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Talking to families about treats

How can we create healthy relationships with food for our children? Child psychologist, Colman Noctor, has some important advice.

I am rarely surprised by how a seemingly innocuous topic can garner a pretty exercised and animated response, and the topic of children's treats seems to be another example.

When I have spoken about how as parents we can moderate how many treats our children are given, there are some who will object to the use of the word ‘treat’. The objections seem to be around the idea that ‘treat’ suggests that the food is symbolic of some kind of reward or it is already creating an allure around these types of foods and amplifying children’s desire for them.

What is a 'treat'?

A ‘treat’, in the context of food, means something that is deemed tasty and desirable but perhaps is low in nutritional value and high in carbohydrates or sugars which are adjudged to have a negative impact on our health when not consumed in moderation. While I agree wholeheartedly that language is important, I have yet to find a viable alternative, as the other option of ‘junk food’ is equally unappealing.

But if we can get over the terminology aspects, the core issue for me is that there is no such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, there are only correct and incorrect ‘amounts’ of food.

Therefore, this is where I believe the emphasis needs to be if we are to develop better relationships with food that result in longer lasting and optimal lifetime habits. What we understand about human desire is that when you prohibit something, you automatically create a desire for it and so demonising certain foods is not advisable. By the same token, seeing food as a reward or a soother for discomfort or as a distraction from distress is not advisable either.

...there is no such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, there are only correct and incorrect ‘amounts’ of food

In childhood we are creating relationships with food that can last a lifetime and so how we shape that relationship is important. This is why how we talk about food needs to be always focused on health and benefits and not body weight. I have worked with far too many young people with severe eating disorders to know that weight shaming and moderating intake by means of guilt does not work and can have catastrophic impacts if done incorrectly.

So how do we create healthy relationships with food for our children?

The answer is by creating a consistent message that becomes a family culture around healthy eating and moderate intake of treat foods. Therefore, I don’t endorse any good food/ bad food narratives at home, but instead there is an established agreement about right/ wrong amounts of treat foods in the family home. This is part of a bigger picture where meal times are seen as the pillar of the family diet and therefore these take priority over any supplementary use of snacks etc.

Having alternatives to treat food available may also be part of this process. Children and teenagers, by nature of the fact that they are growing may be hungry a lot of the time. Therefore, the availability of a yoghurt and crackers or a packet of crisps and a chocolate bar may determine what they choose to eat. So, having a consistent meal pattern at home and enough of the better options available will help to encourage better choices.      

However, some parents report that no matter what they do to encourage better relationships with food for their children there are other extended family members who can undo much of this work. If we remind ourselves that in order to create a culture we need consistent, reliable and predictable messaging, when this is scuppered by someone else periodically it makes the culture much harder to establish. The reality of modern-day parenting is that parents depend on other adults around them to carry through on the values they want for their children. These include those involved in their children’s lives through mostly childcare, playdates and grandparents.

the availability of a yoghurt and crackers or a packet of crisps and a chocolate bar may determine what they choose to eat. .. and enough of the better options available will help to encourage better choices

Many parents are reluctant to be critical or even broach this subject with them but they know that the conflicting messaging is impacting on their ability to create the relationships with treat foods that parents desire.

Starting the conversation

So, is there any practical advice on how (and when) to start this conversation with the so-called ‘treat offenders’ in parents’ world? The answer is yes, but it may be difficult. 

Firstly, it is important to try to frame this as a positive message for your whole family. Explain to the others involved in the children’s lives that this is something you are trying to establish. But rather than saying that they cannot give the children any treats, agree on a number of treats that can be given. Do this by discussing that there is an upper limit on the daily amount of treats you want your child to have and perhaps provide alternatives, like fruit, yoghurt or rice cakes to the childcare provider or grandparents to have in the cupboard if the child is complaining of being hungry. 

Your approach may be as important as your action in this one. Explain that over the last 2 years the treat intake has been higher than you wanted it to be and you are using this time to try to re-establish better relationships with food and health for your children.

Ask that the other people involved assist you with this rather than taking a dictator role which could end up in secret biscuits being smuggled to the children under your radar.

But most importantly make the focus about health, not weight. Make sure that you are role modelling good snacking habits too and explain how you want to do this for yourself as well. And don’t demonise any foods, accept that birthday parties will happen and children may overindulge on these occasions but as long as the message and availability of alternatives at home is consistent, you stand a better chance of these desired habits and choices sticking.   



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