How to snack (or not) like a French person

Snacking in France has its own set of rules, writes British writer in France Jackie McGeown.

How to snack (or not) like a French person
Forget a crappy diet granola bar - if you're going to snack, do it properly. Photo: AFP
Old snacking habits might die hard for foreigners living in France but luckily Jackie McGeown, who runs the site Best France Forever is on hand to help you wipe those greasy crisp paws clean for good with her rules for grazing à la française. 
Over to you Jackie.
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.
Photo: Pixabay/WikiCommons
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.
Photo: Frédérique Voisin-Demery/Flickr
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.
Photo: ADT 04/Flickr
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.
Jackie McGeown runs the site Best France Forever. Follow her on Facebook here for regular updates.

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Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

The French have developed an entire cultural tradition around the idea of an afternoon snack. It's called "Le goûter" and here's what you need to know about it.

Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

With all those patisseries and viennoiseries tempting the tastebuds in high street boulangerie after boulangerie, there can be little wonder that France  – which takes food very seriously – has also invented the correct time to eat them.

Let us introduce you to the cultural tradition of le goûter – the noun of the verb “to taste”, and a cultural tradition in France dating back into the 19th century, perhaps even as far back as the Renaissance … allowing for the fact that people have snacked for centuries, whether or not it had a formal name. 

It refers to a very particular snack time, usually at around 4pm daily. This is the good news.

The bad news is that, officially, le goûter is reserved for children. This is why many schools, nurseries and holiday activity centres offer it and offices don’t. The idea is that, because the family evening meal is eaten relatively late, this mid-afternoon snack will keep les enfants from launching fridge raids, or bombarding their parents with shouts of, “j’ai faim!”.

Most adults, with their grown-up iron will-power, are expected to be able to resist temptation in the face of all that pastry, and live on their three set meals per day. Le grignotage – snacking between meals – is frowned on if you’re much older than your washing machine.

But, whisper it quietly, but just about everyone snacks (grignoter), anyway – a baguette that doesn’t have one end nibbled off in the time it takes to travel from boulanger to table isn’t a proper baguette. Besides, why should your children enjoy all the treats? 

We’re not saying ignore the nutritionists, but if you lead an active, reasonably healthy lifestyle, a bite to eat in the middle of the afternoon isn’t going to do any harm. So, if you want to join them, feel free.

What do you give for goûter 

It’s a relatively light snack – we’re not talking afternoon tea here. Think a couple of biscuits, a piece of cake, a pain au chocolat (or chocolatine, for right-thinking people in southwest France), piece of fruit, pain au lait, a croissant, yoghurt, compote, or a slice of bread slathered in Nutella.

Things might get a little more formal if friends and their children are round at the goûter hour – a pre-visit trip to the patisserie may be a good idea if you want to avoid scratching madly through the cupboards and don’t have time to create something tasty and homemade.

Not to be confused with

Une collation – adult snacking becomes socially acceptable when it’s not a snack but part of une collation served, for example, at the end of an event, or at a gathering of some kind. Expect, perhaps, a few small sandwiches with the crusts cut off, a few small pastries, coffee and water.

L’apéro – pre-dinner snacks, often featuring savoury bites such as charcuterie, olives, crisps and a few drinks, including alcoholic ones, as a warm up to the main meal event, or as part of an early evening gathering before people head off to a restaurant or home for their evening meal.

Un en-cas – this is the great adult snacking get-out. Although, in general, snacking for grown-ups is considered bad form, sometimes it has to be done. This is it. Call it un en-cas, pretend you’re too hungry to wait for the next meal, and you’ll probably get away with it.

Le goûter in action

Pour le goûter aujourd’hui, on a eu un gâteau – For snack today, we had some cake.

Veuillez fournir un goûter à votre enfant – Please provide an afternoon snack for your child.

J’ai faim ! Je peux avoir un goûter ? – I’m hungry! Can I have a snack?