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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ANALYSIS: Is France food self-sufficient?

The war in Ukraine and, in the longer term, climate change have prompted concerns about supplies and cost of food - but would France be able to produce enough to feed its population if necessary?

ANALYSIS: Is France food self-sufficient?

As food prices rise in France and elsewhere, questions over the country’s food security and self-sufficiency have been asked.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – a major exporter of wheat, corn and oil – has affected global markets, with prices for such products increasing dramatically, while sanctions imposed on Russia – the world’s biggest wheat exporter – following the invasion are also hitting prices. 

It has also prompted questions as to whether, if necessary, France could feed the 67 million people who call it home, while both the European Commission and the G7 set out plans to safeguard global food security. 

Unlike other countries, such as Switzerland, France does not have a formal policy of self sufficiency for food – though it does have a policy for energy security.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear power?

“There is no risk of shortage in France because our agriculture and our agri-food sectors are strong and sovereign,” former agriculture minister Julien Denormandie said on March 16th, while acknowledging that the industry faced a number of challenges.

He pointed to the economic and social resilience plan published by ex-Prime Minister Jean Castex to protect the French economy from the the effects of the Ukraine war, and which included measures to, “secure our producers, our processors as well as our agricultural and food production from 2022.”

Food prices, as predicted, have risen, both for imports and for domestically produced goods as farmers are hit by rising costs for fuel. The agriculture industry has been among the sectors consulted and farmers have been singled out for support, in order that they will be able to minimise price rises to consumers.

In April 2020, at the height of the Covid pandemic, it was estimated that France imports about 20 percent of its food.

But France – a food exporter – could feed its entire population, according to a report by the think tank Utopies, published in April. There’s a reason the country has been referred to as the ‘bread basket of Europe’.

The study found that France currently meets 60 percent of its own food needs, but has the potential to become self-sufficient. The report said that the 26 percent of food products currently grown in France for export or incorporation into processed food could be used to cover 98 percent of France’s domestic needs, the report said.

Food processing in France, of which some 24 percent is currently exported, could cover 114 percent of the country’s needs in that sector, it added.

Of course food ‘needs’ don’t include luxury imported items like exotic fruits, chocolate and coffee, so diets would see a change in a completely self-sufficient France.

More recently, drought has also prompted short-term concerns, with French farmers worried about their harvests this year. 

France is the EU’s biggest wheat exporter, and one of the top five in the world. But hopes that French farmers would be able to offset at least some of the shortfall in the world’s supply of grain following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been hit by the record low rainfall so far this year, which have prompted warnings of a large drop in yields.

ALSO READ ‘No region has been spared’: Why the dry weather in France is causing concern

The forecast is for a smaller than usual French wheat harvest this year. With wheat-producing states in the US such as Kansas and Oklahoma also suffering in drought conditions, a poor harvest in France this year could be particularly significant – and could lead to wheat prices rising even higher in the short term.

At the height of the pandemic, president of the Fédération nationale des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles (FNSEA) Christiane Lambert told Les Echos that there were two key pillars to ensuring food security and independence in France – the ability to produce and the ability to store. 

“No one bought French flour anymore because foreign flour was cheaper,” Lambert said. “So we produced less. But with the coronavirus crisis, it was necessary to respond to demand and therefore relaunch the production lines by running them day and night to avoid shortages.”

French agriculture was able to meet the challenge then. “We have in France a complete ecosystem which allows us to control all the links in the food chain … It must be preserved if we want to be sovereign over our food,” Lambert added.

But there would need to be a change in philosophy about food, according to Les Republicains’ senator Laurent Duplomb.

In France, “entry-level” agricultural products are mainly imported, since authorities have insisted on reorienting domestic production towards quality over quantity.

“We must also stop focusing on high-end agriculture because food sovereignty means being able to produce for everyone,” Duplomb said back in 2020. 

“The risk in a few years is to have two French consumers. The first will have the means to buy top-of-the-range French products, the second will be condemned to consume only imported products since France will no longer produce them.”