About 20 per cent of what children eat is treat foods.
Treat foods are foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt. Crisps, biscuits, chocolate and sweets provide next to nothing in the way of nutrition and should only be eaten occasionally.
When children fill up on treats, they don't have room for more nourishing foods. An unhealthy diet like this will affect their health - from dental problems in the short-term, to serious health issues when they are older.
Why tackle treats? Dr. Aileen McGloin, safefood
We all know that children should be eating fewer treats, but cutting down is a real challenge. Our children get treats for lots of reasons – to reward or bribe them; to get them to behave; to make them feel better (and to make us feel better too). Maybe it’s a habit, or because they’re there. And sometimes, it's because we want a treat ourselves.
No matter the reason, with the help of health experts including nutritionists, parenting experts and parents themselves, we’ve got the support and advice you need to make “treats” just that – a treat again.
10 steps to reducing children's treats
1. Look around - treats are everywhere
At first, don’t make any changes! Take a day or two to become more aware of when and where you and your children see treats each day.
Does your child come with you to the supermarket or local shop? Do they see treats on TV or on social media? Do your family, friends and neighbours give them treats?
Once you start noticing that treats are everywhere, you might see that your children see and get more of them than you realised. It’s no surprise that treats are now “everyday” foods. We need to help our children understand that treats are just that – “treats” – something special to be enjoyed occasionally.
2. It takes a hero to be the bad guy
Reducing treats can be really challenging. They’re all around us and you’re going to be tempted by them when you’re out and about, and when you’re at home because that’s now the norm.
No parent wants to say no to their child, but in these situations our kids need to be protected against the onslaught of treats.
So be a hero and say no. Because it takes a hero to be the bad guy.
Does saying 'no' to your children make you feel guilty? Peadar Maxwell has some advice.
3. Start with a plan - and stick with it
It all starts with a plan. Health experts recommend that children should only eat treats in small amounts and not every day.
For some families, this might mean only having treats at the weekend. For others who might be eating treats every day, that could be aiming for a treat-free day. Or cutting down at one part of the day – for example, not having treats after school.
However you start your plan, aim to set a goal of reducing treats that is realistic for you. You could also think about why your kids eat more treats than you might want them to. Do they ask for them? Does someone else give them? Are you using treats to reward good behaviours or prevent bad ones? Where are they eating these treats?
Thinking about these might help you to understand some of the triggers. Once you’ve set a goal, you’ll need to work with your family to agree this. Everybody has to be in this together if it’s going to work.
Keep things reasonable and realistic, says Conor Owens
How to stick to a plan: Anne McGuinness has some tips
4. Helping you when you need to say “No” to treats
There are going to be lots of different times when you might need help with saying “No” to treats.
And each time might need a different response. If your child is hungry and asks for a treat, you can offer them a healthy snack. Here are some quick and easy options.
But children can push back and that can be hard to deal with, especially if you're under pressure. Here's some advice from our parenting experts.
How to break the habit of giving treats – Conor Owens
How to break the habit of using treats for good behaviour – Peadar Maxwell
Peadar Maxwell has some calm advice on how to deal with meltdowns in public places
5. Looking for help? We’ve got your back
When you’re trying to cut down on treats, you’re probably going to need some help. Let’s be honest, parents aren’t the only ones who give children treats.
So speak to your family, friends and neighbours.
You might also need to discuss this with other clubs and groups that your children are involved with. Maybe treats shouldn’t be a regular feature of activities?
Join our Make A Start Facebook Group where we discuss supports and advice around reducing treats and other healthy habits.
How to get support from family and friends – Karen Heavey
6. Out of sight out of mind - avoid triggers
Since treats are all around us, the next step is to try and change that. The two key places that we can control are when food shopping and in our own homes.
If you are out shopping in the supermarket, try to stay out of the treats aisles. Try to ignore the special offers on treats at the ends of aisles. If you really don’t want them or need them, they’re not a bargain.
Let’s face it – most of us have a 'treats press', so for younger kids, try to make sure it's out of reach and that they’re not allowed to take things from it freely.
On a positive note, you can leave healthier foods in easy reach, like a fruit bowl on your counter. That way, children are tempted by these when they’re hungry.
7. You can do this!
If you set a realistic goal, then you know you can do this. And keep telling yourself that you can.
Think about those days that went well and how you managed them.
And if you do have a bad day, just park it, move on and remember the good ones.
8. Give real treats, not treat foods
Sometimes, we want to give our children treats and make them feel special. And it’s important that we continue to do that. But we’re relying more and more on treats and need to think about some healthier options. Many kids really just want a bit more of your time and attention.
Alternative treats could be a trip to your favourite place – the park, the woods, a playground, a beach or library. Whatever is near where you live and brings some enjoyment to you all. You could play a game with them, indoors or outside.
And for those little ones at home, even a hug and kiss can sometimes be the thing to boost everyone’s spirits.
Healthy habits – Dr John Sharry
9. Keep an eye on how you are doing
Changing how many treats your children have will take time. On average, it takes about two months to change a habit, or start a new one.
It can really help if you take a few minutes each week to think about how you are doing and maybe even write down and keep track of when your children had treats. You might not have time for this, but if you do, there's a treats diary you can print out and use.
If things haven’t gone so well, ask yourself a few questions. Are you getting the help you asked for? Are there still places or times when treats are a particular challenge? Do you need to review the advice on how to say no? If things have gone well, thing about making another small change and make sure you celebrate your success.
How to break the habit of giving treats at meal times
10. Celebrate success
When you achieve your goal, no matter how big or small, take a moment to appreciate what you have achieved.
Reducing the amount of treats your children have is a real challenge and you deserve to feel like a hero. Your efforts are helping to set them up for a healthier life both now and the rest of their lives.