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Lets say no header

Deirdre, Stay-at-home mum, Wicklow

We have two girls and two boys: Una (7), Ali (6) and Sean (2), Eamonn (1). Oh, and a dog named Pepsi. I’m run off my feet ferrying them all to their activities. This can mean resorting to treats to get them into the car on time. Also, Granny is a great source of all things sugary and lives nearby. My goal is to reduce how much we use biscuits and sweets to get them to do what we need them to.

Day 1

Week 1, Monday

The kids being back at school brings more routine and less time for temptation! They’re exhausted and hungry after a day at school. Our eldest Una, I discovered at the end of junior infants, always ate the entire contents of her lunchbox at little break, so by home time was hungry and cranky. We lapsed into having emergency biscuits in the car since I was also pregnant at the time. We have learned from this and now keep a stash of apples and bananas in the car instead.

Primary schools have made it very easy for parents these days to control kids' consumption with strict implementation of the Healthy Lunch policy, although I understand the same cannot be said for secondary schools in some cases.

Day 2


It's activity afternoon with the eldest going direct to school drama and Ali going to tennis from 4.00-4.45, so again we ensure they have enough "good" food with them to avoid the blood sugar levels falling below critical levels and resulting in a 'meltdown', which inevitably leads to either tears or parental submission to treats! As a compromise on an activity afternoon, we’ve come up with a "healthy" treat, in this case a cereal bar.

Day 3


We are home today since Wednesday activity has not kicked in yet. Since we have the time, we opt to have an after school snack of “fruit kebabs". These are essentially fruit salad on a stick. I chop up the fruit and the kids choose and load up the pieces onto a wooden skewer. They love the activity and the slow release of natural sugars serves to keep them happy until teatime.

young girl with a food skewer

Day 4


We planned a blackberry picking afternoon since we are lucky to be surrounded by a bumper crop this year. Such healthy options are not always available, but when they are we grasp them. Kids can be just as happy with such a novelty as they are with a processed sugary treat. We learn such tricks over time, and they may not always work, but I find it great to deal with toddler tantrums by using the educated (brainwashed) older kids to convince the smallies! The little ones may throw a wobbler if they are told they cannot have a treat every time I visit the local shop for milk, but if their beloved older sisters can convince them that they can help themselves to "sports candy" (fruit), then they are more often won over!

We leave the fruit bowl on the table at all times to manage the "Can I have a snack?" question. 

family walk up the mountain

Day 5


Living in a rural location helps avoiding the temptation of local shops, and if you don't buy in any contraband then there is no visibility and therefore no temptation. But we can't avoid the shops altogether! Friday, I do the supermarket shopping with my two boys. They are allowed to open a packet of squeezy yoghurt product in the trolley on the way around so are delighted.

Comment from John Sharry, Psychologist and parenting expert:

Dear Deirdre,

You have made a lot progress in establishing good health eating routines in your household. I am particularly struck by your move to have one desert night a week, rather than the traditional daily homemade desert. As you have discovered children often value and enjoy much more a treat that is less frequent (and even much smaller). I also like your strategy of recruiting the older children in the project of convincing the younger ones of the value of healthy foods.

Your blog also highlights how hungry children can get during the day (particularly after school) and this is an ‘at risk’ time for snacking on unhealthy food. Finding ways to ensure children have healthy meals earlier in the day will go a long way to reducing problems.
Day 8

Week 2, Monday

There happens to be a dental appointment for one of the girls this afternoon. The dentist is another great source of education and support for parents. They can reiterate the message that sugar is very bad for your very valuable teeth. Parents can deliver this ad nauseum, but helpful hints from respected professionals hit home harder, even if the effect is short term.

Such discussions give you the opportunity to introduce other issues such as diabetes, etc. without just saying treats and sweets will make you fat (all un-pc these days).

Day 9


Mine have always been good eaters. So while I have been the envy of those with tiny ones who take the best part of an hour to finish a meal, it brings with it its own issues! We will eat all our 'good food' but would still have the capacity to fit in more. The solution to this dilemma is exercise and an active lifestyle. We use the garden and swing set, the dog and locality to provide this without always having to be an organised and costly activity. A game with a ball and an adult is something few kids can resist. It’s free, they love it, and will play for as long as we can give the time. Fun can be a treat in itself.
a garden playground
Day 10


It’s my birthday and the plan is to go out early for dinner as a family at 5, followed by our own birthday cake at home. But best laid plans... we end up having to drop my car into the garage at lunchtime, and use dad's instead. With no emergency fruit package in his car, the two girls have a kids' chocolate wafer bar each. The boys are asleep. The hotel meal will have to wait! Granny made us a birthday cake, so we 'had' to have a piece. The girls are delighted - a chocolate wafer and cake in one day!

