Why is this election debate so quiet on children’s nutrition?

D03321560Less than two weeks to go. The manifestos have been scrutinised; the TV debates have been fascinating. The NHS is, of course, one of the key battleground issues that will help to shape how our next parliament looks. So why, then, is there one topic on which this election is worryingly quiet?

How our children learn to eat today decides the health of our nation in fifty years time. How kids eat now will directly affect the NHS’ finances in future. Around one in three children is overweight or obese as they leave primary school.

Frankly, you can’t talk about NHS policy and not talk about the fundamental problem that unless we give the kids of today better skills to feed themselves well in the future, the costs of treating conditions linked to malnutrition in all its forms will spiral not just out of control, but into the stratosphere.

Politicians of all stripes make much of treating the cause and not the symptoms. If the NHS budget is buckling under the strain of managing conditions linked to obesity; if use of food banks in this country is increasing, we need to treat the (very complex) causes and do much, much more to help people eat better.

And that all starts with children. Get them into the right habits now, and they’ll pay us back in the long-term – as healthier adults, fit to work for longer and to pass on their healthier lifestyle to their kids.

Where do the right habits come from? Getting the foundations right. Good food in childcare, good food in schools and good food for any child being looked after by the state. It’s about giving all of those places the support they need to get their infrastructure right – kitchens fit for purpose and dining spaces where children want to spend mealtimes. It’s skills, knowledge and confidence for everyone who feeds children, including parents. It’s lots of opportunities to learn to cook right through children’s education, and it’s about helping families to make better food choices: making it fundamentally easier to understand food labels and managing far more effectively the way in which less healthy foods are marketed to children, wherever that marketing takes place.

Very little of the noise in this election campaign so far has been about children’s nutrition, even though some of the key policy battlegrounds are intrinsically linked: the NHS, poverty, welfare. Yes, there are bits and pieces across the manifestos but no one party is really showing how policies to get children eating better need to join up – right across departments. That’s not because politicians don’t care about children being able to eat well; far from it. I think it’s because in this world of long-term talk and short-term action, improving children’s nutrition can feel so big. Investing in getting children eating well means setting the course right and sticking to it, for much more than the duration of any one parliament.

But isn’t that ok? Can’t we all agree – whatever our personal politics – that creating the conditions to help children grow up knowing how to eat well should be a cornerstone of a healthy, decent society? This is too serious, the problem is now too great, not to make sure those foundations are right.

What do I want from the next government? Whatever its makeup, I want to hear lots of noise from every government department about getting children eating well. And we’ll be there to make sure the volume’s up.

Linda Cregan is our Chief Executive Officer. Follow Linda on Twitter.

There’s more to cooking at Let’s Get Cooking

Did you spot them? Our Facebook page and Twitter feed have been fit to burst 2516423356with lovely photos from children learning to cook with us as part of the Tesco Eat Happy Project over the Easter holidays. And their big grins got me thinking about how wonderful it is that our cooking clubs seem to mean so much more to people than simply a way to pick up new skills.

Our club network is using cooking to bring people together, reflecting the very best of human nature. Our team heaves equipment around to cook anywhere, from village halls to factory staffrooms. They drive through floods and snowdrifts to make sure they don’t let clubs down. The volunteers we train shop for ingredients, wash tea towels and in some cases tell us they even drive children home from clubs – above and beyond their normal day’s work.

Whether it’s about building relationships with those they love most or getting up the confidence to do something they’ve previously shied away from, we hear so many moving tales of how a humble cooking club really can change lives.
Jill, who runs one of our clubs, told us some of her members wouldn’t even have held eye contact before starting to cook. Now, she says, “they’re presenting and demonstrating very confidently about the food they’re cooking.”
Lucas, who comes to one of our clubs with his dad, tells us: “We’re much closer since joining the club.”

This volunteer told us about a young lad with ADHD at their club. “Each child made their own sausage roll. At the end of the session, he was called up to collect his; he looked confused. He asked me what I was giving to him. I recalled with him how he had rolled out pastry, and painted the edges with milk. He had then added his sausage meat and rolled it up. He remembered all of this. I then went on to recall how we had put the sausage rolls on a tray, and then we had cut the top with a knife, and painted them with milk again. He said that he did remember doing this. I then said that we had put them into the oven and they had baked, and that this was what it looked like once it had been baked. He again stared at the sausage roll, his eyes wide. It then seemed to connect with him what I was saying and a huge grin came across his face. “Did I really make that?” he asked me, and when I said that he had, he asked, “Can I eat it?”. He went bounding up to his mum with the biggest smile and shouted “Mum! I made that!” holding out his sausage roll like it was a trophy. “And Mum, I can eat it!”

Call me a big softie but there’s something about $RMM3MUKchildren enjoying being part of a group, enjoying food together regardless of their ability or background that really warms my heart. And, if we inspire a budding young chef by equipping them with the skills and confidence they need to get hands-on in the kitchen along the way, that’s the icing on the cake.

