Is healthy eating affordable?

Against the backdrop of a national obesity crisis, recent headlines have been full of claims that it’s cheaper to eat a diet of junk food than healthy meals. But is the research being misquoted?

Sparking the headlines, what the Cambridge University research actually looked at was the costs of different foods per 1,000 calories over a 10-year period. It found that the average cost of 1,000 healthy calories has risen faster than that of 1,000 unhealthy calories and cost almost three times more per calorie than in 2012.

The healthy foods (based on the Food Standards Agency nutrient profiling model) included canned tuna and tomatoes as well as fresh fruit and vegetables. The unhealthy foods were pizza, ice cream and the like.

Now, let’s just visualise those 1,000 calories…

1,000 healthy calories would be approximately…
14 cans of chopped tomatoes or
6 cans of tuna in spring water

1,000 unhealthy calories would be approximately…
1 cheese and tomato pizza or
1.2 litres of ice cream

You can see straight away that the 1,000 healthy calorie examples go a long way – these are large volumes of food. The unhealthy calories, by contrast, provide a much smaller quantity of food. Unhealthy calories might be cheaper – but they won’t satisfy you for long. And a lack of calories is generally not the problem we face in this county.

The 1,000 healthy calories also give a wider range of nutrients, vitamins and minerals. So in both quality and quantity they represent better value for money, despite their higher cost per 1,000 calories.

Prof Pablo Monsivais from the research team was the first to admit the study wasn’t about whether home cooked, healthy food can be cheaper than ready-meals. Speaking on Radio 4’s You and Yours he pointed out the importance of knowing which foods provide the most nutrients for the lowest cost.

People don’t shop by the calorie – they shop for the food that will satisfy them.

The problem comes when people don’t know how to cook from scratch using healthy ingredients. We worked with families living on tight budgets earlier this year and many told us they opted for cheap ready meals and processed foods precisely because they didn’t feel they had the skills or confidence to cook from scratch. The foods they were relying on were often high in saturated fat, sugar and salt while being low in essential minerals, vitamins and fibre.

Similarly, when we asked  professionals who work with children what would make the biggest difference to the families struggling on a limited food budget, cooking education for children and parents was one of the most frequent responses.

People need practical solutions. That’s why we’ve trained staff from more than 40 organisations to run practical Cook and eat on a budget courses. The courses, now being run through food banks, housing associations and substance misuse charities to name a few,  equip  families with knowledge and skills to plan and shop for meals and cook from scratch with basic ingredients. All with nutritionally balanced recipes that are good for their health as well as their wallet.

These families are now

  • planning meals ahead
  • freezing foods (e.g. cheese, milk, bread) to make the most of bulk buys
  • measuring food out before cooking to reduce food waste
  • buying less processed food and batch cooking and freezing instead
  • making the best use of leftovers.

These strategies are helping people to make best use of nutrient rich foods to put together balanced meals that are both affordable and value for money.

Here are some of their favourite tried and tested recipes that they said really work:

  • Mini Pancakes – quick, easy and cheap to make – a great way to use up any leftovers in the fridge and can even be made using long life or powdered milk
  • Fruity Yoghurt Cups – can be made with fresh, frozen or canned fruits
  • Tasty Tomato Pasta- a basic sauce that can be easily adapted to use whatever’s available – try adding canned beans or pulses, frozen vegetables or leftover cooked chicken.

We know that when children eat better, they do better. So as families find their food budgets tightening, it’s more important than ever that they are equipped with the cooking skills and knowledge they need to make healthy meals from scratch.

Jayne Hoyle is the Children’s Food Trust Evaluations Officer and a Registered Dietitian. For tips on cooking healthily on a budget visit Let’s Get Cooking at Home website.

Are we sentencing children to death?

Linda Cregan ponders the recent national media narrative on children’s food

Research by large, high street companies and academics alike over recent weeks highlights much that is shocking and bizarre about children’s food. Whatever the respective agendas behind these various findings – commercial or altruistic – they continue to feed the mainstream media narrative.

