START Campaign says no to treat food

Northern Ireland parents continue to find it increasingly difficult to say ‘no’ to treat foods for their children despite many families retuning to a more normal way of life, according to the START Campaign.

With a quarter of children in Northern Ireland aged 2-15 years falling into the overweight (17%) or obese (8%) category, research by safefood has revealed that parents acknowledged turning to treat foods to ease their child’s boredom during lockdowns.

Many parents found the stresses and strains of being stuck at home and juggling parental tasks with working from home and home-schooling, had them struggling to keep the amount of unhealthy treats their children eat to a minimum.

Pre-Covid research² showed that foods like biscuits, crisps and chocolate were the second-most consumed food group by children. However, since the pandemic, 50% of local parents believe this has increased in the last past eighteen months.

The START campaign, by safefood, the Department of Health and the Public Health Agency, is launching a new drive to help parents reverse this trend and get back to healthier habits with children back in the classroom and enjoying extra-curricular activities once again.

The campaign is encouraging parents to giving their children treats in moderation by focusing on going easier on the amount of treat foods they give to children and finding a balance for the whole family.

Dr Aileen McGloin, Nutritionist with safefood said: “Before the pandemic, treat foods made up around a fifth of what children eat daily. But parents are now reporting this has increased as they struggled to manage their children’s treat food intake over the past 18 months

“Parents are aware that they need to say no to treats more often but believe that giving their children treats in moderation is much more realistic and achievable way to going easier on treats.

“The START campaign is therefore encouraging parents to re-start healthier habits by limiting foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar to an occasional treat, and not every day.

“They can start by swapping these with healthier snacks such as yoghurt, fruit, popcorn, cheese or peanut butter and crackers. Parents can find lots of tips and advice on

Parenting expert Colman Noctor added “From the research, parents felt that it is important to discuss reducing treats together as a family. Rather than just saying no to treats outright, they wanted to be able to discuss the benefits of eating healthily with their children and the long-term gains of doing so. They also wanted to be equipped with the relevant information they need to discuss this with their children, as well as practical tips for how to broach the conversation.

“By making the decision to reduce treats together as a family, and making sure children understand why you are doing this, it will make you far more likely to succeed which will also help them to form healthier eating habits later in life.

The START campaign supports parents to achieve small daily wins in adopting a healthy diet and lifestyle for their child. Parents can find practical advice for reducing treats and support and practical tools, including videos from the experts on how to take a break from treats, on the START campaign website 

Advice from the START campaign to help you with giving treats a break

  • It’s so difficult to avoid treats when shopping. So agree what treats you’re getting before you go so that you put less in your basket or trolley – if they aren’t at home it reduces temptation.
  • Get the children involved in planning healthy snacks – start a family challenge – use star charts for all the family to increase their fruit and vegetable intake.
  • Use non-food treats – like planning a trip to a new playground, the beach or other things your children enjoy.
  • Make healthy swaps: Offer crackers and cheese instead of chocolate biscuits, choose plain popcorn or breadsticks instead of crisps, offer a low-fat yogurt or fruit straight after school instead of a chocolate bar.

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