The dental perspective on summer holiday ‘meal deals’ for low-income families

The dental perspective on summer holiday 'meal deals' for low-income familiesLow-income families are being encouraged to take advantage of discounted supermarket cafe meal deals to feed their children over the summer holidays. 

This comes as part of the government’s ‘Help for Households’ campaign, which was launched in the face of the cost of living crisis. Meal deals include ‘kids eat for £1’ at Asda and ‘kids eat free’ with a paying adult customer at Morrisons.

Although a thumbs up for affordability, some experts have suggested that the menus fall below school food standards.

At Asda, for example, children can choose between hot meals including fish fingers, chicken nuggets and breakfasts. But analysis shows only two of five hot options include a side salad or vegetables.

At Morrisons, this applies to only one of five hot meals.

According to The Guardian, Professor Greta Defeyter – whose research informed the government’s school food programme – believes the government ‘should not be promoting menus primarily consisting of ultra-processed foods’.

Fuelling a crisis

Maria Papavergos is a dental surgeon and nutritional therapist based in Scotland. She says there are a number of actions that could be taken to ensure children have access to healthy, rather than processed, foods.

‘It’s great to see that the government is trying to help families who have a low income and need to feed their children over the summer,’ she said.

‘However, discounting supermarket cafe meals which are generally high in saturated fats and sugar is not the best approach. One of my main concerns from a dental perspective is that often these cafes offer drinks that are high in sugar. For example, fizzy drinks or a juice that have zero nutritional value.

‘They not only increase children’s risk of dental decay, but they also fuel the obesity crisis.

‘My other concern is that supermarket cafes generally don’t offer appealing choices of vegetables and fruit. As a result, they tend to not choose to have vegetables with their meals and therefore are filling up on high sugar and high fat meals.’

She believes an alternative would be to offer up a salad-style bar, which would include more tasty and colourful choices that could appeal to children.

‘For example, roasted vegetable salads and cous cous salads, which are also not too expensive to make. The same could apply to fruits – a bar where colourful produce encourage children to try more varieties.’

‘Oral health is overlooked’

When it comes to the delay on banning junk food offers in supermarkets, Maria says more needs to be done to encourage healthier choices.

‘This is not a helpful approach,’ she said.

‘In my opinion, the government needs to focus on promoting healthy choices. Ultimately, this comes down to education. This isn’t a quick fix. But education needs to happen from a young age, on not only delivering healthy choices for children but equipping them with the knowledge to make those choices themselves. We also need to educate on how to cook cost effectively.

‘But from a government perspective, there are some short-term actions. For example, having supermarkets promote healthy choices. They need to encourage the buyer to select healthier choices above those filled with sugar.

‘Another approach that I feel would be hugely helpful for the public would be to improve labelling on packaged foods. Currently, it’s very misleading. Labels such as ‘organic’ suggest the choice is healthy when in fact it’s very high in fat and sugar.

‘We could also introduce a label for foods that are good for our oral health. This is often overlooked but would allow the consumer to identify if a product it healthy when it comes to teeth.’

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Wrong message

James Goolnik is a dentist and founder of Bow Lane Dental. He believes the government need to ‘urgently address’ the imbalance in the affordability of healthy and processed foods.

‘It is great to see steps towards affordable foods,’ he said.

‘However, we need to make sure the foods are nutritious. I’d like to see some buy one get one free offers on fruit and vegetables rather than just ultra-processed foods. Encourage families to try different fruits and vegetables, rather than just apples and peas.

‘Would be good to get meal packs together with recipes cards so they can see how easy and fun it is to cook from fresh. Gets the kids involved in choosing the menu, preparing and cooking the foods. What better start in life can they have than learning to cook with their parents? Over the summer holidays, get the family away from their screens and into the kitchen.’

He added: ‘The delay in the ban on junk food deals also sends the wrong message. We need to ensure healthy food is both readily available and affordable.

‘The Food Foundation’s recent report found healthy foods are nearly three times as expensive per calorie as less healthy foods. The government needs to urgently address this.’

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