And rightly so. When this drops out of the news, worry more. Malnutrition in all its ugly forms will finally have become a cultural norm and we will have become resigned to fatal indifference.

Instead, we are provoked by hard hitting facts. Commentary on a report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month suggested we are sentencing children to death, as nine out of 10 were eating ‘dangerously high levels’ of salt.[1] More than 40 per cent of the sodium children consume comes from what are typically their favourite foods, including pizza, sandwich meats, cheese, chicken nuggets and pasta dishes, says the report.

“We are sentencing all too many children to premature death from heart disease and stroke,” the news story quotes.

But do we fare any better in the UK? Last week, it was sugar. We – and that includes our children – are all consuming too much, say researchers[2] from University College London and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. They want sugar to be taxed, the threshold for what constitutes high sugar levels to be lowered, and vending machines offering confectionery and sugary drinks to be removed from places controlled by government, such as schools and hospitals.

Ahead of the new requirement for cooking to be in the school curriculum, Tesco is one of the supermarket giants focusing on children’s lack of cooking skills and basic understanding of healthy food. Each is underpinning their research findings with new activity programmes for children to help address this, such as Tesco’s Farm to Fork Cooking.

And behind all these issues lie the financial costs of relative inertia. With sugar intake a key culprit, treating dental problems costs between 5% and 10% of total health expenditure in industrial countries. And the NHS is staggering under an unsustainable burden of £5 billion a year[3] to treat obesity-related illnesses.

So are we inert? Not at the Children’s Food Trust. It’s the reason we exist – to protect every child’s right to nutritious food. We’re seeing excellent results across all our work with early years settings, schools and directly with children and families.

The first 1,000 days of a child’s life from conception to a child’s second birthday are when a child most needs nutritious food, so our work with the early years sector is crucial. We’re training those who care for under-fives in how to provide food in line with the national guidelines, which we launched in 2012.

Focusing on children over five, whatever your politics about universal free provision, there’s no doubt school food – subject to national standards – are the wisest, healthiest option. Since the standards were introduced, on average school meals contain 30 per cent less sugar, salt and saturated fat and at least one portion of fruit and one portion of vegetables or salad per child per day. Although not impossible, it’s a huge effort for any parent to match that with a packed lunch.

And as for healthy cooking, we’ve been doing it and sharing it for years and the passion and fun it brings are infectious. Our national network of around 5,000 Let’s Get Cooking clubs has reached nearly 3 million people, and our evidence shows 92 per cent of those use their newly learned cooking skills at home. Let’s Get Cooking goes way beyond children to their families and communities, a diverse range of adult groups and even for employers into the work place.

So inertia has no place for us. As the media coverage will undoubtedly continue to show, there’s so much to do to help our children eat better, do better and reach their full potential. Let’s get busy sentencing children to life.

Linda Cregan is Chief Executive of the Children’s Food Trust




Cooking with the Tesco Eat Happy Project

We’re cooking in Tesco stores across the UK this summer, as part of the Eat Happy Project. Our Business Development Manager, Wendy Carter, went along to a course with her son Alexander. She tells us about their experience…  

photo 5

Before my first child was born I vowed to be the kind of mum who’d cook every day with my children, teaching them about where food comes from and sitting together as a family to eat. And for a while, I was. Then the second one came along, and now I am more likely to send them off to their play kitchens to occupy them for twenty minutes while I cook, than let them loose in the kitchen with me.

I know all the reasons why cooking with your children is a good idea. It helps develop motor skills, encourages them to try new foods and it’s a great way of learning a whole host of new skills – from reading (following a recipe) to maths (weighing, fractions) and science. Plus its quality time, doing something fun, that doesn’t cost a fortune. 

But for every one of these positive reasons, I can give you another one why I don’t do it very often. Too much mess, far too much stress, and it takes longer. 

