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.