BUSY mum Leigh Bishop was sure she was giving her young children the best, with plenty of fresh fruit and healthy snacks to tempt little tastebuds and keep their tummies full.
Her own health problems had left her fighting life-threatening pneumonia – she knew better than most how important it is to eat healthily.
But while Alex, seven, and twins Ava and Amelia, two, used to enjoy their snacks – bananas and grapes were a favourite – today the family’s diet has undergone a major change.
The mum-of-three was encouraged to rethink the family’s meals and snacks after a few sessions of Food for Thought, a healthy eating programme run at her local primary school.
Set over six weeks and organised by a dietician, the programme offered a mix of practical cooking skills with information on food-related issues. It even tackled the kinds of dilemmas that many families face on a day-to-day basis – from how to spot unhealthy processed foods laden with salt to portion control.
For Leigh, the biggest surprise was finding out how the healthy food she thought she was giving her children, might not be as good for them after all.
“I hadn’t given much thought to portion sizes,” she explains. “I thought what I was giving them was fine. But it wasn’t fine at all.
“I was giving the children a whole banana, for example. But the dietician pointed out that the children are still just little and there is so much sugar in a banana – so much, it’s unbelievable. I was giving them more than they needed.
“It’s the same with grapes,” adds Leigh, who took part in the programme at Broomhouse Primary School.
“I thought giving them a handful of grapes was good for them. Now I know they only need enough to sit in the palm of their hand, not a punnet between them.”
The programme runs across schools in the south-west of Edinburgh and is part of the Scottish Government’s new Eat Better Feel Better strategy, devised to help Scotland’s families make better food choices.
Backed by a lively website offering food ideas and advice, the programme also provides access to a range of cooking courses and healthy eating advice sessions at venues across Scotland, many of them in Edinburgh.
Leigh went along to the Broomhouse Food for Thought project sure that she was managing just fine, but open to fresh ideas to boost her family’s diet. What she didn’t expect was to find herself questioning just how much she really knew about the food she was giving her children.
“There are so many different messages about what to eat, that people get confused,” says Leigh. “It’s not that people don’t want to give their children food that’s good for them, but quite often there’s a lack of knowledge.
“And I found that while I thought I was giving the children good things, it could have been better.”
The Food for Thought project helped guide her through a maze of food information and transformed her approach to the kinds of food and drink she gives her family – even down to how many glasses of orange juice they drink.
“It’s something you do automatically because you think it’s quite healthy. But when you think that nine oranges can go into making just one glass of juice and how much sugar there is in it, it becomes obvious that it’s not going to be as good as you think.
“There’s so much sugar, it means their pancreas is forced to overwork and that puts them at risk of type 2 diabetes.”
Caring for her children’s health is vitally important to the young mum, as she knows how precious good health is.
A blood condition means Leigh has a very poor immune system, leaving her open to serious infections. And when one chest infection developed into life threatening pneumonia last April, she decided she had to take a careful look at the food she and her family ate.
“I wanted to change my ways,” she explains. “I realised I had nearly died and that I would have to try to eat better to boost my own immune system and to make sure the children stay healthy.”
The Food for Thought project not only revealed hidden dangers in foods which she had thought were good, chatting to the dietician also showed Leigh that her own health could be improved by subtle changes.
“I had my spleen removed a while ago but I’d never been told that I should adjust my diet.
“The dietician said that too much sugar could lower my immune system and that eating more greens would help.”
The course helped Leigh learn more about the damaging effects of salt and sugar, and also worked to build her knowledge of the foods which can be good mood boosters.
And while she was never one for turning to instant processed meals, Leigh also picked up lots of tips to help her produce sauces stuffed with “hidden” vegetables to encourage her children to tuck into their five-a-day.
Eggs now feature heavily in the children’s diet, while bananas and grapes have been swapped for blueberries and raspberries, and snack time now features healthier crackers.
Portion sizes have shrunk to more appropriate sizes, and Leigh has learned to buy only what she needs, reducing her food waste.
The Government’s Eat Better, Feel Better campaign is aimed at encouraging families to rethink how they shop, cook and eat against a backdrop of tight household budgets, pressure on time and fussy eaters.
“For a long time I thought our diet was quite healthy but after a conversation with the dietician I realised we could be eating better,” she adds.
“I think lack of knowledge played a big part in this and that’s why I thought I would give the Food for Thought course a try.
“The course was great as it not only gave me great advice but it also delivered practical sessions and gave me ideas of things I could do at home.
“Now we don’t eat as much sugar and salt in our meals and I try and plan ahead for our meals for the week, which helps with things like reducing fruit and veg wastage.
“The kids are fussy so we are taking it day by day with them, getting them to try new things when we can.
“Food For Thought has really helped give me a new perspective on eating which I hope can continue into the future.”
The Scottish Government’s Eat Better Feel Better project is aimed at encouraging families to examine their food choices with a view to eating healthier, cutting down on waste and getting best value for their money.
As well as a website offering handy hints, recipes and ideas for healthier living, there are links to various projects like Food for Thought, which provide access to dieticians, cooking lessons and advice to families.
They include Canny Families, a city-wide programme which works with Citizens Advice Edinburgh and Changeworks to support families with children to better manage food costs and maximise income. And also Health All Round, which supports families in Gorgie, Dalry, Saughton and Stenhouse.