Day 11


We visit the post office shop to post some letters. And my second wants to come to help – yeah right! We post the letters and she asks for a packet of skittles, purely as they are on a stand beside us, literally under her nose! She knows she can't have treats on a regular school day in the afternoon. But as it’s just the two of us, and because I feel we are making some progress, I select a 15c lolly for her!! Am I learning anything?!? We are but it’s nice to celebrate 1 to 1 time ;-)

Day 12


My third has a doctor’s appointment. He knows the drill. Last time we visited the cafe next door and he chose himself a packet of fruit pastilles. This time, fortunately, there are no pastilles in stock, but there are a pack of chewy mints. Reckoning they will not go down well I choose a bizarre psychological game to allow him try them rather than a flat out 'no'. As expected the first one is spat out with a resounding 'YUCK'. We have learnt a valuable lesson: not all contraband is enjoyable. Okay it was a bit of a copout, I didn’t say no, but he did.

Day 13


This morning is soccer morning and a beautiful day for it, so numbers 1,2 and 3 tear around the pitch for an hour in the sunshine and earn themselves an ice pop while we pop in for the paper. We may learn in time that such treats should and could be avoided, but at this stage and given that they are still young we enjoy it for now.

Friends home from overseas call in over lunchtime and thankfully do not bring kiddie treats. We keep it simple with baguettes and a small apple cookie to finish. Their kids spend hours playing on the trampoline and swings with gymnastics on the lawn. A second set of friends arrive with their 4 kids and, true to form, celebrate my earlier birthday with chocolate crispy buns! With 8 kids enjoying the sunshine in the garden they are allowed these crispie buns after a light tea. Having been outside all day snacking has been avoided.

kids on a hay bale

Day 14


Family day outdoors with lots of healthy and unhealthy treats on offer. Some places are better than others for blatantly tempting kids with high sugar foods in the interest of financial gain. What we have learned is, if we are going to a funfair or family day where the food options are candy floss, ginormous lollies, etc. we ensure we feed the kids a good healthy meal/snack before we go, so that they are not hungry. We stock the buggy with fruit and dry crackers to manage later hunger pangs, but will allow an lolly or ice cream cone as a treat to complete the outing as required. I observed many parents being pestered for high sugar goodies this day and to be fair I did hear a lot of NOs!

When we sit down for tea this evening I ask Una may I borrow her knife. With her tongue firmly stuck in her cheek she responds, "No, you may not borrow my knife. Sometimes we must just say NO". I must say I did have a chuckle.

toddler with an apple

Comment from John Sharry, Psychologist and parenting expert:

Dear Deirdre

Your blog highlights for me how frequently in the week there are opportunities for children to get unhealthy foods and treats. Whether this is in shops or petrol stations when sweets are at eye level, or when people visit or when you are at family out door events. As you highlight there are lots of different ways of dealing with these situations – you can simply say "No", or you can give a treat but making sure it is a small one (a small lolly, or one Skittle instead of the bag etc.).

Indeed it is course normal and natural to celebrate things with a treat or a cake – once again the trick here is to keep the portions small – a small sliver of cake or half a bun will do just as well!

Day 15

Week 3, Monday

Dad is away and there is a school meeting this evening so granny is coming for a sleepover. She's a great lady for jam and treats but has been forewarned that no additional contraband is necessary. She arrives mid afternoon and we have melon boats as our afternoon snack! She has brought some stewed apple and we enjoy this after tea with low fat custard - kids will not care that this is not 'thick and creamy' custard. When I was growing up it was original sunflower spreads in place of butter, whole grain bread and slimline milk (Ok I have reverted to low fat milk now). I think if we are introduced to the healthy options early in life they may hopefully stick with us.


Day 16


It's activity afternoon which means K1 has been out of home from 8.45 to 16.00 with her lunchbox alone for sustenance. She is picked up from school and bundled into the car to pick K2 up from tennis and spend the 30 min stopover doing her homework, but proudly announces she has completed her star chart at school and has earned a homework pass. I am delighted that we can run around the tennis field in the sun with the dog and the boys instead but then she lands the killer question "So can I have an ice-cream then?" Poor kid, as far as she is concerned she has done something to make us proud. Poor mum, how do I say no and if I say yes how do I say no to the other 3?! So I try to explain that the treat awarded for completing the star chart is the homework pass. I have broken my own golden rule of negotiating with a tired hungry child who firmly believes they deserve a 'Treat'! I lamely offer the lovely apple I brought for her. She looks at me in disgust. We have a situation...Had we been alone I would have rewarded her achievement in the manner to which she has become accustomed but no way am I diverting to a shop with all four at 4.30 midweek. We have the conversation once again about treats etc. but the eyes have glazed over and the face is set in stone. Result. The star charter is given her euro to run into the shop, a treat in its own right! She purchases her ice-cream and eats it in the car! It probably didn't taste too good after all that. "Epic fail Mom!" some might say...but it was a hang over from old habits and a strong willed child.


