The other day there was a conversation about ‘snacking’ on my FB page. My gorgeous friend, Angela, has been living with her two young kids in France for three months and the observations she wrote to me were so interesting that I thought I’d share them.
Angela is the first person I met when I moved to Brisbane and we bonded over a love affair with Jude Blereau and Thermomixes. With kids the same age we’ve shared many happy play dates. After many years of working in the accounting world, she is finally formalising her lifetime passion for nutrition by studying in this field.
Enjoy these observations!
Angela on Snacking
Ok, where to start? I have a just-turned 5 year old daughter and a 3.5year old son. The last three months we have spent living in France, completely immersed in the language and culture, basically living as ‘locals’ in a bid to improve our collective bilingualism. My eldest has been attending the local public school daily, including ‘la cantine’ at midday. Prior to these 3 months, I spent over 18 months living in the French speaking region of Switzerland, about 13 years ago. I feel I have a pretty good grasp on what constitutes ‘normal’ eating here. And it’s worlds away from what I see in Australia.
Firstly, some French observations:
Yes, these are generalisations, but by and large, they hold true. There is no real ‘framework’ around eating in Australia, the way there is in France. Here, there are centuries of tradition and custom to contend with. There is also, generally speaking, a very homogenous approach to parenting, which is further reinforced by the standardised and very conformist approach of all schools. With very few exceptions, there are nationally adhered to ‘mealtimes’. These are 7.30-8am breakfast, significant and decent lunch at midday, 4pm snack for children, and an 8pm dinner. That’s it. There’s no snacking, no munching, no nibbling, no using rusks or bread sticks, or sliced grapes or bananas or rice crackers or anything to appease whinging children in between. You eat at mealtimes, and that’s it. Kids learn this from virtually day one. Go to a park at any time other than 4-5pm and there will not be a water bottle, a fruit juice, a rice cracker or any kind of food in sight. And if there is, I can all but guarantee it won’t be from a French family.
Breakfast is not a big deal in France – there is no recognition of ‘cooked’ breakfasts. People simply don’t sit down and tuck into eggs, bacon, sausages, etc. Adults may, and I mean may, grab a hurried pastry on the way to work, but this is not every day. Kids will generally and almost without exception be given a bowl of cereal (I’m talking Nestle, or equivalent, full of sugar, virtually zero nutrients), or a ‘tartine’, being a piece of bread (fresh, preservative free baguette usually) with beurre (butter) and/or confiture (jam, comprising 50% sugar). School starts at 8.30. There is nothing until lunch time, by which time, everyone is understandably ravenous.
This is where the fun begins. I’ve seen Australian canteen menus, and they almost leave me dry-retching with anxiety. Hot dogs, chicken nuggets, sausage rolls, flavoured milk…..I’m sorry, but these are not food. The thought that children grow up regarding these as typical lunch time offerings sends shivers through my spine. Here, my daughter has been enjoying 3 course fare every day. At the canteen. The starter is always a vegetable dish – locally sourced and usually organic produce which is made into either a soup, or a salad (haricot green beans with vinaigrette dressing, carrots with freshly made mayonnaise and dijon mayonnaise, cos lettuce with caesar dressing, prawn and avocado salad with coriander, raw beetroot and pear salad with hazelnuts….you get the idea).
This is followed by the ‘main’ – usually an organic meat/fish served with a rice/pasta and a sauce. Then dessert is either a cheese (with more types of cheeses than days of the year in France, the kids are exposed to an enormous variety and rarely have the same cheese twice) or a yoghurt, as well as a piece of fresh, organic fruit. No, I’m not making this up. This is all standard, and subsidised by the French government to be very affordable, even to the poorest families, because there is enormous recognition, at the highest levels, of the importance of developing children with healthy, well-developed palates. And warding off the childhood obesity crisis gripping the western world.
As a result of such substantial lunch time meals, there is less need for snacking throughout the day. Kids are in school until 4pm, at which time they’ll usually tuck into their ‘gouter’ which is a less than healthy offering of packet biscuits, a bread-y type pastry or a packet of pureed fruit. I’m not pretending this is health food. But it is offset by an enormously fulfilling and nourishing lunch, and more often that not, followed up with a nourishing and substantial dinner of fresh salads, vegetables, cheeses and bread. Sure, there are some French kids whose evening meal will consist of something in a packet, and whatever is easiest for the exhausted working parents, but there are many who have healthy salads, breads, cheeses, in addition to their nourishing lunch time meals.
Not every child will eat every mouthful of every meal every day. But overall, and on the whole, French kids develop far more adventurous sense of food than any Australian kids I’ve ever seen. They don’t expect to enjoy every single thing they’re offered, but they learn to taste it, and eventually develop a liking for it because, quite simply, there’s no alternative. I’m yet to meet a French person who offers something else for fussy children. The rule is simple. This is dinner. Eat it, or don’t eat it, but there’s nothing else. Your choice.
The result? Kids learn to eat proper food, from an early age. And because of this, they’re rarely hungry between meals. Same goes for adults. When you’re not snacking, and you’re in the routine of preparing a big meal for lunch and a less substantive but nevertheless nourishing dinner, you eat more at these times and feel satisfied, hence doing away with the need for that 3pm chocolate bar. The opportunities for snacking are less. It becomes a self-fulfilling cycle. And kids learn this. Very early on.
An Australian observation:
Generally, kids eat crap for breakfast, then get bored/“hungry” at 9am. So they’re given a ‘snack’ to quiet them. Ditto at 11am. Which means, come lunch time, they’re not hungry. So they pick at whatever they’re offered. Which means, come 3pm, they’re starving, so again, they snack. And because snack food is generally (not always, but generally) more instantly palatable, in terms of sugar, salt and fat content, it very quickly displaces ‘meals’ which traditionally, were hearty, home-cooked offerings. Kids fill up at these snack times, with their muesli bars, fruit juices, biscuits, milk shakes, flavoured yoghurts etc, and have no appetite for ‘real food’ (if indeed it’s even offered), at meal times. Like anything, it soon becomes a cycle and parents will lament the fact their 3 year old will only eat microwave macaroni and cheese or a certain brand of chicken nuggets and chips for dinner. It becomes a power struggle and everyone loses. I simply don’t see that in France.
Some closing observations:
French children eat their share of processed food – what I would generally consider garbage. I’m talking highly processed, commercialised snacks consisting of refined white flour, refined white sugar, an absence of any nutrients etc. But the overwhelming difference, at least as I see it, is that these ‘snack’ foods are wedged between highly nourishing, protein and vegetable rich ‘proper’ meals. The quantity of the snacks is therefore, naturally less, and overall, the kids are getting more of the good, and less of the crap. Sure, they still have their packaged chocolate-filled madeleines or whatever packet of biscuits the parent opens for ‘gouter’ (afternoon tea) but these things are by no means the main source of nourishment in the diet. What’s more, kids are trained from the earliest of ages that lunch and dinner are not-negotiable, and whatever is served is it. As such, they don’t develop the expectation that there will be a buffet offering to suit their palates every day.
There is no perfect diet for kids and by no means a perfect way of eating but I am full of respect for a country which has determined, on a national level, that random snacking at parks is not a part of their culture.