Snacking – is it really such a bad idea?

Karen Le Billon

Today I’m delighted to have as my guest blogger Karen Le Billon who was born in Montreal and is based in Vancouver. Karen is an author and teacher. Married to a Frenchman, she has two daughters, and her family divides its time between Vancouver and France.

French Kids Eat Everything (HarperCollins) is Karen’s newest book, a memoir about family and food, inspired by a year spent in her husband’s hometown–a small seaside village in Brittany.

Karen has a PhD from Oxford University, and is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Rhodes Scholarship, a Canada Research Chair, and Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 award. She currently teaches at the University of British Columbia.

She is one of the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation’s Real Food Advocates.

Here is her thought provoking blog.

“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). Some research supports either view. So it’s hard for parents to know what to do.

I only let my kids have one snack a day. But before we moved to France, 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 ‘graze’, or snack randomly throughout the day. They just never think of doing it. Astounding but true. Over nearly two decades of spending time with my in-laws, extended family, and French friends in France, 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. Not snacking is a habit (just like snacking is a habit for many of our kids).

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. The French feel that this is a good thing, because the foods at meals tend to be more nutritious. In other words, a scheduled snack is fine, but random snacking (or grazing) is not.

The French approach at school is also interesting. French kids can’t snack at school, even if they wanted to. They are strongly discouraged from bringing food from home (it’s pretty much unheard of), and there are no vending machines (they’re completely banned in all schools). 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 some. In some American schools, snacks are served to all children (on the theory that they need good nutrition, so that hunger doesn’t interfere with learning — which is true, particularly for lower-income kids, but perhaps not necessarily needed for all children).

Not snacking is also a difficult concept if you don’t like the idea of your child being hungry. What if my child is hungry? I used to think. Should you really deny your child a snack, even if they say they’re hungry? That’s controversial, to say the least.

Here’s the French view: 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. To prove their point, they might refer to the statistics that show that American children snack, on average, three times per day (and one in five snack up to five times per day).

Although I didn’t agree with the French view when we first moved to France, I’m now convinced. That’s why I no longer let my kids snack more than once per day. We make it a fun, tasty, healthy snack, but we keep it to a schedule.

No culture is perfect, and there are lots of things I wouldn’t want to adopt from France; and I’m certainly not an uncritical advocate of French parenting. But I do think the French have a good approach to snacking.”

What do you think?