Tuesday, July 23, 2024
HomeNewsCaroline Farrow: Family, not the State, stops children getting fat

Caroline Farrow: Family, not the State, stops children getting fat


Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has blasted Theresa May for acting like a politician, instead of a parent. Which is really rather fatuous given that being a politician is in fact, Mrs May’s job and part and parcel of the role of Prime Minister.

When Andrea Leadsom dared to suggest that being a mother gave a better insight into the challenges facing parents and families than the childless Mrs May, suggesting perhaps that parents had a very particular stake in the future, the ensuring uproar forced her to resign from the leadership contest.

Yet because Jamie Oliver is everyone’s favourite professional hand-wringing lefty, clearly believing it is the responsibility of the government to strictly control what goes into children’s mouths, there has been little in the way of similar outrage. What does consistency matter, when there is a chance to blame the Tories for fat children? Jamie might be a dab hand at cooking and has built up a multi-million pound empire from flogging cookery books, along with accompanying media career and themed restaurants, but that does not make his opinion in terms of defining public health strategy or social policy, an informed or necessarily expert one.

Like Mr Oliver, I too am a parent to five children and I do not find the government’s decision to axe plans to place a curb on junk food advertising objectionable. Neither do I find it unforgivable to reverse a ban on placing sweets at the checkout. Perhaps that is because I believe in the broad principles of the free market, allowing retailers to advertise and display their goods as they see fit. If consumers don’t like it, then they are free to lobby the supermarkets directly for a change in policy or alternatively, take their custom elsewhere. In the cut-throat world of food retail, supermarkets tend to be far more responsive to customer demand than stifling legislation.

I completely understand how irksome it is to have children pestering for sweets at the checkout, but not having them there does not make the experience any the less fraught. My children will often hound me for every single piece of expensive exotic fruit on the shelves, gimmicky cereals, crisps, fizzy drinks, novelty yoghurts and almost anything that catches their eye. Are we going to stop supermarkets from selling dressing-up clothes and toys as well?

In terms of advertising – if you need to allow your children to watch a bit of television unsupervised, make sure they are watching something which does not contain adverts, which is really not that difficult in this day and age. Alternatively, develop a thick skin, harden your heart, ignore the pleading or hints and say no. Or do what I do and laugh whenever my children earnestly tell me what I need to make my whites brighter or to clean the sink! It is my job to help them put adverts into context.

It is not that I am immune to the idea that families need to eat healthily – my own are currently on a healthy eating kick after we admitted that all the adults needed to lose weight and the children were consuming far too much sugar and processed food.

What this has entailed is a massive overhaul of how we eat as a family. Meals are now planned in advance, budgeted shopping lists drawn up (parents who find the whole supermarket experience too stressful can always shop online) and everything is cooked from scratch. We are all looking and feeling so much better for it. If this is the sort of initiative that Jamie wishes to encourage, then perhaps he would do better to concentrate upon why so many families resort to convenience and junk food.

If the government are really serious about tackling obesity, they ought to scrap the useless sex and relationships component of the curriculum and instead replace it with good old fashioned home economics lessons, where pupils are taught how to cook simple, healthy, cheap meals from scratch. Or make provision for it at an extra-curricular or community level, in order to engage and support families who do not have these skills, rather than punishing them financially.

Acting like a parent does not entail wilting helplessly whenever children turn on the pester power, neither should it involve keeping children in a bubble, where they cannot be tempted by the lure of a hamburger. If Mrs May is beholden to act like a parent, then her role should be one of empowering and encouraging people to make the right choices for themselves (and accept accompanying responsibilities) rather than strictly regulating them.

Tinkering around with advertising, sweeties on checkouts and altering levels of sugar in food, is not going to solve the fundamental problem. For many time-poor families who need to have both parents working full-time to pay the bills, who drop their children off at crack of dawn and pick them up in the early evening after a long day at work; bunging a bag of chips in the oven, or shoving a meal in the microwave, is the quickest and simplest option to feed their hungry and tired family, if they are to enjoy any sort of time together. Gone are the days when mum was always around and had the time and energy to provide a home-cooked dinner.

(Image: really short)

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Caroline Farrow
Caroline Farrow
Columnist for the Catholic Universe

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