Giving treats to kids has become habitual

Parents urged to say no more often
  • Deborah Condon

Giving treat foods to children has become habitual in Ireland, with those aged between five and 12 years receiving them most often, a new research report from Safefood has revealed.

The report was released to coincide with the next phase of START, an ongoing campaign that aims to encourage families to live a healthier lifestyle.

The research included focus groups and a survey of over 1,000 adults, including parents, grandparents, teachers, childminders and sports coaches.

According to the findings, just 6% of parents rarely give their children treats, while 12% give treats at least once a day.

The main reasons why parents give their children treats are:
-To reward good behaviour
-Because their children ask for them
-To make children feel better.

Parents who took part in the research said that they felt treats were unavoidable. They are constantly present in supermarkets and they form a big part of celebrations and occasions.

Previous research by Safefood has shown that treat foods such as biscuits, crisps and chocolates, are the second-most consumed food group by children. Furthermore, almost 25% of all meals now include food and drinks high in fat, salt and sugar.

"On average, foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt now make up about a fifth of what our children eat and have gone from an occasional food to an everyday food. The short-term impact of this is that children don't get all the nutrients they need for growth and development, such as iron and calcium.

"These foods are also linked in the short-term with poor dental health and in the longer term with many chronic conditions. We struggle to avoid these treat foods every day because they are available everywhere, highly palatable, cheap and frequently on special offer," explained Dr Marian O'Reilly, Safefood's chief specialist in nutrition.

The latest phase of the START campaign aims to encourage parents to say no to treats more often. Using the tagline, ‘It takes a hero to be the bad guy', it notes that parents need support from a range of people including grandparents, friends, childminders and healthcare professionals.

The campaign focuses on the critical moment when a child asks for a treat and how a parent needs to take a stand and say no in an effort to cut down on these foods.

"What we hear from parents in this research is that unhealthy treat foods are everywhere, every day. We can give parents tips and skills to help them deal with saying no and cope with the pushback they are likely to see from children when they introduce changes.

"We also have to recognise that it's sometimes easier for a parent to give in to the treat when they themselves are too tired to say no or prepare a healthier option. It's not easy, but taking small steps will make improvements over time that will start children on the way to a healthier life," explained Sarah O' Brien, the HSE's national lead on the START campaign.

Meanwhile, according to Peadar Maxwell, a psychologist with the HSE, parents need to remember that they have so much power to influence their children's health and snacking habits.

"Practical steps include having less treats available in your home and offering healthier snacks makes it so much easier to bridge that gap between wanting to be a hero and feeling we have to give in.

"Shifting rewards for good behaviour from food treats to praise, a hug or a game, and giving attention to our children when they choose healthy snacks, all help too," he said.

He also emphasised that parents should not despair if they do give in and give their children treats.

"It never helps when we beat ourselves up, so if you do give in, don't despair. Instead, reflect on what happened and decide what you can change for the next time. It's really important to stay positive and if treats are a long-term habit, it may require patience for healthy snacking to become the norm,' he said.

For more information, including tips for parents on how to reduce treats, click on


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