In France, snacking is taken quite seriously. On an average working day, people get up and eat breakfast at the same time as the rest of the world – say 7-ish. They have lunch at roughly the same time as the rest of the world – say between noon and 1:00. And that’s where normal ends, particularly for school-age children, at least for an American kid like me. Because the school day doesn’t end until 6:00 for high schoolers, and 5:00 for middle school. Except on Wednesdays, when it finishes at noon. So dinner gets pushed back a bit, and kids of all ages have what is known as a goûter at 4:00. This isn’t so much a snack as it is a very small meal, usually involving exceptionally sweet things (another breakfast, then) like cookies and/or hot chocolate and/or pastries. Dinner isn’t served until 8-ish, and it tends to be very light by Anglo/American standards, so this is reasonably understandable.
I have to say, though, that one of the things I’m almost certain about is that eating late played a big part in my weight gain. That’s partly because it’s just not good for us to eat late, but it’s also because, as someone raised in the U.S., I am pretty attached to a substantial evening meal. I feel a bit swindled if after a long day’s work, all I get is a small bowl of vegetable soup or a salad and a slice of bread (for the French, there’s almost always charcuterie or cheese involved…maybe that makes up for the lack of carbs…).
Which in a very round-about way brings me to my point: to snack or not to snack? The way I see it, there are potentially three snacking opportunities during the day:
- After breakfast, before lunch
- After lunch, before dinner
- After dinner, before bed
So, I’m going to sit on the fence a bit here, because I can totally see the justification for not snacking. It is absolutely vital that our stomachs have the chance to empty out during the day. It directly affects our digestion and therefore how well we absorb important nutrients from our food. Not letting our stomachs empty out causes the food to, in the words of a blogger I once read, ferment in our bellies. That of course means bloating and heartburn, among other unpleasantries.
I’m going to have to say that I strongly advise people trying to lose weight to snack. Responsibly.
So what does that mean? Well, the one thing you do not want to do when you’re trying to be well and healthy is to get so hungry you are prepared to eat raw pasta. Because you will. Or, if the opportunity presents itself, you’ll eat 2 of your kids’ fruit rollups (they’re child-sized!), the leftover peanuts from your party last week, three deep swigs of milk, a chunk of cheese, and an apple (because it’s healthy). And then start cooking dinner, because it’s 6-something and you need to feed the fam’.
So that’s one of the reasons I support snacking. The other one is that the more we take away from ourselves as we’re trying to be well, the more resentful we become of the process, and it should be anything but a resentment-producing affair (though some days it just will be, no getting around it). Everyone alive has food rituals, some of which are part of their cultural and family heritage, others that developed in their own lives. For some of us those rituals have been in turns good and very, very bad, and so the trick here is to create snack rituals that are good, and that keep you focused on feeling good about your food choices throughout the course of the day.
After breakfast, before lunch:
This one’s important, because it could also be an indicator that you’re not eating enough or the right thing at breakfast time. Bear that in mind – breakfast is a really important meal, and could sabotage or save your relationship with food over the course of the day. But if you eat really early – like 6 or 7 – and then go-go-go (or in the cases of lots of jobs these days, stress-stress-stress) until noon, chances are your belly’ll be rumbling between 10 and 11. The thing is, you’re really close to lunch time, and you do not want to ruin your appetite. But I definitely would eat something, if only because it means you will get way more work done if you’re not fixated on the fact that you’re starving.
After lunch, before dinner:
As previously mentioned, this tends to be a long stretch here in southern Europe, which is why the kids and the adults tend to have a little something at around 4-ish. I guess it’s probably getting more that way everywhere these days, as people are working later hours, and commuting, and by the time we get around to getting home and getting food on the table, it’s not exactly 6:00 anymore. But because I really want to encourage you to eat by 7:00 at the latest, and unless you tend to have a really light dinner, it’s important not to eat like the froggies and consume roughly 1300 calories in pure sugar at this point in the day. Again, I would aim for this snack no later than 4:00 – you do want to be hungry for your dinner.
