Should kids be allowed to randomly snack? The French would say definitely not! Here’s why…

We’ve heard a lot lately about the dangers of snacking–but is it really such a bad idea?

Some argue that regular snacking means that kids aren’t hungry enough to eat the nutritious foods served at mealtimes. Others argue that snacking has benefits (balancing out blood glucose levels, for example).

I only let my kids have one snack a day. But before we moved, I let my kids snack several times a day. Whenever they said they were hungry, they got a snack (except in that half hour before mealtimes, and even then I sometimes gave in). However, I learned some things during our year in France that convinced me to change our family’s snacking habits.

The first thing I learned is that French kids don’t snack randomly at home. They just never think of doing it. Astounding but true. I’ve been going back and forth between France and Vancouver for 10 years, staying for long periods with extended family and friends, and I have never once seen a child open the fridge or cupboard and dig around for a snack, or demand a snack from their parents in between mealtimes. Not once. I kid you not.

The second thing I learned is that banning snacks is OK. If it’s a habit, and if everyone follows the same routine, it’s not a problem. French kids never complain about it, because it would never occur to them to eat at the ‘wrong’ time. Life goes on, and even without snacking their kids are just as well-behaved (or even more well-behaved) than ours. And they do just fine at school (even with much longer school days).

There is one exception to the snacking rule, which is called the goûter. French kids DO eat after school. But it’s a mini-meal rather than a snack, eaten sitting at the table, with real foods – like bread and butter, fruit, yogurt. Then, French kids don’t eat anything until the evening meal at 7:30 or 8 pm. No bedtime snack.

The result? You guessed it: French kids eat much better at mealtimes, because they feel hungry. And the foods at meals tend to be more nutritious. So their diets are healthier.

My kids (4 and 8) follow the French approach on weekends. It works really well for us. They are used to the pattern, eat well at mealtimes, and I don’t have to worry about spoiling their dinner by giving them a snack. It was definitely a big adjustment at first. But the French have a lot of routines and great tips they use for teaching kids how to eat. (When we applied them, the results were so successful, and I was so inspired…that I wrote a whole book about it (French Kids Eat Everything), which will be published in April with HarperCollins!)

The French approach at school is also interesting. French kids can’t snack at school, even if they wanted to. They are not allowed to bring food from home, and there are no vending machines (they’re completely banned in all schools). Most French kids don’t even want to snack, because the lunchtime meal they’re offered is so tasty. As the menus on my French Kids School Lunch Project blog suggest, French kids’ school lunches are tasty, nutritious, and highly filling. They eat a lot of foods high on the ‘satiety index’ at lunch, because the expectation is that lunch is the biggest meal of the day.

No snacks!? This might seem shocking to North American parents. What if my child is hungry? I used to think. Should you really deny you child a snack, even if they say they’re hungry? That’s so controversial, to say the least.

Here’s my view, based on what I learned in France–but also based on commonsense. There is a difference between feeling hungry and being hungry. No one wants a child to BE hungry. But the French think it’s OK to FEEL hungry. What does that mean? It means being comfortable if your stomach is empty, and being able to wait until your next mealtime–even if you do feel hungry. Otherwise, the French believe, you create a culture of ‘unregulated eating’….with all of the health problems that arise from that. And I think that we see the signs of this all around us here in North America.

No culture is perfect, and there are lots of things I wouldn’t want to adopt from France, but I do think they have some great ideas about how to feed children–ideas we could definitely learn from.

12 thoughts on “Should kids be allowed to randomly snack? The French would say definitely not! Here’s why…

  1. Pingback: French Kids Eat Everything!

  2. Great post! Although I find that “no snack” rule a bit harsh at school. Kids in France are in school between 8:30 and 16:30, recess at 10 and 15, lunch around noon.
    Even with a healthy breakfast in the morning (we don’t know what time kids wake up in the morning, the distance between home and school etc…), it can difficult for some kids to be able to follow instruction without a snack (goûter) during reces (I was one of these children)

    Me, as an adult, I need to grab a bite around these times (might be a habit I kept from my school years in France ;))

    My 5 YO daughter needs a “collation”. They have 2 per day at her French preschool: one at 9:30 am (usually a fruit) and another one a 15:30 (yogurt). Her lunchtime is at noon…

    We have the same system at home = 2 gouters per day at home… Well, as another mother said, it’s not chips or hot dogs but usually a “tartine” (bread and jam), a yogurt or a cake or crepes we made earlier that day. She never goes to the fridge or the cupboard to get cheese or cookies; she would ask first if we can give her something.

