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'When I realised the amount of treats we ate, it frightened me'

By Karen Ireland

With 7% of children here obese and 21% overweight, what we eat, and in particular, what we feed our children has become a health priority.

The latest figures from a government health survey revealed the worrying figures for children aged between two and 15. The report also showed that girls are more likely than boys to be obese, overweight and underweight.

Additional research from Safefood, the all-Ireland body on food safety and nutrition, showed that 75% of parents here didn't consider things like crisps, chocolates and sweets given on a daily basis as "treats".

And children aged five and under are given the most treats, with 50% getting a treat "at least once a day or more".

Meanwhile, 40% of parents routinely give their children treats once a day or more.

We talk to a Bangor mum who keep a "treats diary" before swapping sweets for a healthy alternative.

Ash Bingham (43) is a graphic designer from Bangor. She is married to Rick (42), also a graphic designer, and they have two children Toby (8) and Cooper (5). She says:

Rick and I met when we both worked for the same company. After about two years we decided to get married and, for the sake of our marriage, decided we would be better working for different companies, so we weren't spending every minute of the day together.

I started working from home and set up my own business about three months ago to give me more flexibility with the boys. Despite working from home, it is still difficult to keep an eye on what everyone is eating.

If I am busy or on a deadline, I will give the boys treats to snack on until I finish working before making a proper meal.

Recently, though, I've become concerned about the reports on the rise of childhood obesity because of the hidden sugars and fats in foods. I wanted to do something to look at our diets more closely. So, along with Safefood, I decided to keep a food diary for our family over a two-week period.

The first week we ate what we usually do, then in the second week I began to withdraw treats from our daily diet.

To be honest, I was flabbergasted when I looked back at the diary over the first week and saw how many treats the boys were actually eating.

I think supermarkets have a real role to play, as healthy food is so expensive and it is cheaper to buy biscuits and crisps.

They should give out portions of fresh fruit and vegetables for children to nibble on when doing the shopping. This would help children to understand that healthy eating is fun and good for you.

While I think we are a fairly healthy family - my husband and I both exercise regularly and are careful about our diets - it is the small treats that were sneaking into the boys diets that we were largely unaware of.

During the first week, for example, the boys would have cereal before school which I know is filled with sugar.

They head off to school with a healthy snack of fruit and yogurt with a sandwich and maybe a biscuit for lunch. On the way home after I pick them up in the car, though, I know they are tired and hungry, so I would give them crisps or sweets to keep them happy.

This is just a habit and is quick and convenient.

Dinner would always be healthy with potatoes, meat and lots of vegetables. And if they were hungry later I would give them a biscuit while they were watching TV, followed by a yogurt and milk for supper or chocolate chip cookies and milk before bed.

That all doesn't sound too bad - but when you add it up and then include treats that were used as bribes or rewards for good behaviour - a biscuit for tidying their bedroom, sweets or a packet of crisps for doing well at school - it all adds up.

In the recent warm weather we would also stop off for an ice lolly or ice cream.

Again, when I realised the amount of treats we were eating it was frightening and really shocked me. I realised the boys were getting a lot more treats than we thought and snacking on unhealthy stuff most of the time.

By week two, I was determined to make changes and improve the children's diets.

For breakfast, I swapped porridge and smoothies or natural yogurt and fruit instead of sugary cereals everyday. Lunch for the boys was still a packed lunch but instead of chocolate and crisps I gave them more fruit.

Other days they got pasta to eat or cheese and crackers for some variety during the week.

Their school has a strict healthy eating policy which bans fizzy drinks, so they just take water everyday which is great.

When it came to the school run, I brought a punnet of strawberries and one of blueberries for them to snack on rather than crisps or ice cream.

We still have the same healthy dinner with yogurt and fruit at supper time.

Then, in between meals instead of giving them a biscuit they now get a piece of Rivita with some humus, which surprisingly, they eat.

Another solution which the boys love are treats which don't revolve around food. Instead, the boys will get a comic or a trip to the pound shop to pick out some new pencils or other items.

At the beginning the children embraced the whole healthy eating and new regime - but I have to admit it got more difficult towards the end of week two.

The boys got a bit fed up with all the fruit and just wanted some chocolate. I even caught Toby sneaking out to the biscuit tin one evening to take some, which I had to laugh at.

This was a bit of a struggle, as I didn't want to put them off the idea of healthy eating completely.

I really wanted this to work and to prove that we could go without all the treats that we were having.

It breaks my heart to see children at the park who are overweight and can hardly run about and I totally blame the parents as they set the standards.

Issues such as childhood obesity and diabetes are on the rise and we need to play our part in fighting it, but there has to be a happy medium.

It's hard to deny the children treats all the time. What the fortnight taught us was that we were accidentally giving the boys more than they should have been getting. But from now on we will maybe have an ice cream or a lolly once a week as a treat.

While I will be cutting out the amount of chocolate and crisps the boys eat and give them more fruit as an alternative - I won't be denying them completely.

Now, I put more thought into what my family is eating and plan ahead.

I will not just give them something because it is quick and convenient.

While our home will not be a treat-free zone - as that just turns them off health eating and they find it very boring - I will be looking for a good balance."

Family's food diary

Week one

Breakfast: cereal

Snack: fruit and yogurt

Lunch: sandwich, chocolate biscuit and fruit

After school: crisps, chocolate or ice cream

Dinner: vegetables, meat and potatoes

Snack: chocolate biscuit

Supper: yogurt, milk and chocolate chip cookies

Additional reward treats: chocolate biscuits and crisps

Week two

Breakfast: porridge and smoothies

Snack: fruit and yogurt

Lunch: sandwich, fruit and yogurt

After school: strawberries and blueberries

Dinner: vegetables, meat and potatoes

Snack: Rivita and humus

Supper: fruit and yogurt

Additional reward treats: comics, pens, pencils

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