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.