Mum confession: I started saying no to treats, here's how we got on 2 months ago

Mum confession: I started saying no to treats, here's how we got on

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A couple of weeks back, I decided I needed to start doing something about my children's constant begging for treats, a thing that was happening more and more frequently in our house.

It was kind of a pilot project, if you will, because I was curious to see just how much my kids would object – and also, I was keen to see what these changes would mean, both to the kids and also to our entire family.

A little note on food: I would normally consider myself pretty healthy when it comes to cooking and food choices, and this stretches to what I feed my children. I am also a firm believer in the 'everything in moderation' ethos when it comes to food – meaning; if you eat healthily the majority of the time that slice of cake isn't going to do any damage, nor are those holiday ice-creams.

However, I must admit, I was beginning to find snacks and treats harder and harder to avoid. I mean; they are everywhere and are often presented in a way that would make you believe we need to be constantly snacking. These days, snacks and treats seem to almost be considered part of a normal day's food intake. The lines are blurring, and so I was wondering: When do treats stop being just that – a treat – and become just part of your day-to-day diet?

And after starting to notice how these constant 'treats' – even if they weren't considered to be that unhealthy – were having a negative impact on my children's overall diet and also their temper and behaviour (not finishing dinner, but asking for a snack minutes later, grumpy, picky with food etc). I decided enough was enough and it was time to introduce some change.

The sugary, savoury, overly-processed treats, the ones that were forever tempting us from the kitchen presses – or as we walked past them in the supermarket, they needed to go. But much as I was determined, I also knew I needed to introduce some of the changes slowly because really, I wasn't looking for a quick-fix, I was looking to help us all form healthier long-term habits.

So the decision was made – it was time to start saying goodbye to treats! Mummy's snacking intervention was happening.

How I did it

I started by making a plan. Before I even began making any huge changes, I started paying attention to where and when my kids were asking for treats. Like, were supermarket a trigger point? Was it even sometimes out of my hands – were they getting them from friends and family when I wasn’t around?

Knowledge is power and stopping to take stock over just what the issues were helped me hatch my plan. And now I was ready to set some new goals and tackle it.

The first thing I realised was that grandparents and family had a huge part to play.  So –before even informing my children about our new treat rules, I decided to have a talk with grandparents and other family members to make sure they knew exactly what was now no longer allowed – treat wise.

This, I think is paramount – because let's face it, kids are smart. If they realise they can get their sugar fix at granny's house, well, then your 'let's turn the tide on treats' intervention is not going to work. And so I made sure they were all told, grandparents, aunts, uncles, basically anyone my kids spend time around  – letting them know how important this was to me, and how I needed them to be on my team with these changes.

And then I set to work.

Little by little, I stopped buying any types of treats for the house.

Why? Because I know myself, and if I am aware there is sweet stuff in the house, I will root it out when those late-night munchies kick in. And my children are the same. If there are treats in the house, they will find them, of that I am sure. No matter how well I hide things, or how high up it gets stashed or if I freeze the chocolate bars down in boxes that say 'vegetable stew' – trust me, they would be able to locate it.

So to just stop buying it at all just made sense for us as a family, at least until we had had a chance to work on some new, healthier habits around treats and mealtimes.

I also suspected that with the treats just gone, we'd have fewer battles and less of me having to explain over and over again why they can't have this now, and why this is off-limits etc. Gone means gone and, I figured, it might just be a case of out of sight, out of mind too. I was hoping for the latter.

And then, I reckoned, then I would throw myself into finding other ways to 'treat' ourselves, other than with unhealthy snacks, knowing that habits are tough to change, but I was so ready to give this a shot.

Explaining the new rules

Things went surprisingly well that first week. My children had been at a birthday party that Saturday and I suppose they were both so filled up on treats and sweets that it didn't even occur to them to ask for a snack at home. And such is normal life, I guess, I can't really control what they eat and don't eat at parties, nor do I want to. You can't beat yourself up about these pitfalls, after all.

However, that Monday, once they were home from school and had started their homework, my little boy was quick to shun the soup I had made, and instead asked me for a treat.

Uhm – no, I explained. This would not be happening.

