Snack, a meal inevitably associated with childhood, conveys many representations marked by conviviality, transgression and nostalgia. Whether taken on a daily basis or on the occasion of a birthday party, it is undoubtedly the last bastion of the French food model which has not given in to the promotion of healthy eating.
Assimilated to a break in the busy day of the child, the snack is conceived as an opportunity to consume gourmet products. This is what leads most parents to offer their children the foods they like the most, putting a little distance from the health recommendations aimed at fighting overweight and obesity.
In fact, if the parents are the buyers, the children are real influencers in the choice of food at snack time. If they do not immediately reject dairy products and fruits, their preferences are on sweet products . Aware of the importance of this meal for children, food brands play on their need for energy at this time of day. This is how they launch “snacking” products that are easy to consume outside the home, with portions estimated on the basis of their caloric expenditure.
However, this moment of pleasure is not only articulated around food. Snack also refers to a form of sharing between peers. Often eaten with the siblings when they return from school, this meal is also experienced as a collective consumption experience, when the child stays in daycare after school.
In this context, the snack is an opportunity to have discussions in the playground to test new products. It is also a source of social recognition insofar as the child who brings a snack, considered “original” to school, attracts the envy of his friends.
However, by inviting parents to stay at home, the successive periods of confinement and the strong incentives for teleworking have revisited the social norms attached to afternoon tea. The first results of a study we launched show that adults have reclaimed the snack, which has become a time of relaxation to take a little distance from the screens.
Far from being associated with an anarchic and unstructured food intake, it has become institutionalized, within the families questioned, around practices, even rituals, shaped according to circumstances and supply constraints.
From being a meal perceived as trivial, the snack has moved on to that of a highlight of family conviviality, centered on the unprecedented pleasure of sharing a meal with the family at an hour usually devoted to professional activities. It was an opportunity to reconnect with the world of childhood around products perceived as regressive, conveying a feeling of nostalgia but also of reassurance, in the face of a period of uncertainty and collective stress.
Cakes in the spotlight
For parents, the snack was also experienced as an experience of transgressive consumption linked both to the nature of the products consumed (attraction for chocolate cookies for example) and to the codes established within the family: each one serving himself according to his desires, without order, without menu to follow. A peaceful moment of exchange with the children, the snack was seen as a meal without any real preparation, and therefore without tension, as to the choice of products and the schedules to be respected.
At the same time, while parents have favored food brands traditionally targeting children, they have also introduced more unprocessed, less conventional foods for snacking, such as dried fruits or bananas, foods known to be anti-cravings.
At the same time, the snack sometimes gave the children the opportunity to promote the nutritional advice they received at school. In this context, the snack was an opportunity to conceive of these times of family exchanges as spaces of reverse socialization.
The snack has also proven to be a marker of food socialization through the acquisition of culinary skills in children. During this period, in fact, many cakes were made to be tasted with the family. These skills contribute to the well-being of children by promoting in them a strong expectation of autonomy and the search for social ties.
These results confirm our work on the catalysts of food well-being in young consumers. The freedom to choose the type of cake to prepare, to help his parents or even to make the recipe alone gives the child a responsibility that helps to accentuate his well-being, embodied in the anticipation of pleasing those around him.
The health crisis has amplified consumers’ concerns about food and many studies highlight the changes in habits that have resulted, questioning their sustainability.
The snack, this meal framed by standards and regulated on the occasion of this pandemic, will it withstand time? We can think that no, since the parents will gradually return to their place of work. The shared snack in times of health crisis will undoubtedly be an enchanted parenthesis, showing the way in which food helps to strengthen family ties.
On the other hand, the recognition of the snack as THE meal for children makes it possible to envisage many perspectives in the field of education to eat well. It seems, in fact, important to reconsider this meal as a support favoring the autonomy and empowerment of children in the food sector.
In this regard, the health crisis has confirmed that the sharing of culinary activities to prepare a menu, perceived as good by children, is undoubtedly a relevant vector for transmitting knowledge about food. This “homemade” trend to the detriment of snacking products could no doubt continue with consideration to be given to recyclable packaging adapted to children’s ergonomics.
It is therefore a question of investing in the way in which this meal, often perceived as insignificant and yet so important in the lives of children, can be invested by public authorities, health professionals, educational players and brands to develop education programs for a balanced diet, taking into account this time dedicated to the pleasure of eating well and eating together.
Author Bio:University Professor – consumer behavior – food – social networks at the University of Le Havre Normandie