Leave it empty

Don’t do it! Don’t eat them. If you are not a child, you shouldn’t snack. If you are a child, you should have some fruit between breakfast and lunch and a small snack after school. If we all followed this advice alone, we could probably stop the obesity rate from growing. And then if we made sure those snacks for children were unprocessed and nutritious (these are snacks, remember, not treats), we could be fairly confident that our children would grow up strong and healthy. We could trust that these good habits started in childhood would serve them well into adulthood.

It sounds simple, but North American cultures have become snacking, grazing cultures without clearly defined mealtimes. In France, as Pamela Druckerman describes in her book French Children Don’t Throw Food, children eat three meals, plus an afternoon snack. They don’t even have the morning snack. French children know when it’s appropriate to eat cake (after some dinners and for celebrations) and they learn early to stick to the rules, which makes them less likely to be consumed by their desire for all those delicious pastries. Those slim and stylish French adults just don’t snack.

Here in Italy there is a morning and afternoon merenda for children. It was traditionally just bread with olive oil and some fruit, sometimes it was a piece of frittata made out of the leftovers from the night before mixed up with egg, or it might be leftover garlicky vegetables on a hunk of rustic bread. As an occasional treat children ate bread with butter and sugar or a piece of crostata, which is a jam tart.

Unfortunately, the food industry has been pushing packaged merendine at children and their parents for years now so that many of these healthy ideas have been lost. Children now eat industrial sweet cakes at snack time – usually with some sort of banner ensuring that there are some synthetic vitamins stirred into all the sugar and chemicals. And, both children and adults increasingly succumb to temptations at the coffee bar – coffee bars used to just sell coffee and also pastries in the morning but now they have racks of chocolate snacks and potato chips available at all hours. It’s more common now to see children who have just had a packaged cake for a snack then stop to pick up some potato chips and soft drinks on their way home from school. And this is how the childhood obesity rate grows to one in three among Italian children.

If we only give children a snack at their designated snack time, they will come to the table with an appetite when it’s time for dinner. This often helps to eliminate a lot of picky eating behaviour. It teaches children when it’s time to eat and helps them to stop thinking about snack foods and treats as things that are potentially available all the time.

It’s hard to say no to a hungry child at 5:00 when dinner won’t be ready until 7:00, but it only takes a few days before they learn to eat at mealtimes and to stop thinking that they can graze their way through the day. It works for the French (though the food industry is busily trying to break these good habits, and the childhood overweight and obesity rate, still low compared to other countries, has grown to one in five) and it used to work for the Italians. If we ignore the food industry and stick to the structure, it can work for the rest of us, too.



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9 responses to “Snacks

  1. Nicely done. And by the way, I like the new look of your blog!

  2. Agree wholeheartedly. And you’re right to mention the French: their firm refusal to snack (except, for children, at the sanctioned hour of 4:30 pm) is admirable–even if it seems anachronistic. The amazing thing is that the ‘no snacking’ rule worked like a charm with my kids when we lived in France…and still works–even now that we’re back in North America. Maybe it would be easier than we think to change the ‘snack time, all the time’ culture here?

  3. Congratulations Jeannie…I was thrilled to read your name at the end of the article “Bringing up Bambini” in today’s Globe and Mail (March23rd) . For the last of my career (retired in 2002), I taught ‘Family Sociology’ and covered the themes of cross-cultural differences in parenting styles in my classroom. Mike and I toured Italy in May 2005 FABULOUS. Miranda is now 29 and working in Vancouver as an environmental scientist (MSc, Waterloo). Matt is 25 and working in Toronto as a 3D computer animator (Humber College) I remember you with a great deal of affection. All the best, Edie Lewis. PS I look forward to your book.

  4. Wow, I like this…I am in the marketing biz and see that snack foods are projected to hit something like $70 billion in a few years – yikes. Everywhere we go we hear: eat snacks, keep your blood sugar level, but a filling protein, fiber-rich breakfast usually fills you up all morning. Food companies want us to snack, but our bodies do not need it. Thanks for this.

  5. Peter Lowrey

    I live in Rome too and I don’t snack simply because I’m not hungry between meals. It’s the Italian diet that helps. A big plate of pasta at lunch easily tides you over until 7 or 8 in the evening. A flimsy sandwich wouldn’t. As far as all the chocolate bars now available at cafe counters I’ve never seen adults buy one. You do see an awful lot of cola being drunk at pizzerias nowadays by all and sundry. That’s pretty gross. I guess they don’t want wine or beer and are tired of water? Must read your book to find out!

  6. Tiziana

    As I replied to a previous article about Le Billon’s book, kids, and grown-ups as well, should have two snacks, “spuntini” between, respectively, breakfast and lunch, and lunch and dinner. Point is to give them (and us!) only healthy and, possibly, natural food in balanced portions, as well as main meals, starting by having a rich and complete breakfast. None of us should arrive starving to lunch or dinner: this way we won’t have an “abbuffata” (binge) and won’t become “obese”!

    • Yes, except, as I understand it, snacks for adults were not part of the food tradition in Italy. And Italians didn’t have a problem with obesity. But, then, there is the nice tradition of a little snack at aperitivo hour. I can love that idea.

  7. Tiziana

    Dear Jeannie, aperitivo is nice but it shouldn’t be considered as a snack: it’s an extra! In most coffee shops and bars in Italy (especially, Northern and Southern areas), they offer such huge portions of canapés and actual dishes (like pasta salad or, even, lasagna) that you can’t have dinner after that! Small snacks , both for kids and adults, must be very small portion of healthy food (fruit, yoghurt,fresh (squeezed) fruit juice (no sugar added), a slice of home-made fruit pie,…), and everybody should drink more water (ice-teas and soda pops must be considered as rare exceptions!). Last but not least, sport and any activity (even just a walk or doing stairs) are fundamental. Let’s not forget to ask for suggestion to nutritionist and experts.

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