'Too many children are not getting the healthy diet that could protect them against serious illness in later life, including cancer, heart disease and asthma,' said health minister Yvette Cooper, commenting on the National Diet and Nutrition Survey of Young People, which confirmed that children are eating too many fatty, sugary and salty foods and far too few fresh fruit and vegetables.
The survey found, for example, that boys eat nearly twice as many biscuits as leafy green vegetables and that the average child is eating only two portions of fruit and vegetables a day even though they need five portions to stay healthy. Some 20 per cent of the UK's children eat no fruit whatsoever in the course of a week.
What's gone wrong? In the past, children basically ate what their parents ate. Where once families sat down to meals together, it is now becoming common for children to be fed apart from adults on a distinct repertoire of processed, ready-made 'children's food' - sweetened breakfast cereals, sausages and burgers, fish fingers, chips, pizza, sweets, biscuits, crisps, flavoured yoghurt and sugary drinks. Children's diets have been hijacked by food manufacturers which make vast profits out of creating over-processed 'value-added' products aimed at the lucrative 'kiddie' market. As a result, many parents have lost all confidence in their ability to feed their own children well, with universal family food.
This concept of separate children's food now starts early on. Many mothers with young babies now believe that a jar of processed 'Baby Apples' is actually superior to, and safer than, what they themselves might make because it appears to be 'specially formulated' by babyfood experts and covered in lots of prominent ticks about 'absence of this' and 'presence of that'. As babies become toddlers, then children, it's all too easy to go along with the idea that they cannot be expected to eat 'real' food and must be fed differently. Increasing numbers of parents now find it harder and harder to get children to eat anything approaching a balanced, wholesome diet.
Children encounter the pressure to eat junk everywhere - at friend's houses, at school, even at playgroups and creches, as well as the way it is attractively hyped on TV. You can hardly blame parents for shrugging their shoulders and accepting that a diet of crisps, cola, burgers and nuggets is just a fact of life.
The good news is that it is still perfectly possible for individual parents to withstand the commercial pressure to feed children - even those notoriously difficult 'picky eaters' - junk and bring them up to eat a good, wide range of healthy and delicious food. Nursery staff can help support their efforts by making sure that, at nursery at least, children are being offered a wide range of healthy food. Pass on to parents the' cut out and keep' guide opposite and make your nursery a 'no junk' zone! It's easier than you may think to get children off processed, convenient 'kids' foods' and offer alternatives.
How can I get my children to eat well?
Give them the freshest, most nutritious and best-quality food you possibly can, not processed, unhealthy 'children's food'.
Don't use low-fat 'health' or diet food. Serve a varied diet with meat, fish, potatoes, rice, pasta, dairy products, and lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. Most children love a good old-fashioned roast.
Feed them the same food as you yourself eat - and make sure you eat well! Socialise them into good eating habits by eating with them as much as you possibly can.
Consciously open up their food horizons by introducing them to a wide range of tastes. Don't stereotype children as people with narrow food horizons and therefore limit what you offer them.
Keep on presenting them with a wide range of foods, even if they resist them at first - they will learn to like them.
When should I start?
As early as possible, but it's never too late. Try to make your own weaning foods so that babies get accustomed to the real flavours and textures of home-made food. Introduce them to as wide a range of foods as possible, but first ask your health visitor what to avoid. Start with smooth, runny purees and as your child grows, make them thicker with more 'bits' in.
Note that foods marked here with a star can cause allergies. Watch carefully for any adverse effects after a child eats them and withdraw the foods the moment you think there may be a problem. Peanuts, sesame, tree nuts, fish, shellfish and eggs are the most common causes of severe reactions.
From weaning time you can give babies expressed milk or formula milk, purees of non-acidic fruit such as apples and bananas, vegetables, mild herbs and spices, finely milled oats and rice*, cooled boiled tap water or low sodium mineral water, unsalted homemade stock, diluted vegetable juice and unsweetened, non-acidic fruit juice.
From eight months you can add more acidic fruits like oranges, unsalted bone-free fish*, unsalted meat*, wholemeal, refined wheat, rye and barley foods* (pasta, couscous, bread), firmly boiled egg*, cheese and dairy products including cow's milk*.
It's not practical for us to eat with our children. Does it matter?
Just try to eat with your children as often as you can, even a couple of nights a week or at weekends. If you have to feed the children earlier, try to make something like a stew, baked pasta or soup, that you can eat yourself later on. It's less effort than making two separate meals, and the children will still be getting real food, not ready-made junk.
Isn't eating healthily going to cost us more?
Over-processed, unhealthy junk food may seem cheap but it is generally poor value for money and works out to be surprisingly expensive. In terms of filling children up, it's true that processed food like biscuits and crisps are often cheaper than fruit, but you are investing in your children's health.
I can't get my child to eat any vegetables. What can I do?
Disguise them in liquidised soup or try offering them raw. You could offer sticks of carrot and cucumber, crisp lettuce and cherry tomatoes with a dip on the side (it's best not to give humous to young children as it contains sesame which can cause severe reactions). Many children like the firmness of raw veg but turn up their noses at the cooked version. Go for crunchy vegetables in general such as crisp mangetouts or green beans. Add some garlic butter. Kids love it!