Let’s Get Cooking with The Tesco Eat Happy Project is giving schools the chance to be part of our vibrant and established network of clubs teaching children essential cooking skills. Our clubs are inspiring and empowering a generation of children by giving them the skills and knowledge to make healthier food choices throughout their lives.

How sweet it is…

ClaireI’ve worked for the Children’s Food Trust for almost six years now, so it goes without saying that I have a huge interest in what children eat and why, both personally and professionally. But there’s nothing like becoming a parent yourself to see some of the issues we work on in a whole new light. And right now, as it’s Easter, it’s chocolate.

Like every parent, I want my daughter to grow up eating loads of different things. And that includes chocolate. It doesn’t take a child to tell you how lovely chocolate is; most of us would agree, it’s one of life’s great pleasures. I absolutely want her to enjoy a gorgeous bit of gooey chocolate cake now and again, and that wonderful taste of a few melty squares with a cup of tea on a chilly day.

But I also want to teach her that chocolate is (sigh) one of those foods you can’t eat all the time, however much you might want to. I find it as hard as the next person to resist a plate of chocolate biscuits; it’s just that when you work for a charity that champions great food for children and the power of eating well, you kind of have to practise what you preach; when you’re surrounded all day by research on the difference good food makes to your ability to concentrate and perform, you’d be a mug to ignore it.

And I can already see how hard this is going to be. We’re trying not to give our little one chocolate until we have no other choice; until she’s starting to exercise at least some control over what she eats and when (because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from our wonderful nutritionists, the best way to help children keep sugar and salt levels down in their diet is by not giving them a taste for sugar and salt in the first place, and I’m determined to do the best I can to stick with that). Easter-Eggs

But at the grand old age of 14 months, my daughter’s been given two chocolate eggs for Easter. I LOVE my family and friends for buying her Easter presents, but maybe some less chocolatey ways to celebrate could be fun too, particularly when she’s so little: colouring in some hard-boiled eggs, going to see the spring ducklings in the park, getting all Blue Peter to make some bunny ears or rabbit shapes to play with (thankfully, there are many, much better ideas than mine here, courtesy of Netmums). Because more than anything to eat (sometimes even more than chocolate), what kids love is a little slice of our time.

If you’re celebrating Easter with a little one (or a bigger one) this year and you want to mark the occasion without a shed-load of sugar, here are some truly fabulous ways to give kids a bit of your time with eggs:

Brilliant boiled ones
Perfect poached ones
Super scrambled ones
Omelette popovers

Cereal offenders

Laura Sharp

I blog a lot about how tough it can be, as a parent, to navigate the claims food manufacturers make about foods they promote to children. Some products say they’re ‘sugar free’ but they’re full of sweetener; others highlight their calcium content for bone growth but also pack in more than a decent pinch of salt. It’s a part of our food culture that feels specifically designed to bamboozle, right when parents’ decision-making powers are at their most fragile. And there’s one group of products which seem to be more confusing than most: cereal.

Choose the right type of cereal (like wheat biscuits, porridge oats or cornflakes – check out the advice in our guidelines for childcare) and it’s a healthy start to the day, and a great snack at any time. Some are fortified with iron and other vitamins to help your child get the recommended amounts.

But pick up the wrong box and you can be getting your child into a habit you don’t want to pass on: a sugar habit. Next time you’re in the cereal aisle at the supermarket, have a closer look at the boxes. Many of the cereals targeting children with colourful characters and free gift promotions are also the ones packing in the most sugar. Check out the nutrition labels: anything with more than 22.5g of total sugar per 100g of cereal is way too high for any of us to eat regularly, let alone children. If there’s a colour-coded nutrition label on the box, and it’s showing red for sugar, it’s not one for every day.

In the last week, Which Magazine published a report on cereal bars which found some contain more than 40% sugar; as much as you’d find in some chocolate bars. Yet their marketing can be confusing, suggesting they’re a healthy snack option for children.

In fact, cereal bars are often so high in sugar that they’re counted as confectionary as far as childcare and schools are concerned. That’s why we recommend avoiding them if you provide food for kids – for example, our guidelines for nurseries suggest lots of alternative snack ideas that will keep little ones full of energy without loading them up with sugar, while school food standards ban them completely from breakfast and after-school clubs, from lunch and break time menus, and from school vending machines.

Parents really want better information about the foods they choose for their children, and that shouldn’t mean having to study detailed nutritional information when they’re trying to get round the supermarket quickly. That’s why we’ve been calling for more work to make food labels even clearer and more consistent, particularly on products aimed at children – and why we want to see the next government really get hold of this issue. We’d like to see colour-coded nutrition labelling on all products, as well as clear information about what makes a portion size for a child.

In the week when the latest Children’s Dental Health survey also announced that half of eight year olds are still suffering with cavities, we need to do much more to help parents steer children away from developing a sugar addiction which can last a lifetime.

