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A quarter of local primary school children’s daily diet is unhealthy treat foods

A quarter of local primary school children’s daily diet is unhealthy treat foods

​Northern Ireland Women's International Captain, Marissa Callaghan, supports START Campaign to encourage parents to reduce the amount of treats they give their children

Wednesday 19th October 2022:  Almost a fifth (19%) of Northern Ireland pre-school children’s daily diet consists of unhealthy treat foods including biscuits, crisps, cakes, sweets, and chocolate, new START campaign research has revealed.

The research also found that a child’s daily calorie intake from unhealthy treat foods increased as they get older with a quarter (25%) of local primary school children’s daily diet consisting of treats that are high in fat, sugar, and salt.

Currently a quarter of children aged 2-15 years in Northern Ireland are reported to be overweight (20%) or obese (6%), with the study showing that treat foods like biscuits, chocolate, soft drinks, and savoury snacks contributed significantly to the total intakes of saturated fat and added sugar among children.

The research which was conducted in May 2022 as part of the START campaign from safefood, the Public Health Agency and the Department of Health to understand the role of snacking and treat foods in children’s lives.

The START campaign, with the support of Northern Ireland Senior Women's International Captain, Marissa Callaghan, is encouraging parents to take steps towards healthier family habits by reducing the amount of treats they give their children and to give healthier snacks when children are hungry.

Dr Aileen McGloin, Director of Nutrition with safefood said: We know that snacks play an important role in childrens diets, particularly so for younger children. However, this research shows that children are getting too many snacks from unhealthy foods like biscuits, crisps, chocolate, and sweets. We want to support parents to rethink their childrens snacks, both in terms of what they buy and what they give. Offering healthier snacks particularly during those after-school times during the week would be a good place to start.

“From listening to parents, we know this is a really challenging because treats are readily available and so cheap. The cost-of-living crisis makes this even more challenging. But healthy snacks can be inexpensive, quick and easy. Snack ideas to offer include crackers and cheese instead of chocolate biscuits, or plain popcorn or breadsticks instead of crisps, or for straight after school, a low-fat yogurt or fruit instead of a chocolate bar.”

Dr.  McGloin advised parents to go easy on treats during the week, buying less when shopping and asking relatives not to offer treats every day.

She added: "All families have different circumstances so its about choosing what works for you and your children and making a start with that and sticking with it. We have lots of practical help and support for parents on including healthy snack ideas and videos on how to make small changes that will make a big difference for all the family.”

Northern Ireland Senior Women's International Captain, Marissa Callaghan, said: “I’m delighted to be supporting the START campaign as I believe it helps provide parents with practical ways of helping us reduce the number of treats we give our children. It’s not about trying to be perfect; it’s about giving us the necessary advice to make better choices and to introduce healthier options to get that right balance for the whole family.

“As a mum, I want to make sure my young son, Quinn, is eating a healthy, balanced diet. The occasional treat is fine for our kids, but you can also swap these for healthier options like more fruit and snacks that are low in fat, salt, and sugar. This will be different for every family, but it is about finding what works best for you and working together as a team to reach your goals.”

Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor added: “The latest research from the START campaign underlines how we need to become more proactive about supporting the health of future generations by encouraging good dietary and physical activity habits.

“The key is to make gradual and progressive small changes. If your children have two treats a day, then aim to reduce that to one treat a day on weekdays and two at the weekend. Once this has been achieved it will provide parents with the confidence to continue introducing healthier diet options. Quick wins are crucial to motivational success and maintaining progress!”

The START campaign aims to support parents and guardians to talk to children about reducing treats as a family and minimise intake of foods high in fat, salt and sugar. Visit for practical advice and support on how to reduce treats, ideas for healthy snacks and advice from parenting experts.

For Healthy Snack ideas, see

Advice from the START Campaign to help with going easy on the Treats

  • Its difficult to avoid treats when shopping. Agree what treats youre getting before you go so that you put less in your basket or trolley. If they arent at home, theres less temptation.
  • Get the children involved in planning healthy snacks. Start a family challenge, like using star charts to get the whole family to eat more fruit and vegetables.
  • Use non-food treats. For example, planning a trip to a new playground, the beach, or other things your children enjoy.
  • 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.


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

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


Dermot Moriarty/Maeve Wrixon
Mob: +353 86 381 1034 (Dermot) +353 87 437 2080 (Maeve)
Email: [email protected]


¹ “The role of snacking and treat foods in the diets of children aged 2-12 years on the island of Ireland”. safefood May 2022.

² Treat foods contributed almost one fifth (19%) of saturated fat intake in 2-4-year-olds and over one-quarter (26%) of saturated fat intake in 5-12-year-olds 

Treat foods contributed to more than half of total daily free sugars intake in 2–4-year-olds (56%).and in 5-12-year-olds (65%)

Editors notes

The START campaign is a five-year public health awareness campaign from safefood, the Public Health Agency and the Department of Health. The campaign encourages families to take the first step towards a healthier lifestyle for their children by supporting them with one daily win and 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  

Data for these analyses are derived from two nationally representative food consumption surveys of children carried out in Northern Ireland. These were the National Diet and Nutrition Survey Northern Ireland (NDNS NI) (2008/09 and 2016/17)

Treat foods were categorised according to the Food Based Dietary Guidelines and snacking was time-defined.

In Ireland, the National Pre-School Nutrition Survey (NPNS) (2010 – 2011) and the National Children’s Food Survey II (NCFS II) (2017 – 2018) (

*Current national healthy eating guidelines don’t include treats as being necessary for good health, if children are eating them, the rule of thumb is ‘small amounts and not every day’. For a child aged over 5, this might mean a fun-size treat once or twice a week while for under 5s only a tiny amount is recommended and no more than once a week. This would equate to something like 1 square of chocolate, 5 crisps, half a plain biscuit or 3 soft sweets.

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