Mums opting for ‘filling rather than nutritious’ meals as food costs rise

Mums have admitted to making meals that are “filling rather than nutritious” as the cost of food continues to rise.

This means children living on the breadline are suffering due to chronic food inequality, according to scientific evidence presented at a British Nutrition Foundation conference in London last week (November 15).

Headlines have shown that the cost of household staples including tea bags, sugar and milk are on the rise due to food inflation.

During the British Nutrition Foundation Annual Day delegates heard case studies of youngsters who shared the hardship of trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle when their parents are forced to choose between heating and eating.

Variables such as too much access to cheap food outlets and not enough access free school meals play a major role in contributing to diet inequality, which was the topic of last week’s conference. Professor Corinna Hawkes, director, Centre for Food Policy at the University of London described the issue as “critical and topical”, during her opening speech.

The latest government data shows there are more than four million children living in poverty across the UK as a result of austerity, the pandemic and now the ongoing and spiralling cost of living crisis.

Insufficient access to nutritious food is a key part of defining poverty or food insecurity, with children being some of the worst affected.

A study conducted by Professor Julie Brannen and Professor Rebecca O’Connell found that half of parents living in low-income households sheltered their children from food insecurity by limiting their own food intake or skipping meals.

While three quarters of mums said they bought or prepared meals that were ‘filling rather than nutritious’, by bulking out meals with cost-effective carbohydrates like pasta or rice.

But the dependency on high sugar, high fat, convenient food only exacerbates the problem of diet inequality with young people and children, not developing tastes for ‘good or nutritious’ foods, it was heard today.

In a poignant statement read by Prof Brannen, a boy called Jimmy said: “Sometimes I go to bed hungry. I just started to grow and when I started to grow, I think my belly started to grow too”.

That is why the importance of eating at school must not be overlooked, as several nutrition experts including Katie Palmer, Programme Manager for Food Sense Wales explained.

Despite all children in Brannen and O’Connell’s study coming from low-income households only half were entitled to free school meals. Many of these children said the allowances were not enough to fill them up and that they felt embarrassed by the smaller portion sizes they may receive compared to their classmates who paid.

Those discrepancies brought about feelings of shame and embarrassment in children living on lower incomes, with some saying they felt singled out by staff and lunchtime supervisors.

The effects of living hand to mouth stretch beyond its health implications, with the social ramifications rarely spoken about. Professor Hawkes, the host of today’s British Nutrition Foundation Annual Day said: “Food is about so much more than nutrition. It is hugely symbolic and plays a major role in people’s lives.”

During the conference, members also heard several calls to action for major supermarkets to take responsibility for the role they can play in helping to reduce food inequality. Nikita Sinclair, portfolio manager at Impact on Urban Health said: “If we want our children to be healthy, thrive and grow up to give back to society, we must fix our food system.”

Last week, Which? launched its Priority Places for Food Index, which looks at the nation’s access to supermarkets, online grocers, food support and barriers.

Sue Davies, MBE, head of consumer rights and food policy at Which? said research has shown an “incredibly depressing picture of people struggling.” The tool is accessible to all and has “huge potential to identify where the people who need the most support are and why.”

Furthering the discussion around the significance of Free School Meals in a struggling climate, attendees also heard about several other schemes across the UK which are striving to ensure children have access to healthy food, all year round.

Sara Stanner, science director, British Nutrition Foundation said: “We recognise the need for all children to have access to healthier food in schools, alongside provision of good food and nutrition education which we support through our Food-a fact of life education programme.”

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