Newsround food survey: children missing out on five-a-day

A new survey by Newsround has found many children still aren’t getting enough fruit and veg, and that half of families don’t get the chance to sit down and eat together every day.

The poll, of children in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, asked 7-12 year-olds questions about their daily diet.

Tricia Mucavele (1)Our Head of Nutrition, Patricia Mucavele says: “Some of these findings are really encouraging – almost all children say they’re trying to eat better, by doing things like drinking more water and eating more fruit and veg. So children’s understanding of what a healthy diet means seems to be improving.

“But that’s not always translating into how they actually eat day-to-day. That’s where good food in childcare and in schools has such a fundamental role – helping children to get into healthy habits from the very start. The next government has a big responsibility to protect and build on what’s working well on food in nurseries and schools, to make sure we’re giving all children the best start when it comes to nutrition.

“That’s also why our mission to get families cooking is so important. If we want more children to eat well now and to grow up to be healthier adults, we need to give them the essential life skill of being able to cook for themselves. That means careful monitoring of how cooking in the curriculum is making a difference, and investing in spreading basic cooking skills as a public health priority.”

Medway childcare providers leading the way on healthy food

Children's Food Trust

Nurseries, pre-schools and childminders from across Medway are to celebrate this week, after joining a special programme to improve the food they offer and how they encourage children to eat healthily.

Almost 90 early years providers in the area will come together at a special event tomorrow to mark the first anniversary of their work to offer healthier menus and cooking activities for children.

Medway Council developed the programme based on our Eat Better, Start Better guidelines alongside specialist support and training from the charity, after being commissioned by Medway Council’s Public Health and Early Years Quality Teams.

The Medway programme is now set to enter its second year, with the ultimate aim of reaching more than 3,500 children with healthier food in childcare.

Medway Director of Public Health, Dr Alison Barnett, says: “I’m delighted that so many have signed up to Eat Better, Start Better – it’s a testament to the real commitment here in Medway to giving children the healthiest start in life. We’re looking forward to building on their success and bringing even more of Medway’s providers on board this year.”

Cllr David Brake, Medway Council’s Portfolio Holder in charge of Public Health, says: “This programme is absolutely vital in educating children from a young age about the benefits of eating healthy. Under this scheme, our young people not only get to eat healthier foods but also find out why it is so important to do so along with their parents, who play a key part in ensuring healthy eating continues at home. I’m delighted Medway is leading the way on this fantastic initiative.”

Laura Whiting, our nutritionist, says: “If we want to improve children’s diets in the long-term, we have to start early and that’s why we need to support all childcare providers to offer healthy menus and get children cooking in their earliest years. By making it possible for childcare providers right across this area to have support and training on this, Medway really is leading by example and creating such a powerful legacy for the future.”

The blame game: everyone’s a loser

Claire   “Britain is in the grip of a child obesity epidemic. A third of UK children are now overweight or obese, making us one of the fattest nations in Europe. Last year, 26,000 kids were forced to have rotten teeth removed under general anaesthetic in hospital, due to poor diet and lack of brushing. In extreme cases they’re even facing controversial and risky stomach reduction surgery. We’re raising a generation of snackers and junk-scoffers, suffering from preventable illnesses. So whose fault is it and what can be done to fix it?

So starts the Telegraph’s review of a new two-parter starting on Channel 4 this week, no doubt to the usual living-room refrain of “blame the <parents/schools/doctors/shops/food industry>” (delete as appropriate).

Junk Food Kids screengrab

It’s so easy to focus on the question of ‘who’s to blame’ (we all are: for decades of wanting food faster, cheaper and to feed our cravings for sugar and salt), but it’s the second question that’s much more difficult…and much more important.

For children suffering the consequences of poor diet – whether that’s eating too much of the wrong things, not enough of the right things, not enough at all, or all of the above, the answers are far from simple. We live a world in which children are constantly bombarded by messages about food and food experiences from their earliest years – some subtle, some not-so-subtle and many which are conflicting. Lots of us weren’t given the legacy of cooking skills learned at school or at home to pass on to our kids. Not having the skills or confidence to cook from scratch makes life even more complicated when you’re trying to feed your children well on a shoestring. Places where children eat and buy food often don’t help them learn about making good decisions: becoming a savvy consumer takes time and experience, which children haven’t yet had.

Helping children to navigate this strange food world of ours is one of the most important and complex tasks parents face – with no expert training for the job. We all have to help out, if we’re going to be a healthier Britain. That’s why getting food right in childcare and school is so vital: making sure children get the energy and nutrients they need while at the same time, giving them experiences of lots of different foods and cooking styles. That’s why giving kids and families the skills they need to cook from scratch themselves and get smart with a food budget is one of the most important things we can do. It’s why fuelling real demand for healthier options for children when they eat out and buy food is a way to drive change.

We’re way past the time for pointing the finger of blame. It’s time we all got on the same team and helped children skill up for a healthier food future.

Claire’s our senior nutritionist. Email Claire.