Tricks for managing the torrent of treats

Parents are being urged to cut down on empty calories, but it’s not easy to break the habits of a little lifetime

‘An event or item that is out of the ordinary and gives great pleasure” is how the Oxford dictionary defines a “treat”.

That's certainly not the 140 small chocolate bars, 105 tubes of sweets, 36 packets of jam-filled biscuits and 118 bags of crisps – or their equivalent – that makes up the 16kg (two and a half stone) of "treats" that each child in Ireland, on average, consumes a year. (That's not even taking into account foods such as ice cream, cakes, pastries, buns and puddings that a child would also typically eat.)

In reality “treats” have come to mean high-fat, high-sugar confections that we give to children as rewards, to keep them quiet, to plug a gap between meals, to stave off boredom, to win their affections, to celebrate a multitude, or for whatever other reason. And this is why they are being targeted in the current phase of Safefood’s three-year campaign against childhood obesity.

"Let's Say No" is the catchphrase but, as Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, the director of Safefood, says, there is a multilayered message of "defer, plámás, provide an alternative that isn't a sweet one and change the routine" when it comes to treats.

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With more awareness now about healthy eating, the next step is to change behaviour. Parents told Safefood they knew about the issues but that they needed a solution-focused approach.

The current spotlight is on what Foley-Nolan describes as “the routine administration of treats”, which is a pitfall for many a family. The sheer volume can tip the balance of what may be relatively healthy eating the rest of the time the wrong way.

“There is a considerable overlap with general parenting because it does involve saying ‘no’ and re-establishing a different norm, which is not without its challenges,” she points out.

No “one size fits all” solution is offered because it depends on your family’s circumstances and where you’re starting from, says Foley-Nolan, adding: “Anything that is an improvement is an improvement.”

A good way to start is to keep a “treats” diary for a week (there’s a template on safefood.eu). It should log consumption by every member of the household and will then give a snapshot of “the what, when and where”.

“There’s no point in expecting one thing of children and another of yourself,” she points out. In focus groups, Safefood heard a lot from parents about how “the other parent” liked pudding or chocolate.

Once you see what the pattern is, the aim should be to reduce quantity and frequency. There will be “trigger times”; the most common, according to Foley-Nolan, are when children come home from school, and after dinner.

Parents often say, “What about birthday parties?” While for children of a certain age it seems hardly a weekend passes without one, she believes the issue can be overemphasised.

Daily routines and habits, not what somebody else gives your child on occasion, are what need to be scrutinised. (Although, Safefood is asking extended family and the community to support parents in cutting down.) “It is really the day-to-day, rather than the birthday parties, that are going to make a difference.”

Family diet

Wholesome Ireland blogger and cookbook author Caitríona Redmond has seen small changes in her family’s diet and routines since the beginning of September make a big difference.

Having made her name by writing about eating well on a tight budget, it was only when she decided to review her family’s portion sizes that she realised the extent of her own sugar “addiction”.

Using an app to track her calories, “I could see the ridiculous amount of sugar I was trying to eat to power me through the day,” she says. Until the end of the summer, almost every second recipe on her blog was a baking recipe with sugar in it. And, of course, that was what the whole family – her husband John, sons Eoin (six) and Fionn (two) and step-daughter Rebecca (15) – were eating too.

It was time, she decided, to move towards being a “low-sugar household” and redefine the notion of “treats”.

“When my husband and I were growing up, treat foods were associated with behaving well and being good,” she says. But when they became adults with their own disposable incomes, “treats” featured more and more. They bought them because they could, and because they came with emotional gratification.

She didn’t want to pass on this emotional tie-in to her children, so an after-dinner treat for the boys has become, for example, both parents kicking a ball around with them, or going out on the bikes together or going on a family walk. It has turned out to be much more rewarding than watching television.

‘Brain suck’

“We noticed when we had the TV on it was like a brain suck,” says Redmond, who still struggles with sugar cravings in the evenings when she sits down for a cup of tea after the boys have gone to bed.

As with most lifestyle changes, she believes going “cold turkey” makes it really difficult. So she hasn’t stopped baking with sugar, just uses it less.

However the move to alternative sweeteners is more of a financial than a culinary challenge. Products such as coconut oil, cocoa nibs and bee pollen are all ridiculously expensive, she says.

Most families are on a budget, she points out, and you can buy a kilo of sugar for €1.49. “Then you look at how much it costs in the equivalent of an alternative sweetener – it is very hard to justify.”

She uses mostly honey, agave syrup and stevia, which is a plant-based sweetener. As for high-sugar, high-fat convenience treats, the family is well used to them being left on the supermarket shelves.

“The kids go shopping with me, they see what I buy and they help me put the shopping away so they know what is in the cupboards. If it’s not there, they don’t ask for it.

“The two-year-old will ask for a banana for a treat; for the older boy raisins and apricots are his thing and they are both mad about popcorn.”

The adjustment to a low-sugar household has probably been hardest for Rebecca, she says, and there is no question of banning them.

“The attitude we are taking with her is that we are not going to buy them in and if you choose to spend your pocket money on these treats, just be aware of what’s in them and obviously if you spend your money on these, there won’t be money to spend on something else.”

But Rebecca does join in family walks, often up to the allotment where they grow their own vegetables. Even with the shorter, colder days, Redmond is determined to keep this up, having invested in appropriate clothing, including thermal wellies, for the boys.

On a recent night when they watched a DVD, there was a lot more interaction than when they habitually slumped into their accustomed seats in front of the television, she says.

“As a family, it has made a huge difference” and that shows on the bathroom scales too. The upside of it is that my husband and I both weighed ourselves and we are 35lb [16kg] down between us since the beginning of September: he has lost 20lb and I have lost 15lb.

“It is simply from the combination of increasing aerobic exercise, decreasing portions and, if I do eat a treat, trying to make sure it is a treat that has more nutritional value to it than raw sugar calories,” she says.

See safefood-eu; wholesomeireland.com

swayman@irishtimes.com

Ways to cut down on sugary treats....

Keep a treats diary for a week to see what is being eaten when and where

Start to increase the length of time between treats and decrease the quantity eg a couple of squares of chocolate instead of the whole bar, or mini-size versions

Don’t be afraid to say “no”.

Look for healthier snacks, such as fruit, vegetable sticks and popcorn

Introduce non-food treats as rewards eg a trip to the playground or swimming pool.

Get rid of the “treats” cupboard – it’s too much temptation.

Substitute fizzy or fruit juice drinks with water and milk

Tell family, friends and childminders about the changes you’re making so they can row in

Don’t go over the top and ban all sweet things – it will only increase the craving

See safefood.eu for more practical advice and to read how other families are cutting down.