Once a week a chorus of, ‘What’s for Friday treat?’ rings out in our house. Therein, follows a scramble to find something to satisfy the kids without sending them into a sugar-fuelled frenzy in school.

Recently, I’ve become somewhat alarmed by the amount of unhealthy foods my children are eating. The Friday treat is becoming daily, with socialising centring around chocolate, crisps and high-energy drinks.

With our children familiar with the healthy eating messages from pre-school onwards, how can we encourage them to manage the natural draw towards sweeter foods and eat more healthily?

“On social media, healthy eating messages are distilled down into good and bad foods,” says Caroline O’Connor, dietitian at Solid Start. “When we talk about healthy eating, we’re often just talking about food selection.”

However, Caroline says that isn’t the full picture. It’s not just what our children eat, but “how they eat it, how they feel when they eat it, how they feel about their bodies, whether they can tune in to feelings of hunger or fullness, whether they have enjoyment in food, whether they feel confident around food and picking and choosing between different types of foods,” she says.

Professor Colette Kelly, Director of Health Promotion Research Centre, University of Galway.

Snack time

Raising competent eaters with a healthy relationship with food means it’s far more nuanced. “What’s a healthy diet for one teenager is not necessarily the same for another.

“Snacks are not a type of food — just an eating occasion. A snack can contain any type of food,” explains Caroline, also qualifying some of the language around food such as ‘treat’ and ‘forbidden foods’.

“The word ‘treat’ shouldn’t relate to a group of foods. When we want to raise children who are competent eaters, who eat intuitively, we don’t really want to demonise foods or set them on a pedestal.

“Just call them chocolate, crisps, fizzy drinks. We don’t need to lump them all together because we give them power that they shouldn’t have.”

Forbidden foods

Conversely, we don’t want to make sweets something forbidden because foods that are forbidden are coveted. “That restriction can actually lead to overeating of those foods when you’re given free rein,” says Caroline.

So, what should we be doing as parents?

“It’s about families trying to model what healthy eating is and doing that right from the beginning is what’s advised,” says Professor Colette Kelly, Director of Health Promotion Research Centre, University of Galway.

“Getting them involved in the cooking, the shopping and buying, they’re things we try and

encourage from as young an age as possible.”

If you are concerned your child is going down a route of restrictive eating or unhealthy habits, Colette recommends having an open conversation as soon as you can, saying, ‘this is what our family is having and we all need to try it’; but parents should lead by example. “You shouldn’t be telling your child to do X if you’re not doing it,” says Colette.

“If what we’re having 80% of the time is good, then we should be happy with ourselves.

“We don’t want them to associate those high-fat, high-sugar foods with, ‘I’ve been bad, I need to now eat less in the evening time’.”

Caroline O'Connor, dietitian at Solid Start.

Meal time

The importance of the family meal is paramount. “Sitting around the dinner table is important for nutrition but also for lots of other behaviours around children and adolescents as well,” says Colette.

She advises including high-sugar, high-fat foods within the structure of these family meals and snacks.

If you’re offering chocolate biscuits as part of a meal or snack, offer them alongside the other foods such as a sandwich and fruit and give your child autonomy to decide when or if they eat the chocolate biscuit.

“In that way, you’re neutralising the power of those foods because you’re serving them alongside other things,” says Caroline. “You’re not saying, ‘if you’re really good and eat your sandwich you can have a chocolate biscuit’ because that’s putting those foods on a pedestal.”

By not giving your child free access to the cupboard to graze on biscuits whenever they choose, you are still providing boundaries but also, “helping to establish healthy eating habits because you’re helping children tune in to feelings of hunger and fullness,” says Caroline.


What do we do with sleepovers or trips to the cinema or shop, where they can overindulge?

“We have to let them work through that on their own,” says Caroline. “They have to learn to cope with that because that’s going to be their ongoing reality in this world, where there is access to plenty and they have to learn to deal with that.”

With Easter eggs or Halloween sweets, Caroline recommends allowing your child to eat what they want on the day itself and then after that, putting them in the press to have at mealtimes or snack times. “If you overeat on those sweets, you are going to feel sick but that in itself is a learning experience,” she says.

“It’s our job to do the feeding within the home, it’s their job to do the eating,” concludes Caroline. “Maybe at certain periods of time, they may eat more than we think is healthy of a certain group of foods, but if we model variety at home, if we model enjoyment, if we continue with family meals, that will balance out.”

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