Don’t feel guilty. UPFs are everywhere, aggressively marketed, and minimising your child’s intake is, says doctor and infant nutrition researcher Chris van Tulleken, like “trying to quit cigarettes in the Fifties.” He adds, “Even in the most middle class households, half of what kids eat is ultra-processed. Ideally they should have none, but that’s not the world we live in, so they should just cut down.”
Finding minimally processed alternatives is challenging, says Dr Vamos, but as well as coming in plastic or a jar, a good indicator of a UPF is its long ingredient list. Look out for anything “not used in the kitchen or unrecognisable”. For example, high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils or protein isolates.
Cutting out ultra-processed soft drinks is another important step, says Dr van Tulleken. “The only liquids children should drink are milk and water.” And that means eating fruit whole: “Apple juice, orange juice and smoothies – it’s all very bad – the sugars in fruit need to be bound up in the cells of the fruit.”
Dr van Tulleken, whose eldest daughter is four, says banning UPFs from your house only makes them more desirable, and suggests educating your children about how unhealthy they are instead. “You might suggest they read the label, and then you could ask them why they are drinking a drink with phosphoric acid in it? What are these things?”
Focus less on food and keep meals simple
Never make food a battle. Professor Ogden, author of The Good Parenting Food Guide, says our fight against obesity should be covert. “The last thing you want is for food or body image to become an issue, so the more attention you can take away from food, the better.
“Try to pin food to a time and a place, so you have breakfast, lunch and dinner every day, you don’t really eat in between, so food doesn’t spill out to become part of everything. Eat at a table as much as you can, so it becomes part of a family occasion, and you’re chatting but ignoring the food. Then food gets downgraded.”
Prof Ogden says we often use food to manage children, to reward them, for example. “If you do your homework you can have a biscuit.” Consequently food becomes loaded with meaning, whether it’s a treat, or forbidden, or good or bad. This, she says, “builds food up into having a special role in peoples’ lives, which is why they then turn to it to manage their emotions.”
If you must enthuse about food, move beyond cake, by praising the crunchiness of carrots for example. It’s important, too, that not all food all the time is fantastic or delicious. Sometimes food is just food. And it’s just eaten around the chat.”
Dr van Tulleken agrees: “Meals can be simple. Chicken thighs roasted in the oven with a bit of salt. I still make my daughter pesto pasta from a jar, and we probably have fish fingers once a week.”
Prof Ogden’s staples also included fish fingers, plus jacket potato, beans and cheese and spaghetti Bolognese she cooks in less than 30 minutes. “And that’s good enough.” Try too hard, she says, and you’re more likely to give up and resort to takeaways and ready meals.
How to tackle teenagers who eat junk food outside the home
It’s easy to buy fewer UPFs when our children are small. But what about when they’re teenagers? Our role as they reach adolescence, says Professor Ogden, “is to make sure they maintain a good relationship with food, because that’s the time it can go wrong in terms of developing eating disorder.”.
This is the time, says Professor Ogden, to make sure the home meals are healthy and that they’re active. But don’t fuss about what they’re eating outside of the home or you risk exacerbating any issues. Roll your eyes if they’ve had chips again, but that’s it. “And then compensate by making sure they have more vegetables at dinner.”
And speak positively about your body, too. “If children are brought up by parents talking about not liking the way they look, body criticism is normalised and they learn that it is a perfectly acceptable way to think about yourself,” says Prof Ogden. “If they hear parents criticising them – ‘ooh, you’ve put on a bit of weight’ – again, body size becomes the focus.”
Chubbiness is often a phase anyway, so play the long game, says Prof Ogden, who didn’t let her own children have full length mirrors in their bedrooms when they were teenagers and didn’t have scales in the house. “I’d never put a child on a diet and I’d never weigh a child. You can see by looking at them what size they are. If you want to get your child to eat less, do it by covert means.”
What if they say “I’m fat” and you secretly agree? You reply: “You’re growing at the moment and I think you’re fabulous.” Never make a child feel self-conscious or ashamed. You might concede that, like most people, they’ve been less active. “But don’t focus on food or weight.”
Instead, says Prof Ogden: “Stop the sweets and chocolate by not bringing them into the house, and increase the fruit and vegetables by buying them and cooking them. Help them eat well without them knowing it, and be more active yourself and as a family.
But parents’ focus should be on changing family habits, not the child. “What’s going to have to change is you, not them.”