Now, he wasn't too shocked – he is rather used to me saying no to things too, but then I explained how he would no longer be allowed to pick treats over a meal, and that if he opted to not eat his dinner, it would not be a case he could opt for a treat instead. I also, and I got all fired up here, gave them a passionate speech about how important it is to not eat too many treats, and how real, healthy food is what will keep us all fit and strong.

I then explained that actual meals were more important to grow up healthy and strong, and that there would not be an option to opt out of eating a proper meal and instead go for a snack or a treat.

However, I was also keen to point out, if they were genuinely hungry in between meals, it wasn't like I was going to starve them, but instead of asking me for things they now knew were off-limits, they could help themselves to some healthy, filling, pre-approved by mummy snacks. safefood has some great healthy snack suggestions here.

And sure, there were a few tears from both children first. I think they felt a bit robbed as I had removed things they considered "theirs." But this was soon over, as I explained they can still have a little treat every Saturday. But we will only buy these on Saturday, so they are not in the house, tempting us all week. They were already chatting excitedly about what to buy come Saturday. Hah! Mum: One – Treats: Zero.

Creating better habits and making better choices

I am a firm believer in that children model the behaviour they see, and that they learn better from doing than just hearing about something. And so when it came down to teaching a little bit of independence and good decision making around food, I got them involved in setting up a little healthy snack station, where we could all help ourselves to something when hungry or running out the door – but that would only consist of things that were actually healthy and would serve the purpose of fuelling our bodies and hungry tummies.

And so we set to work, emptying one of the bottom presses in the kitchen, and re-organised the entire press into a little DIY snack station – one where my children can go get themselves a little something to eat, without having to check with me first if it is OK – which, to me, was a double-win. Independence and healthy eating? This was going to be good.

Then I filled the baskets with fruits, nuts, coconut flakes (you can even get toasted ones, which are so yummy!) and plain rice cakes.

And guess what? They were actually excited about this part – mostly, I think, because they were allowed help out and because they felt like proper 'big kids' knowing that they would be allowed to just grab something healthy to eat if they were hungry

Giving a new meaning to 'treats'

It is easy to resort to using food, and often in this regard, sweet treats, as a reward. We do it with ourselves and we do it with our children – I was guilty too. A biscuit for finishing dinner, ice cream for having walked to shop with mummy to help get milk, some Chocolate buttons after homework. It is easy to see how it can become a slippery slope.

But, as I explained to my children, what do they love when we do together? What is a 'treat' to do – not eat – and thanks to them, we came up with a whole bunch of rewards or special 'treats' I can dish out – ones that will not have any negative effect on their health, doesn't cost any money, and actually will make us all feel better.

My little girl loves watching movies together, so we decided that would be a treat. My little boy adores nothing more than to get a board game out and play with me. And so we agreed this now a treat in our family, and one I can dish out when needed. There were more too, lots of little things my children love to do with me, such as a trip to the park, a visit to the playground, a walk to the library – all perfectly lovely treats they will actually love doing.

How it's going so far

We are now a couple of weeks into my 'goodbye sweet treats' regime, and I am actually genuinely surprised at how well it has all gone so far. Not only have my children not complained about the healthy food (and only healthy food) they have to pick from, but they are also actually excited about both the 'healthy snack press' and also about all the lovely family things we have been doing that have now replaced the sweet treats.

They also get excited about their 'Saturday treat' and will plan what they are going to get days in advance, and genuinely savour it come Saturday evening when they sit down to eat it in front of their favourite cartoon or TV show.

I also think the cutting back on slightly unhealthier treats have made a difference in terms of moods in our house too. There is less begging for treats, simply because they are aware there are none in the house, and also, they seem to be happy enjoying their doing treats – park, playground, extra book at bedtime etc.

And I feel better too. I eat healthily but I was always prone to those evening munchies, and if there was ice cream/crisps/sweets in the house, sometimes my willpower would crack and I would have some. Now, there are no treats in the house, and so I make do with a handful of nuts, or maybe some banana chips if I want something sweeter, and I feel so much better for it.

My children are eating healthier, I am eating healthier, and honestly; I am keeping this no-treats-in-the-house-thing-up. Are you with me?

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