Perhaps barbecue-flavoured cherries are the answer

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AS I PICKED up my four- year-old daughter from nursery school, the two teachers who run her class called me to one side. They thrust her unopened lunch box into my hands. My daughter, they said, had gone on strike for the second day running. She was refusing to eat her food or touch her drink.

The reason was that she wanted crisps, like everyone else on her table. The wholemeal bread and honey sandwiches I so lovingly made her each morning were being spurned. The teachers looked sympathetic: the one who has children of the same age as me said she wouldn't worry too much. 'Carry on,' she said. But her intervention and body language spoke differently. And my daughter was visibly upset. I was trying to do her good. She felt utterly deprived and I was the culprit. Sensing a retreat she said to me tearfully: 'I want a packet of Quavers for tomorrow.'

This incident seemed the final straw. I have been trying to campaign against this sort of thing for months. All my experience suggests that children are addicted to snack foods. Their taste-buds are somehow desensitised by the increasingly gruesome flavours on offer. When you are being asked to provide spicy tomato barbecue Monster Munchers or whatever, salt and vinegar crisps are starting to look innocuous, while plain old salted crisps seem like a health food.

I do drag home large packets of multi-flavour crisps from the supermarket. But they vanish overnight. Children used to be able to spot a bar of chocolate at a hundred yards. Now it is crisps.

What is one to do? The snack food industry, worth pounds 1.65bn - with pounds 870m spent annually on crisps alone - has oodles of profits to spend on advertising and promotions. Even lower-fat crisps and lightly salted snacks are apparently only a slightly fainter version of the full- blooded varieties, according to the Food Commission. So they hardly offer a way out. Each child is already, it seems, eating four packets of crisps on average a week, so there is scope in my view for ever greater growth. Frankly, I despair, because I know that my children could eat three packets a day each if they were in control of the family budget.

The problem, I suspect, is compounded by the fact that, if we are honest, most parents love snack food, too. At drinks parties, even at ordinary picnics, it is funny how many adults turn to the crisps first. There is a sense that our children have caught the grazing habit from us.

Furthermore, despite the recent launch of a campaign to save school dinners, and an Open Space programme about it on BBC 2 last month, children are relentlessly opting for packed lunches, with the obligatory packet of crisps as part of the deal.

My solution is as follows: I am introducing strict rationing. I am ashamed to say that this is one packet per child per day. To cut down on fighting, these are assembled in separate bags on shopping day. But I wonder how, in the longer term, I can reform my children's eating habits. Even if I refused to buy crisps the older ones would certainly be spending their pocket money on them. And they barter things at school during lunch breaks, so my little bag of cherries could be swapped for a packet of crisps.

At the Montessori nursery school that my other children attended, there is a system under which every pupil brings a piece of fruit to school and nothing else. The fruit is then cut up and handed around. This seems like one potential solution at the nursery stage, but it probably sounds too stiflingly middle class to be adopted generally.

The only positive thing I

can find in this sad tale of dietary disarray is that crisps do not seem to rot teeth - as yet my children have avoided the fillings that made my childhood hell. But this is small comfort when you think of all those blocked arteries that might develop in later