Question of taste?

There is a popular perception that children are living on a diet of
junk food while they vegetate in front of the telly or become
boggle-eyed playing games on the computer. They are pressured by
the media and society which demand that they conform to the perfect
body shape, and yet they are assailed on all sides by food
manufacturers and retailers who are only too happy to sell high
fat, high sugar, high appeal food directly targeted at children.
Meanwhile, they are chided by the medical profession for not eating
It is true that the UK is facing an epidemic of obesity – a recent
study in the British Medical Journal showed that one in five
nine-year-old boys and girls are overweight and one in 10 are
obese. A quarter of all 10-year-olds are overweight, and even at
the age of seven 14 per cent of girls and 10 per cent of boys are
considered unhealthily fat.
The villains of the piece are bad diet and lack of exercise.
Government guidelines suggest that school-age children should be
participating in one hour’s moderate exercise every day – one
in five do not even walk to school.
So what do young people themselves think about
“healthy” eating and how much say do they have over
what is served up at home? Do they worry about what they eat and
does food play an important role in their families?
Rachel is 11 and lives at home with her mum and her younger sister.
“I like to make sure that I eat lots of different types of
food, but I also like to eat sweets and crisps. I like pasta, and
meat and some types of vegetables, and I think my mum does buy a
wide variety of food at the supermarket, but it would be nice to
have more of a say in what she gets.”
She says that most of her friends eat the same sort of food as her,
and that they are not worried about how much they weigh, or about
their body shape. “There is one girl though, she won’t
eat anything like chocolate or biscuits or sweets. She says she
doesn’t like them, but we all think it is because she is
worried it will make her fat. She brings things like salmon fillets
with salad in her lunchbox – we all think it is a bit weird!”

Rachel’s favourite meal is the traditional roast, and she
would like to have the opportunity to sit down and eat meals like
this with her family more often. “We are always busy and
rushing around, and it’s really only at the weekends that we
have a chance to eat a meal together as a family,” she
Eleven-year-old Ryan shares that feeling: “My mum and dad
both work, and I really miss having family meals. It’s really
good because you have a chance to sit and talk, and we only do this
at mealtimes at the weekend. Usually it’s just me and my
little brother, and my mum and dad eat later,” he says. He
says he thinks he eats quite healthily, but would like there to be
more “nice food” in the house.
Peer pressure is a big factor influencing what children like to eat
and when. Ten-year-old Michael likes a wide variety of vegetables
and fruit, and always has a packed lunch at school because he
doesn’t like having to make a choice about which food to
choose in the school dinner hall. “My mum always used to put
sugar snap peas in my lunch box because they are one of my
favourite vegetables, but I don’t like to take them any more
because my friends make fun of me. One of my friends will only eat
jam sandwiches, but nobody seems to think that is odd,” he
Michael would like to be more involved in choosing what his mum
cooks for him, but she shops for food while he is at school so he
says that is difficult. “Sometimes I ask her to buy something
I have seen on the television, but usually she won’t,”
he says.
His experience is not uncommon. Many children are influenced by the
food they see advertised on television. Unsurprisingly, if
possible, many parents with children of school age take the
opportunity to go to the supermarket while their children are at
school, and so minimise the potential for conflict over what they
buy. This is a strategy that isn’t popular with many
“I don’t think it’s fair that I’m not
allowed to choose at least some of the food that goes into my
lunchbox,” says 11-year-old Sarah. All my friends bring lots
of chocolate and sweets to school, but I’m not allowed to
take anything like that – I have to have fruit instead. I know
it’s important to eat healthily, but it’s my body and I
think I should be allowed a bit more say in what I put into
it!” She says, however, that one good thing about eating the
sort of food her mum gives her is that it won’t make her fat.
“One of the girls in my class is quite big, and everyone
makes fun of her behind her back – I wouldn’t want to get
like that,” she says.
Sam, who is nearly 12, has just made the transition from primary to
secondary school and now has to make decisions about what he eats
and how much he spends in the school restaurant. “I have
£5 per week to spend, and I always choose to eat something hot
at lunchtime. I like pizza and chips, but I also eat some of the
healthy things like casseroles,” he says. He has, however,
run into trouble over how much he spends in the school vending
“I like fizzy drinks, and sometimes I spend so much money in
the drinks vending machines that I don’t have enough left for
my lunch. My mum gets really cross when this happens.” He
says he knows that there is a limit to the amount of money he
should spend in the machines, but says that it is difficult when
all his friends use them much more than him.
Choosing wisely, it seems, is not only difficult when you are grown
up. As Ryan says: “I know it’s good for me to eat
healthy food, but it’s difficult sometimes because the food
that isn’t so good for me tastes so nice!”

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