cheeses typically are much softer inside and can sometimes be gooey and mushy. Camembert, Brie, Munster, and Saint-Nectaire are just a few. 
  3. Blue cheeses: The most famous one in France is Roquefort.

If you’re brave, you can include some stinky cheeses. In that case, you might be interested in reading: 17 Famous French stinky cheeses adored in France, feared by others.

Dessert Course

Crème brûlée dessert topped with fruits and beries

Self-explanatory. It’s dessert and you can serve whatever you want. You’ve probably heard of Creme Brulée but there are so many more different kinds you can serve. In France, different regions have different customs and recipes such as the 13 desserts eaten after a Provencal Christmas dinner.

One thing to note is that coffee is not usually served with dessert; it’s served after. The exception is when you order a café gourmand in a French restaurant which is a sampling of multiple deserts alongside a small espresso. 

Coffee (usually an Espresso )

espresso coffee sitting on top of an espresso machine

Coffee in France is almost always an Espresso, and it’s never drunk before the meal. Often people will retire to the couch or the living room to enjoy their café. It’s also optional, but it’s nice to have tea for guests. 

Digestif drink (after dinner drink)

French Digestif drink Thyme liqueur-de-Thym

If guests drink their digestif drink after the coffee, the digestif is called a pousse café (coffee chaser). The digestif is usually taken sitting in the living room. 

You don’t need to have a full bar cart of digestive drinks. But you should have at least one or two options for guests. The digestive drink is usually a small pour of something strong. Traditionally, digestif drinks served after dinner have a higher alcohol content than aperitif drinks. 

If you started dinner around 7 or 8 pm, it’s probably close to 10 pm or even later so you’ll be glad to know that the digestive drink is also a signal for your guests that it’s time to go soon. This custom threw me for a loop the first time I experienced it because most people have to drive home right after. Don’t worry. The digestive drink is small. 

You might be interested in reading27 After Dinner Drinks The French Love To Drink (Digestifs aka Digestives)

Bread and Wine

Bread and wine are a big part of French culture. Not including these two elements would be like not serving gravy with mashed potatoes for thanksgiving

Bread

bread is practically the soul of a French diner. Without it something would be missing

Bread is to the French culture as rice is to Asian culture.

From baguettes to rye bread, there are a variety of choices. It’s up to you to choose the one that compliments the meal. 

Types of Bread to Try

  • Baguettes.
  • Pain de champagne (French country bread. A type of sourdough made with rye and whole wheat)
  • Pain Graines-Céréales (bread with grains)
  • Pain de Campagne (sourdough)
  • Pain Complet (whole wheat flour)
  • Pain de Seigle (rye)

Wine

group of people clinking glasses at a french multi course meal

I’ve never been to a French dinner party where there wasn’t enough wine to go around. Make sure you have enough for everyone and don’t run out. 

Wine is usually chosen to complement the meal. When in doubt, go to a wine shop and explain your menu. The wine connoisseurs will be able to help you. 

Sorbet The palette cleanser

I left out the palette cleanser that is sometimes served in between certain courses at some fine dining restaurants. Mainly because no one ever seems to serve them at home. 

However, I have a friend from Normandy who said they do serve a type of palette cleanser called le trou Normand. 

Le trou Normand, French for Norman home is a pause between dishes in a multi-course meal to cleanse your pallet with apple or pear sorbet soaked in Calvados, a type of apple brandy from Normandy.

Wrapping up the gastronomic full course meal of the French

a beautiful but simple table setting for a multi course meal

A full course meal the French way is a delicious and unforgettable experience in an atmosphere perfect for bringing people together to enjoy the art of good eating and good drinking. Give it a try.

And don’t forget to set a beautiful table. A few small touches and some flowers can really elevate the look and feel of the entire meal.  

If you’re interested in French dining and restaurants, you might be interested in reading Cafe vs Bistro vs Brasserie: What’s the Difference? A guide to dining in France

Photo of Annie André: www.AnnieAndre.com

Annie André

About the author 

I’m A Bilingual North American With Thai And French Canadian Roots Who's Been Living In The South Of France For Over 10 Years. I Love Writing Weird, Wonderful, Interesting, Forgotten, And Fascinating Articles For Intellectually Curious People Amazed By France, French Culture, And World Travel.

 

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