After dinner, before bed:
So, in keeping with the whole not-eating-late thing, it’s a little counter-productive to go to the effort of eating by 7:00, only to have a bowl of cereal at 11:30. Eating right before bed is really not good for your digestion or your sleep, particularly if you’re trying really hard to make good food decisions – you don’t want that food weighing you down psychologically as you try to float off into dreamland. Having said that…the French have this saying that absolutely drives me crazy: Qui dort dine. It means, literally, Those who sleep eat. Which is obviously not true – if I go to bed hungry, I don’t eat, and that’s what’s so sucky about it, obviously!!! But their point is valid – once you’re asleep, you won’t remember the fact that you were a little peckish a few minutes earlier. The point is not being too hungry to sleep. A small glass of milk (or soy/almond/rice/chestnut milk) is a good idea here.
What to snack on:
In the mornings, I find that a little fat and sugar go a long way. Of course, I mean good fat and good sugar! So for me that translates to nuts and fruits. 5-6 almonds and a dried fig. 8 walnut halves and a pear. 4-5 brazil nuts and an apple. You get the picture. Go for raw, unsalted nuts (you’ll get used to them if you’re not already) and I promise this will curb the pangs until the next meal. Listen – there are a lot of different kinds of nuts out there, and they’re pretty much all good for you. Ditto fruit.
In the afternoons, I fancy something a bit more savory. I buy these big crackers and then I only have one, with a bit of hummus (recipe on the breakfast post if you want to make your own), freshly cracked pepper, cucumber, and lightly sprinkled salt, in that order. If you don’t like crackers, go for a piece of toast or bread – the key is one of something, because I think the risk here is going in calorically for what might constitute an early dinner. If hummus isn’t your bag, you can put peanut butter on that bread, with 1/2 a banana. You can share a hard-boiled egg with somebody at work. But I do recommend the pairing of a small portion of a good quality carb with a little shot of protein. Snacks should never mean junk.
At night, really keep it to a minimum, and go for something very easy to digest. A little fruit, a small cup of milk or even a miso soup if you want something salty (though all that fermentation might make for some funny dreams!).
The trick here is to keep portions very small. Snacks should serve two purposes – curbing your hunger and providing nutritional value. Some pointers:
- Don’t keep food at your desk, or in places accessible to where you are without getting up and walking a little;
- Don’t buy junk. Just don’t buy it. Other people in the house want it? Fine. They can buy it when they’re out and about. But if something is really hard for you to resist and you know it isn’t good for you (for me, this is chips and savory snacks), it shouldn’t be within reach. If you don’t buy it, you won’t eat it.
- Don’t eat normal food at snack time. Normal food is for meal time. You wouldn’t eat a fig and 8 almonds with lunch, so don’t eat 4 bites of the leftover terriyaki for your snack. This will really help you to control how much you’re consuming in terms of calories and nutritional value.
- Make sure you’re hydrating. You need a lot of water. Probably between like 4 and 6 pints of water a day. Sometimes we feel hungry because we’re actually thirsty, so make sure you’re getting enough H20, and remember that herbal, rooibos, white, and green teas are all really hydrating. Coffee and black tea are natural stimulants (yay caffeine!), and a cup of joe can ward off munchies sometimes in a very helpful way.
- However, avoid sugary drinks. And fake sugary drinks. They’re just as bad for you.
- Remember, you’re going to have to be a little hungry quite a lot of the time if you’re going to lose weight.
And of course that last bit needs a little further explanation, because it’s difficult. I can’t explain it, but at some point in my life, hunger hurt so bad. I could deal with just about anything, but when I got hungry, I couldn’t cope properly. I got distracted and irritable, and I had to have something to eat.
The thing is, now I realize that there are a whole gamut of other things I can do to address this hunger, because it wasn’t exclusively for food (though some of it was!). This all comes back to getting in tune with yourself as a whole being, body, mind, and spirit, a physical being deserving of love and admiration and respect.
What do you like to nibble on between meals? Do you think snacking is a good thing or a bad thing?