Our kids are running on a junk food diet. Research published by safefood last week shows that almost a quarter of a child’s daily diet in Northern Ireland consists of junk food, high in sugar, fat and salt.

Unhealthy snack foods like crisps, biscuits, cakes, sweets and chocolate have become the ‘go-to’ after school snack, and are the second most consumed food group by children in Northern Ireland, ahead of fruit, vegetables and starchy carbohydrates, new safefood research has revealed.

According to this report, the ‘danger zone’ is when kids get in from school, feeling ravenously hungry and in need of food – and fast! Almost 40% of afternoon snacks and 25% of evening snacks eaten are high in fat, sugar and salt.

The research coincides with the latest phase of the START campaign, a five-year public health awareness campaign from safefood, the Department of Health and the Public Health Agency, developed to encourage families to have healthier snacks, and fewer unhealthy snack foods.

What’s the problem?

Of course, these snack foods are perfectly fine as an occasional food, but we have become so used to popping biscuits, crisps, bars and buns in our trolley, that they have become an ‘every day’ food, rather than a ‘once-in-a-while’ food. It has become the norm to feed our little ones crisps, sugary drinks, bars and biscuits. Our kids need snacks to give them energy and nutrients, but they need snacks that are healthy and nutritious.

We know that too much junk food leads to issues with weight gain, behaviour, concentration and energy in the short term. We also know that children who have unhealthy habits are more likely to become adults who have unhealthy habits, and this can become harder to crack. Good nutrition is essential for our children’s mental, emotional and physical well-being.

So what are the alternatives?

Ask your kids! Have a chat to your children about healthy eating and what foods they might like to try. Maybe agree to a ‘no junk on weekdays’ rule, or swap the sweet treats to a healthier, savoury option.

Make the healthy choice the easy choice by keeping the healthier options easier to grab. Stock your fridge with healthy snack foods like yoghurt, berries, vegetable sticks, houmous and cheese can help too. Keep the unhealthy treats out of sight, so they are less tempting.

Check out the www.makeastart.org website for lots of ideas about making changes that the whole family will enjoy.

If you are stuck for ideas, then here are a few that might work for you and your family.

  1. Natural yoghurt with berries
  2. Oatcakes with cheese
  3. Fruit salad (sometimes it is more tempting to eat fruit salad than a piece of fruit)
  4.  Vegetable sticks and houmous
  5. Peanut butter (sugar-free) on wholemeal toast
  6. Frozen banana
  7. Glass of milk
  8. Trail mix
  9. A handful of nuts and seeds
  10. Homemade smoothies – if you have older children, then let them make their own smoothies. All they need is some frozen fruit, some milk and a blender.

It can be easy to feel overwhelmed when making any changes to your diet, but remember that it really is the small changes that have the big benefits, If you can find a few healthier snack alternatives that your children enjoy, and that helps to reduce their intake of unhealthy food even just a little, you are onto a winner.

To find out more about the START campaign and ways to make a healthy, positive start visit www.makeastart.org.

This blog post first appeared as an article in The Irish News on Saturday 1st June 2019.