Smart Consumer: How to give your kids a healthy diet – without breaking the bank
A nutritionist and mother of four tells Aideen Sheehan that careful planning is the key to success
We all know we need to feed our kids a healthy diet – but is that possible on a budget?
Supermarkets and takeaways are constantly promoting two for one and special offers that entice us to load up on fat, salt and sugar-laden meals. An Irish study found that calorie for calorie it can be 10 times cheaper to feed your family processed junk than fresh produce.
But with obesity rates soaring amongst Irish children, Smart Consumer looks at how to serve up healthy family meals without breaking the bank.
Nutritionist Anna Burns is the mother of four children aged six to 12 and has to put her principles into practice every day.
She says healthy eating can actually work out cheaper if you ignore the marketing gimmicks designed to get you eating processed junk.
"It might have been the case a few years ago that healthy eating cost a lot but discount supermarkets have changed all that and eating well actually saves you a lot of money," she said.
Here are some of her top tips for eating well and cheaply – all tried and tested on her own growing family.
Load up on special offers of fruit and vegetables
Don't get stuck in a rut with a limited range, as going for the discount deals means you can offer your children a wide variety of vitamin-laden foods. Anna says she recently got Brussel sprouts for 15c and a pineapple for just 69c – and at prices like that there's no excuse for not eating healthily. Frozen and tinned fruit and veg are just as nutritious.
Nutrient content is broadly similar in organic and conventional foods, so there is no point in paying a premium for organic produce if it means you'll eat less of it.
The key to an affordable healthy diet is to buy as many whole foods as cheaply as possible – not just a select few "perfect" products.
Anna says her one exception to this rule is carrots, because she has found the organic variety are sweeter and more appetising for children.
Avoid waste by making it easy and fun to eat
We throw out millions of euro worth of food each year including tonnes of fruit and veg bought with the best intentions.
Making food easy and fun to eat is key to avoiding costly waste and encouraging your kids to eat at least five portions a day.
A large apple can be daunting in a small child's lunchbox – whereas a mandarin orange, a plum or some strawberries are much more inviting.
Give prebiotics and other 'functional' ingredients a miss
Good-quality whole foods supply all the nutrients kids need, instead of sugar-laden yoghurt drinks and other pricey products loaded with 'functional' ingredients claiming to boost your health.
Anna says oily fish a couple of days a week will give all the Omega 3s they need for brain development while plain, fruit or low-fat yoghurts are a great source of calcium that don't need weird and costly newfangled ingredients.
Make sure the kids are hungry at meal times
Passive consumption of endless snacks and drinks is probably the main reason for weight gain.
Not only do children and adults end up eating hundreds of unnecessary calories, they get used to overly sweet or salty food and end up with no appetite for the healthy simple foodstuffs that should be at the heart of their diets.
By contrast, if they're hungry sitting down you'd be amazed at what foods they'll try and enjoy, says Anna – who's even got her own kids to enjoy broccoli as a starter.
Planned snacks are fine as long as they're healthy and timed not to ruin dinner, while small treats like chocolate are okay a couple of times a week.
Keep food to the table
Mindless grazing in front of the TV is a huge cause of overeating and it costs a lot if your family is munching its way through vast quantities of junk without even noticing.
Keeping eating to the table is Anna's top tip for your family's health – and it will do wonders for your purse.
She describes the normalisation of "pizza night" in front of the TV as one of the great marketing coups of recent year.
Instead she suggests serving up homemade or frozen pizza at the table with a big salad and a desert of strawberries and a little ice cream – and then relaxing afterwards to watch your movie so the kids aren't going to bed hyped up on late-night salt, sugar and fat.
This is a crucial way of getting vegetables into kids that's low-cost and much healthier than salty supermarket versions.
It also means you can use up supplies of wilting vegetables and discount veg, and boiling up a big batch early in the week ensures the perfect cheap after-school snack for hungry children.
Always have a strategy
Keeping to a shopping list and avoiding the central aisles packed with processed foods avoids unnecessary temptations for your waistline and wallet. If possible, shop without the kids or online to avoid pester power.
When on the go or on holiday, have a plan to keep to a healthy diet most of the time. The simplest ham roll, with a few crisps assembled yourself, can be rendered delicious to small children by declaring it a picnic.
The objective of balanced eating should be adhered to nine times out of 10, and that's only possible with planning.
Anna Burns' The Food Nanny is published by Gill and MacMillan priced €11.99