As it’s my eldest son’s first school summer holiday, I eagerly signed us up for the free cooking sessions, ran by the Trust and the Eat Happy Project, in our local Tesco store.

I went with my five-year-old son Alexander, who I feel I’ve neglected terribly since his little brother came along two years ago. Finally, a chance to spend quality time together.

On day one, we meet our cooking teachers, Gill and Sarah, who work together seamlessly. Gill gives us a cooking demonstration of each recipe, splitting it up into stages so the youngsters can remember the instructions, and telling us about each ingredient. Sarah slips around like a magical kitchen fairy as, without you even noticing, the next ingredient or piece of equipment is placed at hand, ready to use, and everything else is cleared away. I wish my kitchen had a Sarah!

We also meet our new friends for the next three days. We’re joined by five other mums and their children.Today we are making tasty tomato pasta and the children get busy chopping spring onions and mushrooms and crushing garlic, before it’s all added to one big pan to be cooked by Sarah. We all sit together to eat and complete a foodie word search. Then it’s back to the kitchen to prepare some fruit parcels to take home to bake in the oven. Alexander loves the pasta so much that he eats a second helping in the car, with his fingers. Rubbish table manners but I am loving his enthusiasm!

On day two, the children bring the chef hats that we decorated at home with pictures of fruit and veg and Alexander has included five people on his to represent the five young chefs. We’re desperate to learn what we are cooking and today its falafel in wraps with minty yoghurt dressing. We love squishing the falafel into patties, but I am a bit worried that Alexander won’t eat it. I’m surprised to see him polish the lot off and bring some spares home to share with his dad. We also make carrot cous cous, which he wants to eat in the car, but this time I draw the line.

On day three, we’re genuinely sad that it’s our last day and we kick off with a speedy chicken biryani, which is delicious, even at ten o’clock in the morning. The tempting smell attracts some Tesco customers who wander over to see what we are cooking, and they are given a recipe to take away. We then toast our culinary success with a citrus cocktail drink and prepare a peach and raspberry crumble to finish off at home in the oven.

So what did we learn over the three days? I’ve never let Alexander near the knives before but he learned ‘bridge’ and ‘claw’ safe chopping techniques, which did wonders for his confidence, and mine. He learned a lot about ingredients through the food quiz and from Gill’s demonstrations and ate lots of new foods, which I wouldn’t have thought he’d even try. He’s now super keen to help me cook every meal.

What did I learn? I just can’t help ‘helping’, and this course helped me to trust Alexander to get on with the recipe on his own. I learned how to make some great simple new recipes, including ‘homework’ which involved making bread in a bag and healthy noodle snack pots which will be incredibly handy to take to work. And that cooking with kids is not that hard after all!

You can find out more about the cooking sessions and book here

Less talk, more action on sugar

Once again sugar is making the headlines, as Public Health England called for a co-ordinated approach to reducing the nation’s sugar intake. The Children’s Food Trust’s Dr Patricia Mucavele believes this is the only way to tackle this national problem.

I genuinely believe that in order to truly tackle our nation’s over indulgence in sugar we need a really joined up approach that goes beyond the usual talk and rhetoric. As a country we need a real commitment to this challenge, from manufacturers and distributors to government and public health experts as well as campaigners and communities. We all have our part to play in making these changes happen.

We need to consider why leisure centres full of sports equipment have vending machines selling fizzy drinks and chocolate, how adverts for sweets, fizzy drinks and fast food are allowed to be shown at cinemas with films aimed primarily at children. We need to ask why some supermarkets continue to sell sweets at the checkout or whether there should be greater taxation on sugary food and drink.

If we want to do more than pay lip service to the idea of reducing obesity then it must not just ask some of these questions but be willing to take some big steps in answering them.

One such step would be to make drinking water much more accessible, the government should be using some of the money they receive as taxes on sugary foods and drinks to fund drinking water fountains in public places. This would mean people having an easily accessible free, healthy alternative to buying sugary drinks.

