Want to cut salt in children’s diets? Don’t give them a taste for it in the first place.

saltNew research suggests the UK’s efforts to cut the amount of salt we eat have taken a backward slide in recent years. Here our Head of Nutrition, Dr Tricia Mucavele, blogs about why we’ve got to stop children getting a taste for salt before it even gets started.

It’s simple; liking salt and salty foods is a learned taste – shaped by the food children are exposed to. The less salt children eat, the less they want. So, how can we limit children’s intake of salt? One way is to provide guidelines or standards for educational settings, as they can have a powerful influence on children’s eating habits.

Until three years ago there was no nationally recognised guidance on how to provide healthy, balanced and nutritious food in early years settings in England. We Tricia Mucavele (1)worked with partners including nurseries, childminders and children’s centres to develop guidelines which are now recommended as best practice. This guidance and the practical tools including seasonal menus and recipes, have now been downloaded more than 20,000 times, we’ve trained more than 1,500 early years practitioners across 38 local authorities (a quarter of the country) and childcare teams as part of our Eat Better, Start Better programme. And we’re thrilled that early evaluation has shown changes in practices which will help limit the amount of salt provided by early years settings.

The challenge now is how to spread this work even further: the guidelines are voluntary and providing early years providers with training relies on funding from local authorities and community organisations, who are themselves under funding pressures too.

For older children, we have mandatory school food standards in England. They specifically limit the amount of salt provided in school food by restricting foods high in salt such as condiments, meat products, battered and breadcrumb coated products, and not permitting salty snacks, or salt to be provided on the table.

Another part of the school food circle – the procurement of food – also plays a part in cutting salt for children. The new school food standards include the recommendation that schools use the Government Buying Standards nutrition criteria to choose their products and suppliers, to make sure they’re purchasing the healthiest (lowest in salt, fat, saturated fat, and sugar ) food and ingredients for children’s nutrition. The vast majority of these standards focus on reducing salt in ingredients and products. If we can encourage more schools and their caterers to use Government Buying Standards alongside the school food standards, we’ll bring down salt levels in school food even further.

I think with parent power behind us on cutting salt wherever children eat; we can really start to make a difference. Of course this includes salt in food when children eat out – a real challenge for parents.

What I think I’ve learned from my work for the Trust helping different businesses improve the food they provide for children is that there is a real will to deliver what customers want on this. And the more restaurants and retailers understand of parents’ concern for what their children’s options are on the menu, and of their demand for healthier options, the more change we’ll see. And it is possible. We’ve already worked with restaurants who’ve made great changes to get more fruit and veg into their children’s menu and to reduce the amount of fat and sugar. Just as schools are using all kinds of fabulous tricks and techniques to create lower-salt versions of favourite dishes, so can restaurants still have delicious food which feels like a treat but doesn’t mean children consume an entire day’s worth of salt in one sitting.

And finally, before I get off my salt box. Here are our three tips to reduce salt:

  • Taste before you shake!  Even better, why not urge the restaurants you go to to follow the guidelines for early years and the national standards for school food and simply remove salt from the table?
  • Go for green! choose products with a green colour code for salt.
  • Cook from scratch! Let’s Get Britain Cooking again – using fresh rather than pre-prepared foods.

Why their glasses need to be more than half-full during revision season….

??????????????A frightening number of us are pretty rubbish at drinking enough water. And if there’s one time when you really need to get hydration right, it’s when you’re trying to reinforce everything you’ve learned about Hamlet or Anita and Me over the last two years at the same time as memorising your notes on global food supply and the geopolitics of food.

If your teen’s complaining of feeling tired and lethargic during a revision session, it could be a sign Clairethat they’re simply not drinking enough. Our bodies need this to work properly, so one thing you can do to help them be more effective at revising is make sure their glass is topped up… with the right fluids.

Back in 2009, we asked 500 13-17 year olds what they drink when revising.  One third chose fizzy drinks and more than a quarter said they went for caffeine-laden energy drinks. And according to a survey of more than 1,000 children who sat key stage two tests last year, 30 children had high-sugar drinks for breakfast on the morning of their exams.

Research suggests that up to half of teenagers drink energy drinks. Scientists are warning of a number of potential risks of drinking them but there’s no doubt that their marketing is powerful: many young people think they’re a great way to help them cram for long periods. In fact, they can have high amounts of caffeine and are full of sugar and empty calories – the last thing they need for a monster study session. That’s why energy drinks are labelled as unsuitable for children and in some countries, for example Sweden, where sales to children under 15 are banned.

We don’t think energy drinks should be sold to children. National school food standards state that only healthier drinks should be provided in schools, and that free, fresh water should be available for children right through the day. Children need to be able to get to this easily – schools have water fountains or coolers and cups in the dining room or around the school, or water jugs on tables in the dining room. At home, stick a jug of water next to them or get them their own water bottle so they can sip throughout the day.

Keep at it, encourage them to drink water regularly, and eat foods that provide energy, vitamins and minerals to fuel their revision sessions, the end is in sight.

Claire’s our senior nutritionist. Email Claire.

Home cooked meals provide welcome breaks, motivation and fuel for revision


It’s a funny old time, the revision season. Feeling somewhat helpless becomes a standard state, particularly if you’ve got kids in Year 11 or in sixth form.  Here Lisette, from our Let’s Get Cooking team, explains that in her experience the one thing we can do is feed ‘em well. 

I know we say it all the time, but it’s worth repeating: research proves that when kids eat better, they do better. They’re more focused on learning after a good meal, while some smaller studies we’ve done found pupils got better results in schools offering healthy breakfasts compared to those that weren’t.

You don’t need science to tell you that you’re in better shape to revise when you’re keeping your energy levels up with good food; that much is common sense. We all know how grotty we feel if we don’t get lunch til late afternoon because a meeting’s run over.

But health benefits aside, there’s also something about how a good meal can give kids such a great break from the books. Sitting down with you to talk about something completely different over a tasty dish can be the tonic they need for a final push.

So if ever there was a time to be thinking about what’s in Lisette compdyour cupboards and putting a bit of extra thought into meals that will make your kids feel good, it’s now. Italian Chicken Pasta Salad is one of my family favourites – it can be made in advance and stored in the fridge until needed.  Any leftovers can be used for refuelling stops or lunch the following day. Oaty Salmon Fishcakes can also be made ahead of time, chilled and then cooked when required.

Here are my tips:

It’s important to try and have a routine as this can avoid a sense of panic and that everything revolves around exams and revision.  Building proper mealtimes into this routine helps as they can act as markers for breaks.  This said, it’s also useful if there’s some flexibility around mealtimes – after all, you don’t want to interrupt someone when they are on a roll!

Stopping for a snack can be a tempting distraction from the task in hand, especially when the going gets tough and in my experience they will grab whatever is to hand.  Keep a supply of chopped veg (maybe with a Cheese and Chive Dip) and prepared fruit for grab ‘n’ go snacking.

Lastly, don’t forget to keep yourself well fueled too – as a parent it’s easy to overlook your own well-being when you’re worrying about your offspring!

So, don’t under estimate the power of good food over the next month or so. Those home cooked meals provide welcome breaks, motivation and fuel – and can help you feel anything but helpless.

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.