Category Archives: Parents

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.


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.

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.

Not a winning formula

Tricia web£531 per year. What could you do with that? Months and months of nappies? A chunk of nursery fees? Weeks of food shopping?

That’s how much Which? calculates families can save by switching from toddler milks – formula products promoted as a sort of nutritional safety net for children from the age of one to around three years old – to standard cow’s milk each year. It’s serious food for thought – and not just because of the financial saving, huge though that is. It’s also about children’s nutrition.

Because – despite what the adverts might suggest – kids at this age simply don’t need specially-formulated milks. If they’re eating a healthy diet; having regular cow’s milk; and taking the multivitamin the government recommends for all little ones, they’ll be getting everything they need. With some toddler milks, they’re actually getting added extras they don’t need: Which? found toddler milks contained more sugar and less calcium than cow’s milk, and some even add flavourings like vanilla.

The companies who make toddler milks often argue the products are a way to make sure fussy eaters are getting the nutrients they need. But working on encouraging your child to eat well will do far more for their nutrition and eating habits in the long-term than turning to toddler milk.

Fussy eating and fear of new foods is thought to be a natural thing. It affects up to one in every five children, typically when they’re between 18 months and two years old.

The trick is not to worry about what your child eats in one day, or if they don’t eat everything in a single meal. It’s more important to think about what they eat over a week.

Boy eating at nursery

Very simply, a good diet for your toddler means eating a range of different foods from these four food groups:

  • different fruits and vegetables
  • a variety of starchy foods
  • a range of meat, fish, eggs, beans and alternatives
  • and at least three portion of milk and dairy foods.

My top tips:

  • Try and try again. It can take up to fifteen tries of a new food before children accept it, and their tastes change all the time. Every now and then, try them again with a food they’ve rejected in the past
  • Don’t use favourite foods as a reward if your child tries something new – you’re only making them prize those foods even more. Food should never be used as a punishment either – use stickers or non-food rewards instead
  • Eat with them, and give your child the same meals as the rest of the family
  • Start small. Give your child a tiny taste of a new food first – they can always have more
  • Give them control – they should have the chance to spit the new food into a tissue if they really don’t like it
  • Praise them for trying new things
  • Give your child small servings at first. They can always have seconds but can feel put off by big portions
  • Bring the food to life. A simple noodle soup? ‘Wiggly Worm Soup’ sounds so much more fun….
  • Keep calm. As frustrating as it is, don’t get cross or force your child to eat. Take their plate away without comment if they haven’t eaten what’s on it
  • In the meantime, fool ‘em! Add cooked and mashed carrots, butternut squash, sweet potato or swede to normal mashed potato; throw carrots, peppers and onions into bolognaise sauce ; smuggle fruit into puddings.

And when it comes to milk, go for full-fat cow’s milk for one to two year-olds; you can switch to semi-skimmed once they turn two if they’re eating a good diet. Avoid skimmed milk for under-fives – it doesn’t contain enough fat and energy for their needs. From the age of one, children can have goats’ and sheep’s milk, and unsweetened soya milk fortified with calcium if you need a non-dairy alternative for them.

Check out our autumn/winter menus for one to five year olds for more ideas.

Tricia heads up our team of nutritionists. Email Tricia.

Stories to make your sweet tooth ache


After a long weekend which for so many kids (and adults, too!) will have been chock-full of sugar in the form of chocolate eggs, this should be a good time to get a few facts straight about the sweet stuff in children’s diets.

After all, if you’re a parent and you’ve been reading about sugar in school puddings over the Bank Holiday, you might be feeling seriously confused.

First, a few basics about sugar. The sugars that occur naturally in milk and fresh fruit are one kind of sugar (‘intrinsic’, if you want to get technical). The stuff you find in cooked and dried fruit, fruit juice and in cakes, biscuits, sweets, squash and soft drinks, is another kind (‘non-milk extrinsic, or NMES for short). This form is often also called ‘added’ sugar.