This investment in amenities by government can already be seen in other areas where outside gyms have been installed in public parks and free running clubs allowing everyone the opportunity to make healthy lifestyle choices.

The critics will say, increasing taxes, banning sales and restricting the advertising and marketing of sugary products is creating a ‘nanny state.’ We all have an individual responsibility to improve our health there are steps the industry can take to make these personal decisions easier. Whether that’s making healthy options more available, restricting sales or creating a code of practice for the marketing of sugary products, when you see the statistics you see why it’s so important:

  • Children of all ages and adults eat too much sugar – intakes are highest amongst teenagers, who generally consume 50% more sugar than is recommended.
  • one in five children aged 4-5 years and one in three children aged 10-11 years are categorised as obese or overweight
  • one third of five year-olds in England in 2012 had tooth decay

What we are doing is not only giving our children health problems from an early age but setting them on course for a life time of serious illnesses such as Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease.

There’s also no magic bullet that will solve all our sugar problems – the challenge ahead is certainly a big job and the changes needed shouldn’t be underestimated. That said there are some simple steps we can all take to reduce our own sugar intake and improve our health and that of our children.

I know it’s not always easy to make these changes, whether it’s cutting down on the amount of salt, sugar or fatty foods we eat it can be a real challenge. But there are some small steps we can all make to improve our health.

Four top tips to reduce the amount of sugar in your diet are:

  • swap sugary drinks to water or lower-fat milk
  • swap sugary snacks such as biscuits and cakes for a piece of fruit
  • swap sugary breakfast cereals to plain wholegrain options
  • check food labels and choose products that are ‘low’ or ‘medium’ in sugar.

Of course if you’re cooking at home it’s even easier to reduce the amount of sugar you use, there are lots of low sugar, salt and fat recipes at for you to try.

There is also some great advice about reducing the amount of sugar in your family’s diet at  and


Holidays are coming…let’s not sugar-coat it

Laura Sharp

Laura Sharp

There’s no denying that it’s part of the Christmas advertising furniture. It’s got snow, it’s got twinkly lights and jingly bells, and it captures the anticipation of waiting for Santa perfectly. Except it’s not about waiting for the big guy, but for a Coca Cola truck.

The ‘holidays are coming’ advert has hit the road again this year, visiting towns and cities up and down the country and offering anyone who attends free samples (under-12s, with parental consent only). It’s a canny (and huge) campaign for the company that’s been able to make its product so synonymous with Christmas and the guy in the big red suit that it now describes the airing of the ad as marking ‘the beginning of the festive season’.

In month when the sugar content of cola has been in the news again, there are healthier drinks to help kids get into the Christmas spirit. There’s no better way to do this than to get them involved in making their own, so here are our picks of great celebration drink recipes. While these still contain sugar so shouldn’t be drunk too often, it’s mainly from fruit juice – which at least gives children nutrients like Vitamin C at the same time. Plus, fruit juice counts towards one of the five portions of fruit and veg we all need to have each day for good health. Cheers!

Laura’s one of our nutritionists – email Laura.

Weighing in….

Jo NicholasSo, does Katie Hopkins have a point? Should you tell your child they’re fat?

Her latest sofa spat was manna from heaven for the This Morning team, with thousands of views on YouTube, a huge reaction on Twitter and coverage in many of the national papers.

