Thursday 19 April 2018

Treats are no way to reward our children

Children can't eat properly until adults fix their own eating habits and attitudes towards food

HONESTY: Tired and flustered parents go for the processed food and the treats as the path of least resistance
HONESTY: Tired and flustered parents go for the processed food and the treats as the path of least resistance

Sarah Caden

Last week, the results of a survey conducted by Safefood, the HSE and Healthy Ireland found that families with children spent 19pc of the average weekly food shop on what are classified as "treat" foods.

In a survey of 500 households, they found that on average over a year, a family would spend €1,037 on so-called treats, compared with €541 on fruit and €346 on vegetables.

Don't bother suggesting that fruit is a treat - that ship sailed a long time ago.

By "treat" foods what we are talking about is processed food, and, for the most part, sweet food. Two-thirds of what this survey classifies as treat foods comprises chocolate and sweets, sugary drinks, crisps and biscuits.

The other third is the less obvious stuff, including ice cream and lollies, sweet home baking, packet breakfast products, luxury yoghurts and yoghurt drinks, and non-bread baked goods.

The last items refer to most sweetened or embellished yoghurts which you might consider part of the healthy components of their lunch boxes, and then there is the croissants you give them in the supermarket to keep them quiet. All treats.

All relatively OK in moderation. And all OK in their place. As treats.

Where these foods are suddenly an issue, though, is when they are taking up such a large portion of our food spend and dwarfing what we spend on fruit and vegetables.

If we spend this little on fruit and veg, there can't be that much of it lying around our houses - we buy a little, we consume it, it's not part of the bigger domestic picture unlike the volume of treats, which these statistics suggest are a dominant presence in our kitchen cupboards.

The treats are always there, which, obviously, is entirely contradictory of the definition of a treat as an occasional indulgence, but that's where we're at.

Last week's survey results told one story about how we eat today, but to be read fairly, they need to be judged as part of Safefood's five-year Start programme, which aims to help parents "make a start" towards healthy eating and exercise habits in families.

They have a process of achieving "wins", tiny triumphs that work towards cutting down on junk and breaking bad habits by small steps.

On the website of Safefood, who are the Food Safety Promotion Board, they offer tips and advice on meal-planning, shopping, what qualifies as a snack and what qualifies as a healthy meal.

They also showcase their latest ad, which sums up the idea of little "wins". We see a harassed mother, running late for the school drop-off, discover that the breakfast cereal is all gone and resorting to giving the kids chocolate-spread sandwiches, feeling guilty and hoping no one sees them eat them in the car.

Later, even more tired and flustered - "Way too tired for that battle," she says - the mother nearly gives them pizza for dinner, but firms her resolve instead, adds frozen veg to the pasta sauce and is surprised to find everyone is happy with what they got. A win.

What's worth noting about this ad is its honesty.

It's honest about how parents go for the processed food and the treats as the path of least resistance. It's honest about how tired parents are.

It's honest about how we really mean well as parents but have fallen into bad habits. It's honest about how bad habits aren't best changed with big gestures but in small tweaks, and while words like "wins" and "battles" ring a little warlike, maybe that is just what it feels like at the frontline for parents.

The treats are easy, bloody cheap and, to a degree, addictive and habit-forming.

The treats have become the habit, the norm. They are not just for weekends or birthdays or special occasions. They are because you ate your dinner or did your homework or behaved yourself - all the stuff you're just supposed to do.

Treats are how we show our children that they're good and we love and value them, while also repeating to them the messages that we receive about treats and junk food - which is that they are bad and wrong and unhealthy and really shouldn't be allowed.

So we're buying the junk and we're handing over the junk to the kids, while at the same time telling them that this is wrong and bad and unhealthy. Talk about mixed messages.

Then again, our children are receiving more than this mixed message from us when it comes to food.

There is, without doubt, a problem with overweight children in this country, and it's something we need to address. However, there is also a problem with children and young people with food-denial eating disorders.

There is problem eating all round when it comes to young people, and really the adults aren't helping matters at either end of the spectrum by characterising some foods as good, others as "clean", some behaviours as bad and others as good.

As adults, we're not just shaping our children's eating habits by what we have in the cupboards or what we put on their plates, but also by the ways we talk about food and our own eating.

Treats are bad and sugar is bad and both are to be avoided, and yet see above for the proportion of our food spend that goes on these kinds of foods. The talk a lot of us talk is at odds with the walk we walk.

It is also sometimes the case that what we're feeding our children, out of convenience and a misplaced desire to keep them happy, is food that we wouldn't really eat ourselves. We're dishing up frozen chips and processed goujons, followed by ice cream and crisps because they've been so good today. But the adult conversation they're hearing at the table is that mummy is off the carbs or going sugar-free or that it's healthy to be "good" during the week and then have your "treat days" - wine, chocolate, chips - at the weekend when you're being "bad"?

Adults do a lot of that kind of talk when dealing with our own eating habits, and along with the indulgent but censorious attitude we have to so-called treats, it's a confusing climate for a child.

"The balance is all wrong," Cliodhna Foley Nolan, director of health and nutrition at Safefood said last week in relation to the shopping basket survey, but her words could apply to the psychological tweaks we could make alongside the practical ones.

If we're going to achieve the big "wins", it's time to address the conflict within the adult appetites before we can conquer the children.

Sunday Independent

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