Day 17


Speaking of star charts; we have one on the wall that has been there since the girls were introduced to games they can play on the computer. In return for completing their chores they were rewarded 15 min computer time. Funnily, the competition then became who can get the most stars...the reward was being eclipsed. And indeed on completion of the chart they traded in the computer time they had earned, for a first riding lesson! It’s interesting how they think and how we can work with the kids to earn and reward etc. all outside of eats and treats.


Day 18


Its toddler group morning and there are biccies for the mums. As always my toddler man requests one and enjoys it. The teeny tiny one hasn't got to this stage yet, but no doubt will in time. A biccie at toddler group is a right of passage in our house. You only have a year to enjoy the privilege before you are too old (!) and shipped off to playschool 5 mornings for your preschool year. To my delight the little man gnaws his way through an apple midway through toddler group. The girls are at their pal's houses this afternoon so I get to bake in piece for coffee morning tomorrow and whatever spoils they are offered at their respective homes this afternoon are theirs to enjoy.


Day 19


Kids are going to friend’s house this afternoon so we deliver with them a box of fruit, apples, easy peelers and grapes. They will all tuck in, peer pressure sometimes can be a positive force, and only those with very strong will and resistance to fruit will abstain. All mine like fruit, each with their own favourites but I do appreciate a strong will - I recall a 40minute stand off with a two year old at toddler group over not being allowed an entire chocolate biscuit. I tried compromise, negotiation etc. but the battle went on and on and on. I honestly cannot remember the outcome but I'm sure they got their way to a positively ganky biccie by then. Each kid is different, another of mine would have given in after 2 mins and settled for a hug, another would have been distracted by a game or bit of fun. But I empathise with those parents who have the strong willed ones. ?I love it, the afternoon ends with four girls having an "apple challenge" their own invention - whoever finishes their lovely sweet gala apple first gets to be 'Apple jack' in their game of My little Pony - you know, this healthy eating lark may catch on. Slowly slowly, enjoy the little victories. One step at a time.


Day 20


Did our regular footy stint this morn and all chose an ice-cream treat for after. We hit the local parkland playground for the afternoon with our neighbours, also a family of four, and temporarily single parenting so delighted to get all 8 and dog out for 2 hours running around, climbing, etc. Thirsty work and the functional treat at the end was a small slush puppy the shop sells. I know, not very admirable but a relatively balanced day and they needed to re-hydrate and up the sugar levels after all that fun and exercise. Home for healthy pesto pasta for tea.


Day 21


Hairwash-night has come around again and I have not restocked the ice-cream drawer! This time I remembered to reintroduce the summer favourite of frozen bananas. Whether its the novelty of 'homemade' fruit on a stick, or they are really delicious, either way the hairwashees are delighted - they go down very well.

(So far) The best outcome of this "let's say no" exercise is that it has refocused our attention on the habits we have developed and the resulting consumption. The days of having a first child chewing on cucumber and vowing it will never indulge in sweets etc. are long gone. We realise that we do want them to enjoy the things we did as kids and allow them the odd treat. In doing so, their appreciation of such things grows and with this, the risk of over indulging. The task then becomes reining it back in via this exercise and remembering all in moderation and achieving a balance and getting the kids on board even if this means saying no. All in a good cause.

Comment from John Sharry, Psychologist and parenting expert:

Dear Deirdre

Well done on completing the three weeks. As you have said, the goal is to focus largely on healthy eating habits and routines in the family (rather than the elimination of all unhealthy food treats – which can be unrealistic). Once the portion size of the treats are small and the amount of times they get them less – then you are on the right track. I am struck by your challenge on the Tuesday when pressured by your daughter for an ice cream she had earned (when you were in public and with the other children). A good tactic in these situations is delay rather than a blank "No". For example, you can say “you can have a small treat, when we get home”. If she protests, you can say “you will only get the treat, if you don’t mention it again/ behave well”. This way, you can enlist co-operation at the most stressful time (e.g. in public). Once home, you can give a tiny sliver of an ice cream (or alternative) if she has behaved. I’m also struck by your clever use of star charts on Wednesday – once involved, it is amazing how children’s natural motivation will kick in.

Well done on a great three weeks,

John Sharry



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