Whatever your views on her debating style (and substance), there’s actually a bigger, more complicated point fighting to be heard here: why aren’t we focusing on the things that really make a difference for what children learn about eating and food from us, as parents? Simply telling children anything – let alone that they’re overweight – is rarely enough to change their behaviour for good. They learn so much simply from watching how we behave – particularly when they’re very young, and particularly when it comes to food. We need to be their role models, not their remonstrators on this: right from when they’re taking their first spoonfuls of solids, they’re starting out on a massive learning curve. And what they see – and copy – from us has a huge impact on how they’ll eat for life:

  • Show them what it means to eat well. Get them eating the same foods as you: give the whole family the same dish and adjust the portion sizes
  • Enjoy your fruit and veg: if kids see you pushing your vegetables around your plate, they’ll copy you
  • Try new foods together. Be open-minded and positive about tasting something different; they’ll watch how you react and take their cue from you
  • Be consistent about eating healthily. You might need to talk to other people who help you with childcare, like grandparents, and explain what you want them to do for meals and snacks
  • Try not to have unhealthy snacks in the house – but have plenty of healthier options on hand. There’s nothing wrong with occasional treats, but it’s about showing them what occasional means
  • Try to sit down together to eat whenever you can, and turn off the TV so you can chat
  • Give children plates and cutlery which are the right size for them; it all helps them to eat independently
  • Encourage your kids to choose what they’re going to eat for themselves – get them involved with planning meals and making a shopping list
  • Don’t expect them to finish everything on their plate. Let them have seconds if they’re still hungry after their main course, and dessert’s ok even if they haven’t finished their main meal
  • Don’t use food as a reward – or as a punishment
  • Get them helping to set up and clear away after mealtimes
  • Get ‘em cooking. Yes, it will be more messy than when you cook. Yes, it will take longer. But it’s far and away one of the most effective ways to get kids excited about food and trying new tastes.

Do we need to tell kids they’re fat? We’d be better just showing them good habits from the very start.

Jo is one of our nutritionists and runs our research evaluation programme. Email Jo.

Keep away from scary junk food this Halloween

Laura Sharp

I’ll tell you what’s really scary about Halloween, if you’re a parent. The sugar highs. The delightful little monster your little one can turn into after tucking into the booty from a trick-or-treat session, or from a Halloween party awash with spookified sweets, crisps and cake. It really can be the stuff of nightmares!

A whizz through the supermarket aisles in the next few weeks will throw up all sorts of opportunities to buy Halloween-themed food that’s more of a trick than a treat for your child’s health.

Consider this – if your mini monsters manage to bag two fun size chocolate bars, a pack of crisps and a few handfuls of gummy sweets while trick or treating, they’ll be taking on around 61grams of sugar and 13grams of fat. That’s more than the maximum amount of the white stuff they should eat in a whole day, according to nutrition guidelines.

So how can you celebrate without too much of the products that can make children’s bodies recoil in horror?

On page 47 of our Early Years Guidelines  you’ll find advice for early years settings and families on how to make annual events special without spending £s and gaining unhealthy lbs, while making sure your whole troupe are fully fuelled to enjoy themselves (without a teary eyed, sugar induced energy crash later on!)

Here’s my top tips:

  1. Search Pinterest for healthy and fun snack ideas – like these witches fingers made out of carrot sticks and almonds or these spooky ghosts made from eggs. These will be much more exciting for youngsters than a boring chocolate bar wrapped in plastic. We have loads of recipes on our boards as well as some creative inspiration from elsewhere.
  1. Plan an  afternoon of special games or crafts to mark thLGC202e occasion. Pumpkin carving is an old favourite so afterwards you can continue the fun making homemade Pumpkin Soup using the pulp you’d usually throw away. You’ll have a great time learning how to cook a new recipe together and the kids will  feel full up before they’re offered more unhealthy snacks while trick or treating.
  1. If you are friendly with your neighbours, could you ask if they’d consider offering non-food treats like stickers if they’re expecting a spooky knock at the door from your little ones? These could cost them the same, if not less, than the usual sweets and fizzy drinks.
  1. If you’re hosting a party, why not hold it at a time when your guests won’t be expecting to eat a lot, like mid-morning or mid-afternoon and offer quirky themed refreshments like our Witches Brew Fruit Smoothie instead?

If you try out any of these foodie tips we’d love to hear from you! Tweet us your spooky snaps to @ChildFoodTrust

Laura is one of our nutritionists. Email Laura

Laura Sharp