Making a small start is key for our children’s healthy eating

We want to give our children everything but have lost our ability to say “no”

“Start”, the latest healthy-eating campaign launched this week, has the ambitious goal of getting our children out of an unhealthy food rut.

Year upon year for the past decade, we report a depressing landscape of statistics on unhealthy lifestyle habits in both adults and our children. Mobile phones and screens are ubiquitous in our lives. Confectionery and treats are abundant in our diets. Our everyday drinks are coloured, creamy or sweet while vegetables are either completely absent or disguised in our family meals.

We are certainly resistant but almost immune to accepting the inevitable consequences of this state of affairs. We ask: “Why does this really matter anyway? It’s the way we live our lives today. It’s progress and it’s inevitable.” I’m speaking from a health perspective and it does matter. Sedentary children who are carrying excess weight not only carry a burden of poor self-confidence but also pressure on all their organs, from their joints and blood vessels to their heart, lungs and arteries. We know that our consumption of “junk” foods as children can actually alter the expression of our genetic destiny which increases the risks of Type 2 diabetes and malignancies in adulthood. This is not the legacy we want. It’s not what we intended, but it’s what we are doing because “it’s the way we live our lives today”.

Stuck in a rut

People often ask why we are so stuck in this rut. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, “it’s the environment, stupid”. The pace of life for families is fast, with frequently both parents working outside the home and long daily commutes. The ultra-processed food offerings to consumers are ultra-available and healthy options are the exception, even more so when eating out. Sweet treats are no longer really a “treat”. They are an inherent part of the daily diet for many and certainly no longer confined to celebrations or special occasions. Children’s sports activities are linked to sponsorship from confectionary and soft drinks companies. Buns and doughnuts are now supersized. We give small children phones and tablets for entertainment. I think we get the picture.

We are also stuck in this rut because of other influences on our lives. Justifiably, we want to give our kids everything but we have misinterpreted child development advice. We’ve lost our ability to say “no” to our children’s understandable pleadings for sugary foods. We mistake thirst after sports or play for an acute requirement for high energy (sugar, salt and fat) replenishment. Our family lives have become more choice-laden, with separate meals for different children. While wanting the very best for our children, we are not managing to feed them for a healthy adult life.

We expect that by “treating” our kids with the same things that they’ll be happier when, in fact, this happiness is only momentary. Yet we keep doing it and the treats consequently become more frequent. And so it continues. I think we parents have become stuck in the belief that we cannot make healthy changes for our children’s future. The rut might be deep but it can be overcome. Change is possible. Sustained changes are also possible within our family lives. Making a start, deciding on the day and the time is the way to go. Making plans to get back on track when the inevitable interruptions excuses and hurdles get in our way is realistic.

Welcome changes

Change is also possible in the food environment and some welcome changes have begun – sugar levels have been reduced in drinks ahead of the so-called sugar tax and there are some other reformulation efforts under way. Retailers are latterly promoting fruit, vegetables and lean meat in addition to the usual offerings on offer. But we are still seeing many red traffic light labels on food so there’s a lot more to do.

The "Start" campaign from safefood, the HSE and Healthy Ireland wants to enable change and is based on the concept of "making a start" at specific healthy eating and activity habits that are proven to promote health and a healthy weight in children. The habits are clear and simple: drink water with meals; add fruit and/or vegetables to meals and snacks; limit sweet treats to occasions; cut down on screen time; give children child-sized portions and plenty of play/activity and sleep time.

Making a “Start” recognises the realities of family life. It encourages a “never fail to make an attempt” attitude. A half-hour less of screen time daily is a win. Moving from two pieces of fruit and veg a day to three is a win. Confining sweet breakfast cereals to the weekend is progress!

This has to be a marathon; it’s not a sprint. Making a “start” supports the idea of building on these little and important successes towards a healthier island and a legacy we can be truly proud of.

Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan is Director of Human Health & Nutrition with safefood. For more information on the 'Start' campaign, visit