French kids don’t snack. Hard to believe, but true. They don’t snack at school, or in their cars, or in their strollers. I never saw a single French child rummaging in cupboards or the fridge. This was as true for the French children living in our little village as it was for the girls’ big-city cousins in Paris and Lyon.
“So when do kids snack?” I eventually asked my mother-in-law.
“They don’t snack, of course,” she replied. Her surprised look was a sign that I’d asked, yet again, one of those dumb foreigner questions. Deflated, I dropped the subject. But I kept thinking about her answer. No snacking? Really? At home in North America, any time spent with kids meant time spent feeding them snacks. I did a little research and found out that Sophie and Claire were typical: North American kids snack, on average, three times per day (in addition to their three meals per day). And I was amazed to learn that one out of every five American kids eats up to six snacks per day.
My mother-in-law was right, though. French kids don’t snack. I knew this from watching the families around us in the village. Their children ate four square meals per day, on a set schedule: breakfast in the morning, lunch at around 12:30, the goûter at around 4:30 p.m., and dinner between 7:00 and 8:00 p.m. That was it. Virginie confirmed my impressions. She even sent me France’s official food guide, which emphatically recommends no snacking. It doesn’t seem as if this advice is really necessary, anyway. For most French parents and children, this eating schedule is an ingrained, unquestioned habit. And it’s not that they are constantly struggling to avoid a secret raid on the pantry. Rather, eating at other times of the day simply would rarely occur to them. Just in case anyone strays, snack food ads on French TV carry a large white banner (like the warnings on cigarette packages) bluntly stating: “For your health, avoid snacking in between meals.”
“For most French parents and children, this eating schedule is an ingrained, unquestioned habit.”
Why are French kids raised this way? Partly because French kids (like kids anywhere) are adults in training. And French adults, for the most part, don’t snack — at least not in public. They don’t walk down the street munching on muffins or sipping coffee. They don’t keep snack foods in their purses or pockets (or at least they’re not supposed to). When snacks are eaten regularly, and publicly, this is sufficiently out of the ordinary as to merit public comment. I remembered one anecdote about a well-known French politician: even before he made international headlines, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (former Minister of Finance, and then Director of the International Monetary Fund in Washington) was slightly infamous for regularly indulging in a tartelette — a sort of miniature pie — for his late-afternoon treat.
Still, I couldn’t quite believe that French adults didn’t snack. “But what about all of those cafés in Paris?” I asked Véronique on the phone one afternoon.
“It’s true that Parisians love to go out to the café, to wander the city,” she told me. (She used the word flâner, which roughly translates as “strolling slowly, aimlessly, while enjoying whatever there is to look at.”) “But watch the people sitting in cafés, and after a while you’ll realize something: Most of the people eating outside of mealtimes are tourists. The French customers might be having an espresso, but that’s usually it.”
Even the words that they used to describe snacking were revealing. Virginie talked about an en cas (which translates as “just in case,” implying a once-in-a-while deviation from your ordinary routine) and grignotage (from grignoter, which means to nibble or gnaw). The implication is that it is both unusual, and somehow deplorable, to snack. In fact, Virginie explained, it was only when researchers started doing food diaries a few years earlier that the French realized that adults snacked at all. This news of a “snacking epidemic” caused something of a scandal in France, with politicians and experts bemoaning the decline of healthy eating. She sent me some newspaper clippings, and I had to laugh when I read the catastrophic headlines. I found it hard to imagine what the French would say about the fact that 98% of American adults snack every day, and nearly half of American adults snack three times per day. And I doubted that Americans were eating what French people ate at snacktime: fruit and tea or coffee topped the list, followed by yogurt, and bread and butter.
So the reason that French kids don’t snack is simple: They are just like their parents. And the no-snacking rule has some clear advantages for their parents. Their kids’ car seats and strollers are not covered in crumbs (fresh white baguette, one of our family favorites, is also one of the world’s best crumb-making devices) or sticky juice residue (an excellent adhesive for crumbs). Their purses are not secret storehouses of goodies that send their kids into whining low blood sugar—inspired tantrums (and that leak disastrously onto keys, brushes, and credit cards). One astonishing observation that I made in our first few weeks in France just about sums it up: Strollers made in France don’t have cup-holders and neither (at least traditionally) do French cars.
This means that snacking is one of the many things to which un-written food rules apply in France. No snacks are served at school — with the rare exception of three- and four-year-old kindergarteners in some schools (and pressure is mounting in France to ban this somewhat controversial practice altogether). And no French parent expects food to be made available at any event outside the home, except a birthday party (which will be scheduled to coincide with the timing of the traditional afternoon goûter). In fact, offering a snack to a child at the “wrong” time is definitely a major food faux pas. I had been reminded of this the week before when we were visiting my mother-in- law’s house. We’d been there longer than expected, and I was rushing to leave at 6:00 p.m. when I stopped to offer a snack to Sophie, as I knew she was feeling desperately hungry (mostly because I was feeling the same way).
“It’s nearly dinnertime,” my mother-in-law protested. “You’ll spoil her appetite!” And before my unbelieving eyes, she removed the cookies from Sophie’s hands, holding firm despite the wailing protests that followed. Sophie would simply have to wait to eat. Tight-lipped, I gave in, and hauled Sophie to the car. “You’re right! Of course she’ll have to wait,” was all I said to Janine. And wait she did, but not for long; as soon as the car was out of the driveway, I slipped her a baguette in the backseat. “Grignote all you like!” I told her, feeling defiant.
This incident was one of many. Since we had arrived, snacking had gradually become a major source of tension in our family. Yet it was about to become one of the food routines that we would successfully change.
We have since returned to Vancouver after our year in France. Our family eventually stopped snacking and began to follow the French eating routine (three meals per day, and one afternoon snack) with success. On the weekends, our children follow the French routine and snack only once per day (in the afternoon). But on weekdays, our kids still have a morning snack at school, like the other children — which follows the French approach to healthy eating, based on the principle of ‘moderation, not deprivation’! My daughters no longer eat in the car, or on the run; we have decided to make daily family meals a priority, and no longer participate in after-school activities that would prevent us from sitting down for dinner, usually at 6:30. The compromise is, we feel, a good one: We’re preserving the positive aspects of the French approach, while adapting it to life here at home.
Karen Le Billon’s new book is titled French Kids Eat Everything. Karen is an author, teacher, and proud mom of two. Together with her daughters (aged 4 and 8) and French husband Philippe, she divides her time between Vancouver and France. A Rhodes Scholar with a PhD from Oxford University, She tweets at @karenlebillon, and her weekly posts on food politics, France, and parenting can be found on her blog at frenchkidseateverything.com
The foregoing is adapted from French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.
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