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Imagine a situation where you've been invited to dinner at a friend's place. You're extremely hungry but you learn that the dinner won't be ready for another half an hour. So you decide to eat an apple or a bite of bread or some other small thing which will not satisfy your hunger fully, but will temporarily make it more tolerable. Is there a word/phrase/idiom to describe this small snack prior to a big meal?

The Russian equivalent of what I am looking for is заморить червячка, which literally means to starve/kill the little worm. The only translation I found of this idiom was to stay one's hunger. However, I couldn't find any usage examples of it and the google query for define:to stay one's hunger doesn't return anything useful, so I guess this idiom, if used at all, isn't very common.

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

To stay one's hunger is perfectly acceptable, and not at all uncommon (though it's actually more likely to be "stay your appetite"). Less common, and with less of a "temporarily" sense, would be assuage one's hunger. But I think probably the most common idiomatic usage is...

Here - have a sandwich to stave off your hunger until dinnertime.

...which my mother used to say to me when I was a child. Perhaps this one gains traction by alliteration / association with both stay and starve.

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Thank you very much for your answer. Stave off seems to be it, although as I understand it, it's not necessarily connected to hunger. The funny thing is that this question arose exactly when I was reading the definition and usage examples of assuage :) – Armen Ծիրունյան Feb 19 '12 at 16:24
@Armen Tsirunyan: Yes, to stave off [something] can be used in many contexts. Usually, but not necessarily, it implies temporarily. AFAIK it always implies temporarily in relation to hunger, so when you arrive at the dinner party the hostess may say, for example, "There are peanuts and other nibbles to stave off your hunger until we sit down and eat" – FumbleFingers Feb 19 '12 at 16:30
We used to say "That hit the spot" when I was growing up in Illinois. – John Lawler Feb 19 '12 at 17:39
@John Lawler: It's also common in the UK. But the hostess certainly wouldn't say "Have some nibbles to hit the spot while I prepare dinner" – FumbleFingers Feb 19 '12 at 17:44

Although I see this has already been answered, I was surprised not to see 'tide you over' in the discussion.

After doing a little research, I see that this idiom is commonly used in situations like money lending: "I was flat broke, so he lent me $200 to tide me over until my next paycheck."

However, in my family we used it exclusively in situations like you described - and it was indeed often an apple I would eat to tide me over until dinner!

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