Unlike many parents, Caroline Farrell, who lives in Sallins, Co Kildare, never found it hard to get her children to eat well, partly because she prepares all of her family’s meals from scratch.
Nevertheless, eating habits reflect the personalities of her children, too. “My daughter, who is eight, is actually quite a fussy eater. She’s made me realise it’s probably just not what you get at home, it’s just the way you are,” she says.
Farrell was speaking following a report on the dietary habits of secondary school teenagers in the State, which found that most are eating too much salt, sugar and saturated fats and too few vegetables.
“I’d consider myself a healthy eater, any food I get at home is all made from scratch. Obviously you’d have the odd treat or whatever,” says her 16-year-old son, Conor.
“I’ve always eaten healthy ever since I was young. I’ve always had the opportunity to try new foods,” he goes on. However, there are other influences besides his mother, he accepts.
When outside with friends, he says he would be more likely to eat takeaway food, while “ideas or advertisements” that are found on social media play their role, too.
Why do so many teenagers eat badly? “There could be loads of reasons. It could be family, it could just be the way they’ve always eaten. It could be stress, especially for people doing the Leaving Cert,” he tells The Irish Times.
Meanwhile, 15-year-olds Maebh Maguire and Laura Milhorn, out for a walk along the Grand Canal, both consider themselves healthy eaters “for the most part”, though, again, takeaways are popular when with friends.
“If I know some foods are bad, I’ll stay away from them,” says Maguire, though her friend adds: “Sometimes if we’d be going out we’d be eating bad food, kind of influenced in a bad way.”
“Fast food is just so easy to get,” agrees Maguire.
However, the influence of friends on young people’s eating habits is not always negative. In fact, say teenagers Ella Tobin and Jenny Butler, trying to be healthy actually became popular during the Covid-lockdown.
They try to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, helped by a recent greater focus on healthy eating in school, says Butler, while social media, such as TikTok, have influenced teenagers positively over the last year, says her friend.
Siobhán Hannifan, a mother to a seven-year-old and a 10-year-old, says it is important not to lay down the law too often with children, since they can often want what they are told not to eat. “I try not to label foods as ‘bad,’” she says.
Children have different eating habits. Her daughter has a bigger sweet tooth than her son, for example, while the presentation of food on the kitchen table can influence the way they think about food.
Louise Butler, mother of three-year-old Rose, finds it difficult at home to get her daughter to eat vegetables, but when she is in the creche around other children her daughter clears a vegetable-filled plate because others are doing so.
“It’s really, really hard. When she was very young she would eat great and now I think everything just went south. I don’t remember the exact moment, but I guess it’s just normal for kids.
“She’s like the typical three-year-old now in that her favourite things would be the stereotypes like pizza, fish fingers, sausages, but I would be hard-pushed to get a vegetable into her. I don’t worry about it too much, though.
“Whatever it is about creche, the kind of herd mentality, there she cleans her plate. There’s always all sorts of vegetables. All the kids sit down together and they eat it,” Butler tells The Irish Times.
She has tried replacing treats such as jellies with fruit. Ideally, she would just cut all unhealthy foods out of the menu, but the reality of raising a toddler does not make that easy. “For me the goal is just to get her to eat,” she says.