Mum confession: My kids' constant begging for treats made me realise I needed to make some changes 2 weeks ago

Mum confession: My kids' constant begging for treats made me realise I needed to make some changes

Brought to you by safefood

"Mummy, I'm huuungry!"

A few days ago, my five-year-old was slumped on the kitchen floor, rolling around my feet as I was frantically trying to chop vegetables for the dinner I was going to make later, after I had collected his big sister from school and we had raced out to soccer practise and back again.

He would have had his lunch in school only an hour or so ago, so even though I mentally calculated that really, he could not be that hungry, I also knew dinner would be a while off, and honestly, I just needed to get him away from my legs so I could focus on the task at hand. And so, I grabbed a biscuit and more or less flung it at him, with a warning not to go into the living room and get crumbs everywhere.

He wandered off, of course, delighted to have won this one – and I was left to chop and stir in peace.

However, this little episode – a frequent one in my house these days, as I am sure it is in yours – got me thinking about treats and how the use of them slowly has been creeping into our lives the past couple of years. And how I really want to turn the tide on this one before it gets out of hand.

And although I am a subscriber to the 'everything in moderation' ethos when it comes to life in general, I would normally consider myself above average healthy, food-wise, certainly when it comes to family meals and lunchboxes.

But still – snacks and treats are happening – more and more often, and it is probably my fault every bit as much as it is theirs.

The trouble with treats

Growing up, my sister and I had a 'Saturday Sweets' tradition. This treat could be some pick-and-mix, or a Kinder Egg or a small bag of crisps – we tended to go for different things every week, to be honest, just to mix things up – and would excitedly plan what we were going to pick several days in advance. Then, on a Saturday as we as we went with our parents to the supermarket, we were allowed to select that week's treat – but had to keep it for later that day. For after dinner, when we were always allowed to watch a kids' show on TV or a DVD, and then finally – finally – could break into our treats.

But the thing is – this was our treat for the week. The only treat. We never had sweets or crisps in the house – ever. Unless maybe at Christmas time. There were no cookies, no chocolate, no snack bars – nothing that would count as a 'treat.' Heck, we never even had white bread in the house, as my mum always baked (and still bake) her own spelt and wholewheat bread. As for our school lunchboxes, they mostly contained a healthy lunch, some fruits and nuts and maybe a yogurt.  But no treats or sweets. Ever.

These days, snacks and treats are almost considered part of the a normal day's food intake, I think. The lines are blurring, and so I wonder: When do treats stop being just that – a treat – and become just part of your day-to-day diet?

Interestingly, a new research report from safefood as part of the new START campaign, revealed that although it’s recommended that treats are eaten only occasionally, in reality only 6 percent of parents said that they gave treats rarely, with as many as 12 percent admitting to giving their children treats at least once a day.

As part of the report, it was also revealed that many parents, myself included, find treats pretty flipping hard to avoid these days.

An unavoidable temptation?

From being a consistent part of celebrations and occasions, to post-activity snacking, to being ever-present while supermarket shopping, treats are always in the picture, always in your (and your child's) eye line.

I guess we have become more reliant on snacks and treats because most of us are living increasingly busy lives. I know I’m always running out the door to drop or collect children at one thing or another, as well as trying to fit in my own social life, work and keep the house clean.

And so we dish out snacks to 'keep them going' until the next meal. Or to bide our time and avoid a tantrum. Or to stop them fighting so we can get stuff done. Or to award them. Or simply because we fancy a bit of a snack ourselves, and so by also letting our children have one, we lessen our guilt at having a treat ourselves. Or maybe it has just become a habit – because they are there, in the house or in our bags, and so we dish them out.

The problem?

Biscuits, crisps, chocolate and sweets are now the second-most consumed food group by children and almost 25 percent of all meals now include food and drinks high in fat, salt and sugar that are not recommended as part of a healthy diet.

And I guess it is rather obvious that this is bad news. It's bad news for their teeth, for their weight, and for their long-term health.

And much as I haven't been reaching for the most unhealthy options when it comes to giving my children treats, the fact is that I have come to realise snacks seem to have started to cause some negative dynamics in our household – and I am suddenly keen to change this.

For instance, because my children are frequently snacking, the 'I'm not hungry' excuse has started to happen more and more often when it is time to have actual meals, in particular dinner.  Suddenly, they seem to have become ultra-picky, eating just half of their dinner or bringing home lunchboxes that have barely been touched, only to be "starving" moments later and looking for crackers, yoghurts or rice cakes or even chancing their arm looking for crisps.

And honestly, there are some days when they are so moody and sensitive, I am beginning to wonder how much their blood sugar come into play here – and will this improve if we drop the snacks and treats.

The safefood START Campaign – taking the challenge

Right now, and you might have seen the ads already, safefood, the HSE and Healthy Ireland have kicked off the latest phase of their START campaign – encouraging parents to protect their children and say no to treats with the catch phrase: ‘It takes a hero to be the bad guy.’ It highlights just how reliant we have all become on snacks and treats these days, and reminds us how parents need strength and encouragement from everyone to say ‘no’ – from friends, family, grandparents and child-minders, to health professionals and wider society. The campaign focuses on the critical moment when a child asks for a treat and how a parent needs to take a brave stand of saying no in an effort to cut down on treats.

Dr Marian O’Reilly, Chief Specialist in Nutrition, safefood says:

"On average, foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt – treat foods – now make up about a fifth of what our children eat and have gone from an ‘occasional food” to an everyday food. The short-term impact of this is that children don’t get all the nutrients they need for growth and development such as iron and calcium. These foods are also linked in the short-term with poor dental health and in the longer term with many chronic conditions. We struggle to avoid these treat foods every day because they are available everywhere, highly palatable, cheap and frequently on special offer. We also know from our own previous research[iii] that one third of foods on promotion are high in fat, sugar and salt.”

I am inspired – and also slightly shocked by the statistics. I'm going to hone my heroic bad guy skills over the next few weeks – goodbye snacks and treats.

Obviously, I want to set my children up to live long and healthy lives, and knowing just the negative impact unhealthy food choices are having on their health, both short- and long term, well, it's pretty frightening. Over the next few weeks, I am going to really give the "it takes a hero to be the bad guy" thing a try – and luckily, the START campaign's website has tonnes of tips and advice for just how to navigate these next couple of weeks as I attempt to clamp down on treats and snacking.

Now, off to clean out my kitchen presses...

Wish me luck!

The START campaign is a five-year public health awareness campaign from safefood, the HSE and Healthy Ireland. The campaign is encouraging families to take the first step towards a healthier lifestyle for their children by supporting them with one daily win and to persist with the changes, no matter how difficult they become. To find out more about the START campaign and ways to make a healthy, positive start visit www.makeastart.ie