The Department of Health recommends that we don’t have too much added sugar. Of all of the energy we get from our food and drink (calories, to put it another way), it recommends no more than 11% of that energy should come from the added stuff.

In primary school, a child’s lunch should contain around 530 calories. Apply the 11% rule, and that means the average school lunch shouldn’t contain more than 15.5g of added (NMES) sugar (if you want to think about the whole day, the average child at primary school needs around 1767 calories; the 11% rule means no more than 52g of added sugar in a day).

That means schools can’t put any cake on the menu with more than 15.5g of sugar in, right? Wrong. National nutritional standards for schools allow cooks to be flexible in designing their menus, and to help children learn about the range of foods which make for a balanced diet. They do this by measuring the average lunch in a school’s menu cycle (which is normally 3-4 weeks long). So, a school can offer a cake or pud which is higher in added sugar on one day, but for their average meal to meet the nutritional standards, other days will have to be much lower in sugar – so it all balances out. Put another way, your child’s school won’t be meeting the national standards if it’s serving up cake with lots of added sugar every day of the week.

Of course, the standards also help keep sugar down by banning confectionary, promoting healthier drinks, and helping make sure that portion sizes are sensible. We advise schools to get different pud options on the menu and to sweeten puddings with fruit wherever they can – as this helps pupils towards their five-a-day fruit and veg target at the same time. And the standards on sugar have worked – the amount of sugar kids are eating in school meals has fallen significantly since the standards came into force (by more than a third in secondary schools).

It’s completely possible to make delicious puds for kids which give them less than 15.5g of added sugar – take a look at our recipes for schools here. Try them at home* if the Easter bunny’s left you feeling sweet enough for now…

Just don’t forget to make the quantities smaller – these recipes are designed for school cooks, so they make enough for lots of children!

Claire’s one of our nutritionists. Email Claire.

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This blog is brought to you in association with the letter D

Laura Sharp

It was the scourge of children in the 19th century, and doctors thought it had been almost eradicated.

But it seems cases of rickets are back on the rise. Frightening stuff, when you think that we know more about its causes and how to prevent it than ever before.

Why is this happening? It’s partly down to deficiency in Vitamin D. This nifty little nutrient works with calcium to help keep bones strong and healthy. We get most of it through sunlight on our skin, but it’s also found in food.

Sadly, the rise of our indoors culture means kids don’t play out as much as they used to, so they’re not getting as much sunlight (something that many of us grown-ups are guilty of too). And all too often we’re not eating the right things to get enough Vitamin D from our diet. Because of the evidence that this is becoming more of a problem, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (or SACN for short) is currently looking at the risks of this for the nation’s health. Their committee’s scheduled to publish draft recommendations in April.

In the meantime, oily fish like salmon and sardines, eggs, fortified fat spreads and breakfast cereals and powdered milk are just a few of the foods that contain Vitamin D. But here are my top tips for getting kids enjoying foods that can make every day a D-day:

  • Hook, line and sinker: If you’re making a fish pie, don’t just go for white fish. Add some salmon or another oily variety – much easier to get into a dish like this without them noticing. You’ll be boosting the amount of calcium in the meal at the same time, so it’s a win-win. Try our fish pie recipes for older children here and for little ones here
  • Eggs-periment with omelettes. They’re really cheap to make – try peppers, mushrooms and tuna in there
  • Crack it: add eggs to your salads, sandwiches or have them as part of a hearty breakfast. Glaze the top of your mashed potato with egg if you’re making shepherds pie, cottage pie or fish pie to make a golden, crunchy topping
  • Read the label: see if your breakfast cereal’s fortified with vitamin D and other nutrients like iron. But be careful – many breakfast cereals are also loaded with the sweet stuff, so go for varieties that are lower in sugar.

Some of us are at a higher risk of not getting enough Vitamin D, and if you’re in one of these groups it’s recommended you take a supplement too. Don’t forget, if you qualify for and are taking part in the Healthy Start scheme, you can get these for free.

Laura’s one of our nutritionists. Email Laura.