The importance of saying no to excess calorific treats for children

Lockdown led to parents offering children more sugary snacks in order to pacify them while cooped up in confined spaces and unable to enjoy the manifold social activities they usually would. A new campaign aims to change this

Time to cut back on sugary treats to improve children's general health as well as immunity against Covid
Time to cut back on sugary treats to improve children's general health as well as immunity against Covid

With a quarter of children in Northern Ireland aged two-15 years falling into the overweight (17%) or obese (8%) category, research by safefood has revealed that parents acknowledged turning to treat foods to ease their child’s boredom during lockdowns.

Many parents found the stresses and strains of being stuck at home and juggling parental tasks with working from home and home-schooling, had them struggling to keep the amount of unhealthy treats their children eat to a minimum.

Pre-Covid research showed that foods like biscuits, crisps and chocolate were the second-most consumed food group by children. However, since the pandemic, 50% of local parents believe this has increased in the last past 18 months.

The START campaign, by safefood, the Department of Health and the Public Health Agency, is launching a new drive to help parents reverse this trend and get back to healthier habits with children back in the classroom and enjoying extra-curricular activities once again.

The campaign is encouraging parents to establish moderation and reduce the amount of treat foods they give to children while finding a healthy dietary balance for the whole family.

Dr Aileen McGloin, nutritionist with safefood said: “Before the pandemic, treat foods made up around a fifth of what children eat daily. But parents are now reporting this has increased as they struggled to manage their children’s treat food intake over the past 18 months.

Parents are aware that they need to say no to treats more often but believe that giving their children treats in moderation is much more realistic and achievable way to going easier on treats.

“The START campaign is therefore encouraging parents to re-start healthier habits by limiting foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar to an occasional treat, and not every day.

“They can start by swapping these with healthier snacks such as yoghurt, fruit, popcorn, cheese or peanut butter and crackers. Parents can find lots of tips and advice at the campaign website.”

Parenting expert Colman Noctor added: “From the research, parents felt that it is important to discuss reducing treats together as a family. Rather than just saying no to treats outright, they wanted to be able to discuss the benefits of eating healthily with their children and the long-term gains of doing so. They also wanted to be equipped with the relevant information they need to discuss this with their children, as well as practical tips for how to broach the conversation.

“By making the decision to reduce treats together as a family, and making sure children understand why you are doing this, it will make you far more likely to succeed which will also help them to form healthier eating habits later in life.”

Vanessa McMinn, dietician for the Southern Trust, and mum-of-three from Dungannon, has personally faced the challenge of reducing naughty snacks after bad habits were formed under lockdown.

“Giving out so-called ‘naughty’ (sugary, salty or fatty) treats became a quick way to make children feel better because they couldn’t get out there to enjoy the social activities that they would usually be engaged in.

“But this pattern has now continued as restrictions lift, because once you start into the habit of giving more treats it becomes very hard to break that and say ‘no’. Once you have continually given something to a child it can be very hard to take it away once they become expectant of that.

“It’s important for families to sit down together and really see this as a kind of health initiative and an opportunity for everyone to make healthier dietary choices as restrictions lift and we attempt to get back to some kind of normality once more.

“As a parent, I sat down with my three children and in order to reduce the number of unhealthy snacks they were consuming we sat down and tried to think of other non-food related treats that could be enjoyed. I have reward charts and they can move up that and then take something from a treat box I have that includes different things like nail varnish and jewellery or other kinds of toys, football cards, different things.

“We would have game nights and their treat might be that they get to pick the game or we go for more playtime outside and I’ll commit to playing with them rather than offering a calorific treat.

“You want to find ways to treat them that don’t involve food and encourage them to spend more time outside.”

What healthy snacks does Vanessa recommend in lieu of say endless KitKats, Malteasers, or bags of salt and vinegar crisps?

“You could give them crackers and cheese, toast, pancakes with butter, cereal or a piece of fruit or a natural yoghurt. We want to drastically cut sweets, chocolate, crisps and fizzy pop. It’s not that they can’t ever have these treats, but they need to be kept to a minimum as part of a balanced nutritional diet.

“In a Covid world, you want children to be eating healthier not only to improve their natural immunity against the virus, but also to reduce their chances of going on to develop certain conditions in later life that can be occasioned by unhealthy eating patterns such as type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, heart disease and stroke.

“Try to get children involved in the discussion of what their alternative treats might be - whether it’s games, toys, a trip out somewhere or a banana instead of a biscuit; if you make them a part of the decision-making process they are less likely to respond negatively when you cut back on the sugary bad stuff.”

Advice on how to help parents and care-givers reduce the amount of unhealthy treat snacks consumed by children includes agreeing to put less treats in your basket or trolley when visiting the supermarket - if there are less chocolate bars, biscuits, crisps and sugary drinks at home then naturally it reduces the temptation to give your young ones something calorific and unhealthy if they aren’t stocked in your kitchen cupboards in abundance.

Then, you should try to get children involved in planning healthy snacks, say by starting a family challenge and using star charts to incentivise all the family to increase their fruit and vegetable intake.

Try using non-food treats to reward or distract children such as by, say, planning a trip to a new playground, to the beach or by committing to engage in any other form of activity your children enjoy - perhaps going swimming or visiting a nearby park or committing to taking them to see a new movie at their local cinema.

The campaign focuses on seven key lifestyle habits: minimising the intake of foods high in fat, salt and sugar; establishing water and milk as routine drinks; giving appropriate child-sized portions to children; including more fruit and vegetables across the week; committing to increase children’s physical activity levels; limiting screen time and social media engagement which research has shown can have remarkably deleterious effects on children’s mood, self-esteem and psychology; and aiming to increase sleep time which is obviously essential to emotional and psychological equilibrium as well as optimal cognitive function and stabilising mood or reducing problematic behaviours.

Parents can find advice, support and practical tools, including videos from experts on how to take a break from treats, on the START campaign website at