Get our best content directly in your inbox
Sign up

Government advice for struggling families encourages children to eat ultra-processed foods over holidays, experts say

Young woman with glasses smiling
3 min read
AUTHOR: Molly Long
little girl eating pizza

The Government is pushing children towards ultra-processed foods by encouraging families to take advantage of discounted supermarket café meals, experts have said.

In lieu of the free school meals afforded to low-income families during term time, the Government’s Help for Households campaign recommends supermarket café meal deals.

Several supermarkets are offering reduced-cost meals for children during the summer holidays. This includes Asda, with its “kids eat for £1” offer, and Morrisons, with a similar “kids eat free” with an adult paying customer deal.

While the Government’s Cost-of-Living Tsar David Buttress called this recommendation “a good way to support people over the summer holidays when school meals aren’t available,” several experts have criticised the foods on offer in these supermarket deals.

This comes just a week after the state of children’s nutrition in the UK was laid bare in The Food Foundation’s 2022 Broken Plate report.

Data collected for the report found more than 80% of children born in 2022 who survive to the age of 65 will be overweight or obese.

Professor Greta Defeyter, Founder and Director of the Healthy Living Lab at Northumbria University, analysed supermarket menus and found many of them to be lacking in even basic nutritional requirements for children.

Defeyter told The Guardian: “The majority of these foods are ultra-processed, which have been linked to obesity and cancer. The token nod to vegetables is the serving of peas and one meal being accompanied by a salad.”

Hot meals found at Asda cafés included chicken nuggets, fish fingers and all-day breakfasts. Professor Defeyter’s analysis found only two of the five hot food options included a vegetable or salad side.

Similarly, Morrisons’ café offering included chicken nuggets, fish fingers and sausages – and only one out of five had a vegetable side.

Professor Defeyter’s research previously informed the Government’s holiday food programme. On Twitter, she added: “As it is a government backed scheme I find it difficult to understand why meals on low cost kids menus do not meet the government’s own dietary guidelines.”

Guidelines state that schools must stick to offering ultra-processed meat products only once a week, and include at least one portion of fruit and vegetables a day.

Ultra-processed products are available every day in supermarket meal deals. As for the latter, Asda lists no fruit options with its hot food and though Morrisons does offer a fruit serving, peas accompany just one meal.

Both supermarkets defended their offerings, with Asda saying highlighting the variety of different food options available and Morrisons pointing to the fact it serves a piece of fruit with every meal.

Professor Defeyter said: “The government should not be promoting menus primarily consisting of ultra-processed foods. Families should have quality, nutritious food all year round.

“If charitable organisations delivering the Government’s holiday activity and food programme are expected to provide children with meals that comply to school food standards, why can’t big supermarkets do the same?”

The Government’s national holiday and food programme itself is considered lacking by many campaigners. The schemes are put on by local councils, but only have the funding to run for 16 days out of the total six-week holiday. Only those eligible for free school meals are entitles to attend, and this leaves out an estimated 800,000 schoolchildren currently experiencing poverty.

Barbara Crowther, Children’s Food Campaign Coordinator at food charity Sustain, commented: “Once again, we see the government looking to supermarkets and big businesses to cover up their own failure to ensure all children can access healthy food these summer holidays.”

Many experts argue depriving children of a good education in food is just as damaging as feeding them junk food. Find out why in this Food Matters Live Podcast episode:

Are we teaching kids enough about food?


Related content