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Let's give treats a break

Let's give treats a break

Half of Northern Ireland parents say their children are eating more treats during the Covid-19 pandemic

START campaign encourages families to reset the clock on treats and re-start healthy habits

Thursday 6th May 2021: Northern Ireland parents acknowledge they have been struggling to stop their kids from eating treat foods such as chocolate, crisps, biscuits and sweets during the pandemic. Almost half of parents in Northern Ireland (47%) said their child is eating more unhealthy treats since the start of the pandemic than they did before, according to new research from safefood in support of the START campaign.

Meanwhile, more than half (53%) say they struggle to keep the amount of treats their children eat to a minimum. Even before the pandemic, previous safefood research showed that foods like biscuits, crisps, chocolate and sweets were the second most consumed food group by children, with almost 25% of all meals including food and drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugar.

The START campaign, by safefood, the Department of Health and the Public Health Agency, is launching a new drive to help parents reset the clock on treats, as Covid restrictions gradually begin to lift, by encouraging families to give treats a break.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride:

“Overweight and obesity that begins in childhood is likely to track into adulthood creating the potential for an upward spiral in levels of obesity. Treats can be fun for children and a short-term distraction however, if they are given on a daily basis they are no longer “treats” they are part of the child’s diet and can then contribute to long term health risks.

“Risk factors for diseases can begin to develop in early life. Regular physical activity and a healthy diet make it more likely that children will remain healthy as adults. Engaging children early in the benefits of healthy eating and involving whole families in exercise is key to tackling the problems caused by obesity and inactivity.”

The campaign is already winning support from parents, with 22% saying treat-eating is the behaviour they most want to improve upon. Focusing on the critical moment when a child asks for a treat, the new campaign supports parents in taking a stand and saying no, in order to set their children back on the road to healthier habits. “

This past year has not been easy for parents and has had a significant, negative impact on what we eat and how active we are as families,” says Joana da Silva, Chief Specialist in Human Health and Nutrition at safefood. “We know that physical lockdowns, home-schooling and a lack of social contact have all contributed to this situation. Having been through so much, parents are aware that their children’s food patterns have changed. “But as measures are slowly being eased, it brings the hope that parents can re-start those healthy habits at home for all the family.” “Before the pandemic, treat foods made up about a fifth of what children eat and the figure could be even higher now”, Ms Da Silva warns. “The START campaign is here to help support parents in their efforts of giving treats a break and to re-start those daily wins,” she says.

David Tumulty, Health & Social Wellbeing Improvement Manager at the Public Health Agency says the past year has been a difficult time for parents. “Almost half of them told us the amount of treats their child eats increased in the past year while 53% said they found it difficult to keep treats to a minimum. We understand why parents did this; to cope with the day-to-day stresses of the pandemic, to soothe their child’s worries and to get by,” he says. “The START campaign is here to support parents in their efforts to take a break from treats now and to encourage more healthy habits like replacing treats with healthier snacks. “By having fewer treats available in your home and offering healthier snacks, this makes it easier to bridge the gap between wanting to do the right thing and feeling we have to give in. “As parents, it’s really important that we stay positive. Encouraging healthier treats is a long-term habit to change, so small, gradual changes will help healthy snacking to become the norm at home.”

Charlene Brooks, CEO of the leading Parenting Organisation, Parenting NI described the pandemic as having been “enormously difficult for many parents and families and therefore the statistics regarding unhealthy treat foods is unfortunately not surprising as many parents have found them an easy way to offer quick and convenient treats and reassurance”. She added that “now is a great time to start a campaign to consistently reinforce those positive messages and the START 5 steps is a useful guide to get many parents and families back on track”.

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

  1. Avoid the treat aisle in the supermarket when shopping- if they aren’t at home it reduces temptation.
  2. 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.
  3. Use non-food treats – like planning a trip to a new playground, the beach or other things your children enjoy.
  4. 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.
  5. Celebrate success - When you achieve your goal, no matter how big or small, take a moment to appreciate what you have achieved.

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



For further information or to request an interview, please contact:

Russell Lever ASG & Partners
Mob: 077 8828 8901
Email: [email protected]


Dermot Moriarty/Ciara O’Connor safefood
Mob: +353 87 437 2080 (Ciara)
Mob: +353 86 381 1034 (Dermot)



*safefood/Ipsos MRBI Omnibus survey March 2021


Editors Notes

The START campaign is a five-year public health awareness campaign from safefood, the Department of Health and the Public Health Agency. The campaign is encouraging families to take the first step towards a healthier lifestyle for their children by supporting them with one daily win and to persist with the changes, no matter how difficult they become.

To find out more about the START campaign and ways to make a healthy, positive start visit

In identifying the positive starts that parents and families can take, the campaign advertising focuses on seven key lifestyle habits:

  • Minimise intake of foods high in fat, salt and sugar
  • Establish water and milk as routine drinks
  • Give appropriate child-sized portions to children
  • Include more fruit and vegetables across the week
  • Increase physical activity levels
  • Limit screen time
  • Increase sleep time

The campaign was developed using a ‘co-creation’ approach, which involves working with parents in particular and key stakeholders to ensure the campaign is relevant, realistic and can achieve results.

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