Home Decor

What My French Family Taught Me About Breaking Out the Good China

Aka, how to treat each day like a special occasion.

Photo by Rocky Luten

In the house where I grew up, we had two living rooms: a formal one that we weren’t allowed to sit in, and the other that housed the television and, often, our overflowing toys and books. When my French husband visited my family home for the first time, the dual living room situation confused him: The house isn’t particularly large, and my parents don’t regularly host guests, so the formal living room sat empty most of the time. After some convincing, my parents gave us free rein to rearrange the furniture—we left them with twice as much usable space, and a chance to enjoy the expensive, comfortable, practically unused furniture that they’ve owned for 25 years.

My parents’ hesitance to use nice things isn’t limited to furniture, unfortunately. My dad was once gifted a great pair of loafers that he rarely wore—and now that he needs to wear supportive sneakers, he has little reason to. On that same visit, I unearthed a bottle of good whiskey that has probably been sitting in the pantry for a decade (unopened), and spied all the beauty products I’ve ever sent my mom for her birthdays—still in their packaging. (“I’m saving them,” was her response.)

Their habits definitely rubbed off on me: I used my beauty products sparingly, ate off of mismatched plates, and kept my prized leather boots for only the most special of nights out. When we were cleaning out our apartment for a move a few years ago, I noticed a few of my barely-used cosmetics had expired, pieces of the Limoges china were still wrapped in bubble wrap from when I’d brought it home, and my beautiful shoes had started to show some irreparable cracks in the leather.

Meanwhile, on our annual visits to my in-laws in Southwest France, I noted how my husband's family effortlessly incorporated items and rituals that I’d normally consider indulgences into everyday life. After one particular visit, it finally clicked for me: the nice things we have only hold value if we allow ourselves to enjoy them. It took a few years, but I’ve now finally rid myself of the guilt associated with taking pleasure in owning (and regularly using) the good stuff. Here are some of the lessons I learned along the way:

Put your personality on display at home

One of my favorite apartments to visit in France is our cousins’ home in Toulouse. It has a modern dining table surrounded by Eames-style dining chairs and a sitting area with a nesting coffee table to expand for when they have guests. The art and mementos that hang around the apartment are so authentically them—books on street art, a Toulouse rugby ball on display, the family photos alongside artwork by the kids—nothing feels staged or extraneous.

Clutter is minimal but not completely absent. After all, a pile of book or pieces of mail left around are simply signs of life. I’ve taken that approach when decorating our current apartment by hanging photos that we love, dragging an antique street sign home from France to put on the mantle, saving up for a Moroccan tea table I’ve been eyeing for years. Now when we have friends over, we all squeeze onto our blue velvet sectional for drinks and enjoy spirited conversation without worrying too much about if our place is styled properly—for us, it’s exactly right.

Break out the good china. Even for pizza

My belle-mere insists that we set the table for every meal (even breakfast!) and I adore it. The gorgeous blue and white plates she often uses for dinner are akin to something you’d see hanging on a wall in an antique shop, but they are pieces she’s collected through years of visiting brocantes, the French equivalent to an antique fair. Silverware is carefully placed down, along with water and wine glasses and linen napkins. Putting the effort into creating a beautiful and purposeful setting at the table makes it more of an experience, and encourages you to enjoy what’s on the table. Even if it’s a frozen meal. Bon appetit!

Skincare is self-care

Most French women are conditioned into having excellent skincare habits, so it’s no surprise that my mother-in-law has beautiful skin—she looks glowy without much more than moisturizer on her face. I’ll admit I’ve been blessed with fairly good genes, but that's no excuse for being slack. I arm myself with a small but intentional arsenal of skincare products—an inexpensive face wash and toner, higher-end serum, moisturizer, and SPF, and make sure I do my simple skincare routine in the morning and evening. That way, I’ll literally be putting my best face forward every day.

You don’t need an excuse to get dressed up

Aside from pajamas around the breakfast table, my French family is dressed to leave the house at a moment’s notice. I’ve taken this habit back with me to California to prevent myself from slipping into the habit of staying in yoga pants all day—getting dressed puts me into the mental state of starting a productive day. In addition, I’ve made sure that my clothes are pieces that I love so I always feel good when wearing them—why own these things if they barely see the light of day?

Are you team use-it-or-lose-it or team save-it-up? Let's discuss!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Woofgang
  • Murielle
  • Janet C Williamson
    Janet C Williamson
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  • Jeanne Sutter
    Jeanne Sutter
Lover of concept stores, croissant connoisseur.


