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Tackling treats

It’s okay for the family to have a small treat once or twice a week but treats should be occasional rather than every day. However it has become the norm to give treat foods like crisps, sweets, sugary drink and bars to kids as snacks – particularly in the afternoon and evenings. To tackle this, parents should decide with their kids which days are treat days (Fridays or at the weekend) and only have treats at these times.

Easier said than done. As parents we struggle to avoid treats as a daily food and find it hard to say no to treats when their kids ask for them. Here’s our answers to questions we are often asked by parents:

I would like to help my children to eat fewer treats but how can I say no when treats are cheap and everywhere?

It’s true, treat foods are cheap and everywhere, at tills in the local shop, in garages and in vending machines in sports halls, at granny’s and grandad’s and in our homes. This can make it hard for you to say no. Having a plan for when they can have treats will help. Agree as a family on how often treats are given, what they are and how much for example on Friday evening or at the weekends. Talk the kids through this and explain why the family planning these changes, then try to stick with it. If your kids ask for treats on any other day, remind them of the plan. Have healthy snacks with you for when they get hungry when you are out and about, like single packs of cheese, popcorn, nuts or fruit.

I sometimes bribe my children with treat foods to get them to behave. How do I stop?

We do this sometimes when we are under pressure and we need a quick result, but it can become a habit. Instead, you could have a list of non-food rewards. Try to involve your children in coming up with the list which could include things like extra bedtime story, movie of choice at the weekend, family time.

Also giving our kids treat foods in order to encourage them to eat healthy foods (their dinner or a snack) can give them the wrong message that healthy foods are not enjoyable but must be endured to get treats.

Most of my friends, family and neighbours give their children treats every day. How can I say no?

Some of us struggle to say no because of what other people think or because of pressure from friends, family or society in general. We may not want to stand out or want our children to stand out as different. Agree on a plan for treats with your child and keep focused on the big picture. Tell the people around you about your routine for treat foods, especially those who care for your children, like family or child minders. Ask them to support you in making changes.

Saying no is just going to lead to endless rows. How can I overcome this?

When we say no to a child it’s a good idea to give them a reason and offer an alternative. It’s important to explain the new routine to them. They must be involved in order to buy into it and feel that they have a choice and there is something in it for them. If a child wants a treat every day, start by letting them know that from now on, they can have only one treat on one weekday and another one at the weekend. Let them choose which weekday so they feel they have some control.

My child is an expert negotiator and I just don’t have the energy for it. How can I say no?

“Over-negotiating” is a trap all parents can easily fall into. It teaches kids that boundaries and limits are flexible. When we say no, it’s important to stick to it. If we don’t, our kids won’t take these boundaries and limits seriously. This can be hard, but if you have a few clear rules, it can really help you and your children.

  • Remind your child of your plan around treats and reasons for it
  • State clearly that the rules are non-negotiable but that your child can look forward to having their treat foods on the designated day(s).

Advice on changing my family's routine?

Prof John Sharry gives parents advice on how to tackle treats as a family. With simple changes, rules, structures, goals and rewards.

My children know exactly what to do or who to ask to get their way. How do I deal with this?

Some kids start cleaning the house and making you breakfast. Others cry and sob and stick the “you don’t love me” dagger into your heart. However, your child tries to get what they want, it’s important that you don’t take the bait and that you recognise it for what it is. Saying no as a parent is part of the job. Observe your child’s behaviour and start to better understand the tactics.

Overall, stay calm and stick with your word and the plans you have made. Consistency is everything.

Sometimes I give in to them because I’m worried they are going to throw a tantrum. I know I shouldn’t be doing this but how can I say no?

When your child is throwing a tantrum, instead of panicking and responding immediately to avoid the tantrum, stop and think about what is going on. Stay calm and in control so you can choose a constructive response.

For example, if your child is asking for sweets and throwing a tantrum in the supermarket, rather than getting angry or feeling embarrassed and giving in, calmly explain why they can’t have sweets, remind them of your plan around treats and when you have agreed they can have treats.

Think of situations when your child is most likely to throw a tantrum or act out. Take some time to think through your response and find more helpful ways of reacting.

Why tackle treats?

Dr Aileen McGloin, Director of Marketing and Communications, explains why safefood are encouraging parents to START tackling treats.

© The Food Safety Promotion Board