How do you get children to enjoy a healthy diet when they crave sweets and junk foods? Help may be at hand - from the industry itself

Having spent the festive season baking mince pies and stuffing the turkey, you might be picturing yourself cooking nourishing, healthy meals on a daily basis. Think again. The chances are you won't get far into the New Year before you slip back into guilt-making habits, serving up chicken nuggets all round with a bag of washed salad to ease the conscience.

Having spent the festive season baking mince pies and stuffing the turkey, you might be picturing yourself cooking nourishing, healthy meals on a daily basis. Think again. The chances are you won't get far into the New Year before you slip back into guilt-making habits, serving up chicken nuggets all round with a bag of washed salad to ease the conscience.

Parents today spend an average 20 minutes preparing their children's main meal, down from one hour in 1980. In Britain we spend £7,000 a minute on ready meals. And it seems parents are equally lax about feeding the poor darlings during the day. Most lunch boxes contain food that is rich in fat, sugar and salt, according to a study carried out by the Food Standards Agency in September. Chocolate bars, biscuits, crisps, cheese products and sandwiches or rolls made from white bread dominate the lunch menu. Vending machines in schools still largely limit sales to crisps, fizzy drinks and chocolate, and children consume 30 times the amount of soft drinks and 25 times the amount of confectionery they did in the 1950s.

But perhaps 2005 will be different. In March, experts from all over the world will be tackling the whole question of healthy eating from the point of the consumer, the kid itself. "Fit For Kids, Daring to Eat Healthy" will investigate whether it is possible for industry to "market the healthiness of food" so that "healthy and nutritious kids' products seem as popular and trendy as those that are not perceived as nutritious", as Bryan Urbick, director of the KidsLink Research, puts it.

Anne Taylor, a lecturer living in Falmouth and the mother of Laura, 11, Josef eight, and Evie, five, would welcome any such initiative. "I was scrupulous about giving my children entirely nutritious, organic, salt- and sugar-free food as babies. But keeping control over what they eat gets a lot more difficult as they get older," she says. "I try to serve balanced, healthy meals with water on the table and fresh vegetables, and cut-up fruit for pudding. But the children want what their friends eat and what they see advertised on television. I've got a packet of CocoPops on my kitchen shelf at the moment. I sometimes buy white bread because they regard it as a big treat. And I was under huge pressure to get Sunny Delight because the children were so convinced it was wonderful - though I managed to resist."

Yet a wealth of evidence shows that British parents need all the support they can get in giving children good, healthy food. The chicken in those so-easy-to-prepare nuggets come from carcasses that have been pumped with water "held in place with hydrolysed animal proteins recovered from animal waste including pork and beef", according to Felicity Lawrence in her book Not on the Label (Penguin). A bag of washed salad, she points out, is likely to be "several days old, washed in chlorine solution 20 times the concentration of a swimming pool, with a marked reduction in vitamin and micro-nutrient content".

Ready meals, says Joanna Blythman in Shopped - the Shocking Power of British Supermarkets (Fourth Estate), are largely made low-quality and bad value. "One chef who tested a selection of Marks & Spencer ready meals estimated that its £1.99 vegetable and pasta bake would only cost 40p to make at home, while a £5.58 beef casserole would cost £1.50 if home-made."

Moreover, Blythman says, Asda's "Good For You" lasagne contains 60 per cent of an adult's daily recommended salt intake. As for "healthy" children's ranges such as Sainsbury's Blue Parrot Café, she says, they "have to be qualified by the word 'healthier' and are, in reality, nothing more than slightly improved versions of the usual lines."

So how can parents encourage their children to be healthy? "A big part of the problem is that most children simply prefer food that is sugary, salty and full of fat," says Dr Bryan Hanley, research director at Leatherhead Food International, an independent organisation that supports industry in finding healthy solutions to problems of nutrition and which is organising the Fit For Kids conference.

He says the food industry wants to make products healthier by stealth. The salt in ready meals, for instance, "is there because children like the salty taste, not because it is a preservative. Most companies are trying to reduce salt levels without the consumer noticing, as well as replacing sodium with potassium, which is safer but also has a salty taste. Heinz has been cutting the amount of salt in baked beans and adding more tomatoes to make up for the loss of taste. However, industry is wary of going too far in case people notice the change and stop buying."

As well as weaning children off salt and sugar, there's a lot to be gained from passing on a love of food. And eating home cooking will help retrain those over-salted tastebuds. "I never totally ban anything because it would just make them want the food more," says Taylor. "Instead, I don't ever have crisps or biscuits in the house. And I make sure that we all sit down together to eat supper which is fresh, good food and only sometimes pizza or fish fingers. It's very important to have fun at meal times."

Meanwhile, a key factor in changing children's eating habits could be curbs on junk food advertising similar to that on cigarettes. Currently, the industry spends more than £300m promoting junk food to children, including £23m by Coca-Cola and £16.5m by Walker's Crisps. More than half the adverts on children's TV are for food and drink, almost all of which are for junk food, according to Sustain, a coalition of health, medical, parenting and women's groups that is lobbying to introduce legislation banning the promotion of junk food not just on TV but via the internet, text messaging and through school activities.

"There's an especially worrying new trend linking crisps and chocolate to physical inactivity," says the Sustain spokeswoman Jeanette Longfield. "They've all got to go, every outlet has to be stopped or the funding will simply be moved."

Sustain: 020-7837 1228; Fit for Kids conference: 01372 376761

Comments