Woofgang March 3, 2021
Love this article so much!
Murielle July 28, 2020
Hi Bernadette,
Growing up we had the same tradition, and so I married, and so did the 'break out the good stuff'.
Years later, I read an article about comments that she (author) over-heard at her mom's wake. "My sister 'finally ' wore her special dress 'for the first-and-only-time'". She realized how true this was. She said that as soon as they returned to her parents house, she 'broke out her mom's best china'. When she got home she decided to use her own 'best dishes' daily. She stated that she was going to enjoy what she had, before she herself passed away'.
Therefore, 'wear the dress now'! 🤗
Murielle July 28, 2020
Hi Bernadette,
Growing up we had the same tradition, and so I married, so did the 'break out the good stuff'.
Years later, I read an article about comments heard at the author's mom's wake. "Well mom 'finally ' wore her special dress 'for the first-and-only-time'". She realized how true this was. She said that as soon as they returned to her parents house, she 'broke out her mom's best china'. and used them
Janet C. February 4, 2020
Growing I, like everyone else, was taught by my mother to save things for either Sunday or a special occasion. And like every child, I never wore out those special clothes or wore out those shoes before outgrowing everything. When I first moved out and started my first job, I still had the same mindset and saved my special clothes for "special". One day I looked into my closet and decided that was ridiculous. I started wearing those clothes and using that china, silver and crystal for every day. When friends came to dinner in jeans and tees, they were at first surprised, and then laughed and felt special when I told them my friends were worth the good china etc. and that I wasn't hiding beautiful things any more. It is a perfect philosophy to live by. Not saying EVERY meal needs off the good stuff or you wear your best dress to run out and buy a loaf of bread, but you get it.
sf-dre February 3, 2020
Growing up we were a save the good dishes, etc. for special occasions or holidays. I call it breaking out the good china, too. I was fortunate enough to inherit my parents' china cabinet when they downsized, so it's out in the open and I use the china, crystal and my grandmother's mismatched teacups.
Jeanne S. January 23, 2020
I have half of my parents' wedding china. I have been considering hosting a "Fancy China Potluck" so I will use it. This was a good nudge in that direction, thanks!
norcalgal January 21, 2020
I agree with the author this is how most Americans were raised. Living rooms sat unused and the good china and silver sits in drawers.. It is the same with good clothes. It's ridiculous. If we took a clue from the French we can live better and with less! Everyday is special. Love this. Thanks for the reminder.
Bernadette M. January 22, 2020
Thanks for the comment! I am glad to know I'm not alone in growing up with the "save it for a special occasion" mentality.
jlg84 January 20, 2020
I was raised the same way--my folks used the silverware they received as a wedding gift for every meal, along with Italian porcelain (Richard Ginori, a name I knew even as a seven-year old) and cloth napkins. I never knew people who had the "good stuff" but only used it for extremely rare special occasions until much later in life. And, growing up in NYC, the idea of a room only to be used for special occasions would have been utterly ludicrous.
Arati M. January 21, 2020
Thank you for your comment! I live in NYC, and couldn't agree more. The great thing about living with space constraints is that it forces you to be intentional with what you surround yourself with, and how you interact with every little object in your home.
DMStenlake February 3, 2020
I was not raised in such a big house as to allow for formal and not but my husband was and we still laugh about the plastic covered furniture that was never used in the formal living room. And who would want to?!!! Our home is small in comparison to many in our Southern California neighborhood It is just my husband and myself now so we’ve designed the house for ourselves. It is comfortable for us but all our friends and family feel/say how welcoming and warm and relaxing it is. We always use placemats and for outside cloth table clothes too Awhile ago I pulled out the inherited “good” silver because I like the serving spoons we use them daily. So...Now onto using the rest of the “good” stuff daily Thanks for your delightful article.
DMStenlake February 3, 2020
BTW in reference to my other comment as a child in the Midwest we did have an eat in kitchen and formal dining room, but we used the dining room often usually for Sunday suppers and of course always with company.
AntoniaJames January 20, 2020
Sterling for every meal and every snack, every day since we were married 37 years ago. Same with cloth napkins and placemats, and a proper place setting for every meal and most snacks. (In fact, we always put cloth napkins in the boys' lunchboxes, even when they were little.)

In the house in which we raised our sons, we had only a dining room (no kitchen table or island) so we took advantage of that to create a family culture of great respect for mealtime conversation. We all ate every dinner and nearly all weekend meals together, except in extraordinary circumstances - and believe me, we were as "busy" as every other young family. We just decided to make pleasant, somewhat formal meals a priority. ;o)
Arati M. January 21, 2020
Beautifully put, Antonia. It really is about prioritizing what you believe to be important to you, your family, and creating a meaningful life at home, full of great memories.
Bernadette M. January 22, 2020
This is wonderful! I honestly cherish the times we get to share meals around a table together with our families. With our busy travel schedules and no children to keep us on regular mealtimes, my husband and I have to make an extra effort to sit down together but it is always worth it!
HolidayBakerMan January 20, 2020
Liz January 20, 2020
This is such a great article. I have the same theory about how I decorate my home, beautifully said. I love all these points, a comfortable, chic, effortless (almost) enjoyment of life.
Bernadette M. January 22, 2020
Thank you so much for reading!
VeraDysonn January 20, 2020
I love this. I was raised like you. We had special things set aside for august visitors or special occasions. We did this until, I learnt and introduced my family to the art of self care. I told them, we are special and should treat ourselves specially at all times.

I just learnt a new term 'Breaking out the good china' Thanks for that!
My regards to your family
Bernadette M. January 22, 2020
Thank you so much, Vera! I'm still trying to convert my mom to using up the nice products I've sent her, but I'm definitely still feeling great about getting them to use the nice furniture every day!
VeraDysonn January 27, 2020
I love that. It's a step at a time. It will take a little time and nudge to get them there.
I remind myself 'You only live once'and while at it, make sure you treat yourself good. It inspires me to pamper myself.