'Don't reward children with food. They're not dogs' - dietitian on how Irish families need to change eating habits
With new guidelines claiming kids should have just two treats a day, how do you turn the tide after the Christmas excess? Chrissie Russell finds out
This was the first year that my son truly grasped the meaning of Christmas… by which I mean the consumer-driven mantra that this is the time of year for sugary, chocolatey, gooey over-indulgence.
From baking (and devouring) home-made fudge and Christmas shortbread to snacking on cheese boards, crisps and dips, tins of chocolates and endless puddings, our three-year-old has fully embraced the season of festive excess.
But he doesn't seem to have got the memo that Christmas is over. Already today he's approached his dad or me several times with the words "can I have a treat?" And with the fridge still laden with naughty left-overs, it's hard to say no.
Except, of course, that is exactly what we should be saying. According to newly-released guidelines, children should be indulging in no more than two tiny snacks a day. In their latest Change4Life Campaign, health officials in the UK have urged parents to "look for 100-calorie snacks, two a day max".
Worryingly hardly any of our existing treats even manage to fall within those perimeters. A bag of crisps? 190 calories. A remaining mince pie? 280. Having personally overseen the amount of butter and sugar that went into our shortbread, I've no illusions of it ducking the 100 calorie limit.
It might not be the message I (or my son) want to hear, but according to Dublin-based dietitian Orla Walsh, the best way for tots to slip the sugary bonds of Christmas excess is to go cold turkey… and for the whole family to follow suit.
"It won't be easy, but it will be worth it," she insists. "The whole family must change and parents need to lead by example. If there's no junk food in the home, what choice do the kids have? If it's not there, they can't access it."
With some experts claiming that sugar is as addictive as drugs, the worrying reality is that your kids' selection-box detox could come with less-than-delightful side-effects like mood swings, headaches, cravings and even flu-like symptoms.
"The greater the withdrawal, the more necessary it is," says Orla grimly. "But when children eat well, their energy levels improve and so too does sleep and mood so it's in the parents' best interests to wean them off high-sugar foods!"
The best way to weather the post-sugar blues? "Through exercise," advises Orla. "Get your kids playing outside and their mindless eating will naturally reduce due to the distraction and physical distance from food."
But do the new guidelines even go far enough? The latest data from Safefood shows that one in four Irish children is now overweight or obese and that one fifth of kids' daily energy intake is coming from sugary drinks, biscuits, confectionery, chocolate and cake.
This isn't just a Christmas problem. Orla reckons that 'two treats a day' is still far from where we need to be and the whole idea of sugary food 'rewards' needs to be re-thought.
"If a child is getting one or two treats a day, it is no longer a treat. It's simply an unhealthy habit," she explains. "Don't reward children with food; they're not dogs. For small kids a round of applause, a sticker or a hug is all the reward they need.
"For older kids it's simple things like the promise of an extra chapter read to them at night or a play date with friends."
Long-term, better education is needed to teach children that actually the real treat is healthy food, that drinking more water will help them perform better on the pitch, or that milk will make them grow tall and strong.
It might be tricky at first, but the foodies say it is possible to get children enthusiastic about eating well. Mum-of-three and author of The Baby-led Feeding Cookbook (where all family recipes are free from salt and refined sugar), Aileen Cox Blundell reckons step one to going sugar-free is not mentioning that the white stuff is off the menu, just gradually start bringing in sneaky substitutions.
It'll take a while for palates to change, but home-made muffins, naturally sweet with carrot, apple or banana or tasty flapjacks made with small amounts of maple syrup and coconut can take the place of the traditional high-sugar shop-bought alternatives. Yes, it takes a little bit more effort on your part to whip up these healthier, sugar-free snacks, but the good news is that getting the kids to muck in can help forge new, better associations with 'treat' foods.
"Getting my own children involved in cooking has been one of the single biggest factors in reducing their sugar intake," reveals Aileen. "They love getting their hands dirty cutting out fruit-sweetened cookies and making banana sugar-free muffins for their lunchboxes.
"Having healthier snacks in the cupboard or the freezer stops us all from even thinking about sugar and makes us all crave it so much less."
"Healthy food has the ability to protect us from harm and keep us looking and feeling at our best," adds Orla.
"Encouraging children to have a healthy relationship with food is one of the most important jobs a parent has."
With the choc-fest of Easter already looming, it's a message I'll certainly be trying to take on-board.