Thursday, April 08, 2010

Snack time

My husband tells me that "snack" is his least favorite word in the English language.

He hates the sound of it, the idea of it, the typical content of it. "C'est tous les chips and crap!" he tells me with disgust. He takes it a bit far, if you ask me, but I understand where it comes from. Although a four o'clock snack, le quatre heures, is part of the daily routine for young children, snacking is culturally forbidden in France for adults. I endure stares and ironic "bon appetit!" remarks from my colleagues when I dare to indulge at my desk. It is considered the slippery slope to obesity, and worse, the undermining of one of the very cultural foundations of France: the respect of three true square meals a day.

It just isn't done.

While nutritionists here toe this party line, nutritionists in the US generally embrace snacks, as long as they're composed of healthy foods. This, in a nutshell, is why I'm skeptical of nutritional science: when we talk about food, the cultural element is so huge, it necessarily pushes a good portion of scientific impartiality to the side.

For my part, I think that the key to eating healthfully is eating mindfully. This means reading labels, making balanced choices, and most importantly, listening to your body's hunger cues. With the occasional exception, you shouldn't eat something just because it is there, available, and tempting. In my opinion, it is a heck of a lot easier to maintain this mindfulness when eating is confined to a specific time and place, and perhaps has a certain ritual about it. It is dinner time. We sit down, serve ourselves a little of everything, discuss, eat, enjoy. The television is off. Books are closed. Toys are put away. In a French household, the most important piece of furniture is the dining room table. For the record, this is the way my American family ate when I was growing up.

In the US, it is stupefying easy to eat all the time without thinking about it. We drive-thru. We munch. We super-size. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in an American household, the most important piece of furniture is often the couch.

I'm exaggerating, of course. It isn't as if they've got everything figured out over here, and I'm as sick as the next person of all the gushing about the "French paradox." France is no longer, if it ever was, a country of food snobs: my colleagues invite me to go to McDonalds (or Quick, the native French equivalent) for lunch, and I ostentatiously refuse. Yet this cultural meal time vs. snack time difference intrigues me. Just stop at a freeway rest area at midday on any weekend during French school vacations, and you'll see families sitting at picnic tables or on the grass, napkins spread, forks, knives and plates at the ready. The whole ritual of lunch time is respected, and the traffic visibly lets up for two hours between noon and two o'clock.

Le Petit's nanny religiously gives him a snack at four o'clock every day. When he is with us on Wednesdays and on weekends we usually forget, unless, rarely, he asks -- usually around four o'clock, as if his stomach were programmed to remember. He's a good eater (genetic, I'm sure, that is to say lucky for us), and never seems to have trouble holding on until dinner, which in France usually comes late, near 8 o'clock.

Mind you, in the past, before he chilled out about being in the car, we managed entire road trips by handing cookie after cookie to le Petit in the back seat. My overarching parenting strategy is all about what works. I just wonder if so much snacking is truly necessary, especially for adults and older kids, or whether a little cultural skepticism (and some "Tisk, tisk, mon dieu, but it's almost dinner time!") would be a healthy thing to add.


Cloud said...

His stomach IS programmed to eat a snack at 4, if that is what he usually does.

Our body sets up biochemical "time to eat" cues, much like it has biochemical "time to sleep" cues, and both are plugged into the circadian rhythm pathways. It is fascinating stuff.

I'm a snacker, particularly when I'm nursing, but I have defined snack times.

And as you saw in my recent blog posts, we aren't so lucky with Pumpkin's eating preferences, but for the most part, I'm pretty unperturbed by that. The potty training issues bother me. The picky eating is OK. Maybe that is because I was (and still am, to a large extent) an unadventurous eater growing up.

paola said...

@Cloud, interesting. When I was weaning Zoe's morning feed a while back, Isabel from Child of Mind, told me just that. Basically Zoe had been programmed to request a feed at that time ( 5.30 am) and it would take her two or so weeks before she stopped waking up for it. In fact, that is exactly what happened. She did eventually get the message, but it did take a while.

Andi said...

Snacking was definitely something that made me stick out while I was working in Switzerland. After awhile I stopped doing it. But now that I am back in the U.S. I have picked the habit back up and I wished I hadn't! My French husband NEVER snacks - drives me insane! Also dessert for him is yogurt and fruit - which I like too, but sometimes you just want a chocolate something or other! Sigh!

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

@Cloud - I don't tend to snack, although during pregnancy and while nursing I did, because my body told me pretty clearly that I needed to. If you have set snack times, that's eating mindfully, in my book. I am going to write another post about the pitfalls of the French "only-eat-at-mealtime" approach, because there are problems with that, too...

I think the picky/not picky thing is genetic, and neither I nor my husband (not anyone in our families, as far as I know) are picky eaters.

Don't even get me started on potty training... I can't talk about regressions, because that would assume we've made more progress than we have in the first place! I keep telling myself he WILL be ready for school in September. He WILL be ready for school in September. Right?

@Andi - my husband eats ridiculous quantities of fruit, which is wonderful and healthy and makes me feel completely inadequate.

Sylvie said...

I loved the fact that practically no one was snacking publicly in France. You don't realize how disgusting we often look when we chew until you're sitting opposite someone in the Metro (an American, I'm sorry to say) who is snacking, noisily and without regard for the dirty looks she's getting. On the other hand, what about those times when you're starving and have not had time to eat? Then, I suppose, it would be nice to be "allowed" to snack in public!

caramama said...

What do french women do when they are pregnant and nursing? Is it okay then for what I've been calling "second breakfast" and "second lunch"?

And is it bad that I'm currently snacking on pieces of chocolate while reading this? ;-)