How to snack (or not) like a French person
Snacking in France has its own set of rules, writes Jackie McGeown.
1. Snacking is not allowed in France
Eating between meals is acceptable in Britain – encouraged, even. Think of the health advice that says you shouldn’t go longer than two or three hours without eating to keep your blood sugar levels up – though always with the caution that it should be something healthy like carrot sticks, raw almonds or – I don’t know – rice cakes smothered in despair.
In France, snacking is considered to be a symptom of a problem, not the natural way of things; it is something to be fixed. The first culprit in the battle against snacking is not eating enough at mealtimes. Drink just a small coffee for the petit déj and it’s no wonder that you’ll be tempted by pains au chocolat in the patisserie’s windows, says Femme Actuelle magazine, in the most unintentionally and adorably French advice ever.
The consensus opinion is that eating a complete, balanced meal will stop you from wanting to snack. Particular emphasis is given to the importance of including carbs (especially bread), dairy products and fruit/veg at every meal. Eat properly, the advice goes, and you have no genuine reason to need more food. Which leads us to psychological reasons for eating, such as boredom, stress or pure greed. For these, Top Santé magazine recommends trying on your swimming costume, tidying your cupboard and breathing. Food for thought.
So snacking is a big NON in France, right? Well, pretty much right. But the French aren’t daft, they like crisps and cakes as much as the next nation, they’ve just figured out a way of eating them that isn’t technically snacking. Which brings us to rule number 2.
2. If you really insist on snacking then do it at 4 pm
4 o’clock is when French children have their after-school snack. Known as le goûter or simply le quatre heures, this period of the day is quite an institution in France. Its purpose is to keep kids going until dinner time (French children generally eat later than Brits) and usually takes the form of a cake/biscuit/bread, plus milk/juice and some fruit. Strictly speaking, adults are meant to have grown out of needing this afternoon boost but they do indulge in le goûter, particularly on family occasions. Eaten with extended family, it takes on more of an afternoon tea form, with fancy cakes from the boulangerie. Le goûter is the perfect time to get your cake fix.
But even if you’re on your own at work and fancy a Twix, then wait until goûter o’clock and feel smug that you are participating in a centuries-old tradition.
3. Snack properly or don’t snack at all
If you want a chocolate cake, eat a fudging chocolate cake. Don’t make do with some sort of low-calorie cereal bar or brownie-flavoured diet yoghurt. French people would rather have one amazing cake once a month than a miserable low cal substitute food every day. In Britain, there’s a whole industry creating pretend food, filled with chemicals, that claim to taste of cheesecake/brownies/whatever. These don’t exist in France (or are very hard to find). The French attitude is very black and white: eat the cake or don’t eat the cake. Sadly we Brits have adopted a grey area of eating substitute foods without getting the pleasure or satisfaction. We are literally trying to have our cake and eat it. And failing.
The French idea (as endorsed by none other than Queen Mary Berry) is that expressed in another maxim: a little bit of what you fancy does you good.
4. The only time you should go near crisps and nuts is during the apéritif
Recently I was sitting next to a very nice French man at dinner who, as a conversation starter, mentioned to me that British people eat more crisps than anyone else in the world. And you know what? It’s true! Naturally, I was bursting with pride (“What? Even more than the Americans?!”) but upon reflection, it’s perhaps not a good thing. When I was a lass, it was de rigueur to eat a packet of crisps during morning break at school. But having a packet of crisps for second breakfast isn’t the healthiest option and it is something that would definitely be frowned upon in France.
Here the time for salty snacks is the apéritif, ie that golden time before dinner when you get to graze on goodies while getting your booze on. This is why crisps are generally sold in huge packets in France: they’re meant to be shared.
5. Take time to eat and appreciate your food
We’ve established that you’re not really meant to snack in France but should you choose to, Femme Actuelle magazine advises that you take the time to enjoy and appreciate your food. If you’re going to do something ‘naughty’ you might as well make the most of it. Don’t eat standing up and finish in two minutes; sit at a table, have a tea or coffee and savour your treat.
This goes for mealtimes too. Eating slowly without distraction can lead to you eating less. If you eat quickly, your brain may not have the time to catch up and tell you how full you’re feeling and before you realise it, you’ve overeaten. The problem with eating while you’re doing something else, like watching TV, is that you don’t focus your attention on what you’re eating. It’s easy to lose track of how much has gone in your gob if you’re two-feet deep in Game of Thrones.
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