    I’m sure it will be a different story by her teen years ;)

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  3. Pingback: The science behind the French approach to kids food « Karen Le Billon

  4. ‘never rummage in the cupboards or fridge’
    My childhood history is so different starting at 5 with early morning raids to the pantry cookie supply.
    I’m working on changing this now.
    bon chance a moi :)

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  5. The great news is you don’t have to move to Paris…you can do this here too. We managed to change the way our family eats. Our daughters (4 and 8) eat a good breakfast, a healthy lunch, a mid-afternoon snack (usually 3:30 or 4 pm), and their evening meal (we aim for 6:30). That’s it. They never ask for snacks otherwise, and never rummage in the cupboards or fridge on their own. Granted, they’re young. But I hope that the habits we have instilled will stay with them.

    However – we only started this when my older daughter was 5. As we cut our her snacking, I cut out my snacking too. Our whole family’s approach to eating changed! So it’s possible. I’m not saying this approach is for everyone, but it works for us…even living back here in North America.

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  6. That’s very similar to our routine, Celine! I think it’s a ‘best of both worlds’ approach that is a nice balance. I’m sure different routines work for different families, but that’s the one that works for us.

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  7. Love your post Karen! My kids have only 3 meals and 2 snacks per day and that’s it. This way I am sure they eat their 3 important meals per day : Breakfast, lunch and dinner. And when the time of “gouter” arrived they can eat Bread/ butter + jam, or chocolate or cheese ( my daughter loved the Lauthing cow wedge cheese) or fruits ( fresh canned or sauce) and yogurt….. no chips, pizzas, hot dogs for snack time!

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  8. I agree, Roberta–healthy snacking is fine, and as long as it doesn’t interfere with meals. That’s why the post asked whether ‘random snacking’ (or grazing) is OK–and I don’t think it is!

    I wish the research was more clear on this issue. I’ve read lots of research on snacking and found papers that definitely support your view (healthy snacking maintains blood sugar levels, reduces stress) but also found research that links snacking to obesity. But I don’t think the studies I read did a good job, in general, of distinguishing between healthy, scheduled snacks and random grazing. If you know of one that did, I’d love to see it!

    By the way, some French schools (less than 20%) do give pre-schoolers a mid-morning snack (usually a glass of milk), but this is a controversial practice. Most kids start school at the age of 3, and don’t snack at all at school. They do eat their gouter at 4 o’clock, which is like a mini-meal. And that seems to fit your definition as healthy snacking, not within 3 hours of a meal (their lunch is at 12:30 and their dinner is at 7:30).

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  9. Great point Julia! I agree that there is a difference between snacking and grazing. The way I personally distinguish between them is: a snack is OK if it is composed of healthy foods, and is scheduled (not too close to mealtimes); but grazing is not OK, as it often happens randomly throughout the day, and the foods eaten when grazing may not be so healthy (especially if eaten on the run). I also think grazing can lead to emotional eating, as you suggest–which is not a good habit to develop.

    Great post on snacking by the way!

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  10. I don’t think there is anything wrong with snacking as long as it’s healthy, and only if the next meal is going to be more than 3-4 hours away. In fact there is a lot of research that supports having a healthy snack between meals. It maintains a more stable blood sugar level, prevents overeating at the table, reduces the stress that large meals on an empty stomach causes on the body’s systems, and seems to promote longer term health benefits (such as lower cholesterol and hearth disease). The problems arise when people don’t choose healthy snacks or eat because they are bored. What I give my children to snack on depends on when the next meal is: a fruit or vegetable (which is not all that filling) in the morning (when there is less of an interval between breakfast and lunch) and a protein rich snack in the afternoon (when there is a longer wait until dinner). This seems to keep their hunger at bay but still maintains their appetite for mealtimes.

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  11. Wonderful post. There is a difference between snacking and grazing. If there is a standard snack of nutritious food, decided by the parent, that’s ok. Kids have smaller stomachs and a larger relative energy need, so a snack can tide them over. But letting kids graze in the kitchen whenever they feel like it, or giving them food whenever they are hungry, teaches them the bad habit of eating whenever they want. Later on, when they’re adults, they’ll eat whenever they feel like it — and feeling like it can be triggered by a plate of donuts, a worried feeling, boredom, etc. Then…obesity!

    Here’s a post I wrote on the topic of snacking and kids: http://smartparentprogram.blogspot.com/2012/01/snacking-is-good-for-kids-grazing-is.html

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