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Nearly eight in 10 parents say it’s getting more difficult to ensure their children are eating healthily

It ought to be easy to get our kids eating healthily. Yet for so many parents, it is a constant source of worry and battle. In fact, according to Netmums, food is now one of the most searched topics on their site, as parents increasingly seek peer guidance on how to steer their children towards healthier eating behaviours.

Nearly eight in 10 parents say it’s getting more difficult to ensure their children are eating healthily, according to recent poll of over 2,000 parents conducted by Savanta and the Children’s Food Campaign at Sustain.

Whilst most parents (88%) prioritise healthy eating, they are finding it challenging. More than two-thirds worry about what their children are actually eating, and only half think companies are doing enough to make healthy food available and affordable.

Ubiquitous marketing towards children

Almost all parents believe their children are influenced by unhealthy food marketing to some degree, and six in 10 are worried by the amount of advertising their children see. This rises further for parents from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds and among black and minority ethnic communities.

One parent of two young children told us about a vending machine at the local swimming pool that displays M&M cartoon animations to attract children’s attention. Another parent described her shock on discovering the “healthy” toddler snacks advertising apples, carrots, vitamins and minerals on the front of pack were actually ultra-processed products high in free sugars and with questionable nutritional value.

No one goes into the food industry or government policy with the deliberate aim of misleading parents on food purchasing or pricing them out of healthy options. And yet, the food system as it is remains stacked against parents trying to do the right thing by their children. Every attempt by government to regulate for a healthier food industry faces significant opposition and accusations of nanny statism – leading to dilution, delay or ditching policies altogether.

Politicians’ plans

Keir Starmer has said he is “up for the fight” on child health issues. National Food Strategy author Henry Dimbleby called nanny statism a myth created by “a political class who are ambivalent about nannies because they grew up with them”.

But whatever we believe about nannies, childminders, nurseries or schools, their important role in developing children’s healthy relationships with food should be in support of parents. Instead of blaming parents for food their children eat, the food sector and government must listen to the structural support they say they need.

As we launch our manifesto this week, calling on all political parties to put children’s healthy food at the heart of their plans in the run-up to the general election, we’ve set out a number of clear policies parents want to see. This ranges from the expansion of healthy school food to fruit and veg voucher schemes, to restrictions on advertising and sales of energy drinks, and honest, trustworthy product labelling.

Maybe, rather than a nanny state, it’s a parent state we need to ensure every child has equal access to nutritious food and can grow up healthy and happy.