How do adults define the treats they give to children? A thematic analysis

Claire McCafferty, Liran Christine Shan, Robert Mooney, Claire O'Rourke, L. Kirsty Pourshahidi, Barbara Livingstone, John Kearney, Clare A. Corish, Mimi Tatlow-Golden, Celine Murrin

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One in four children on the Island of Ireland are overweight or obese. The consumption of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods such as snacks, contribute to one fifth of children's calorie intake. However the snack food literature has failed to draw firm conclusions between snack food intake and obesity. Within this literature, the word snack and treat are used interchangeably, inconsistently and in differing contexts, which may explain the poor link between snacks or extra foods, and overweight or obesity. There is currently no academic definition of the word ‘treat’ relevant to an Irish population. Defining how adults perceive the treats they give children is of particular importance in the context of children's diets, and may provide insight into the relative contribution of treats to energy intakes. Using ten focus groups with adult caregivers of children, across the Island of Ireland, this study aimed to investigate treat giving behaviour. This research highlights a paradoxical definition of treats: a treat was identified as an energy-dense food that gave pleasure, was deserved and believed to be infrequent; participants perceived this to be the true definition of treats which was coined “real treats”. However, in reality, treats were given and consumed frequently, downgrading treats status to “regular treats” which reflected their real-life use. Developing the definition of treats for an adult population, may enhance our understanding of why adults give food treats to children, the role this has on the development of eating habits, the design of interventions and communication strategies to reduce the consumption of non-nutritive foods, labelled by adults as treats.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages24
Early online date25 Oct 2018
Publication statusPublished online - 25 Oct 2018


  • Childhood obesity
  • Treats
  • Snacking
  • Health behaviour
  • Reward
  • Food environment
  • Qualitative
  • Nutrition
  • Food choice


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  • Why do adults give food treats to children?

    Murrin, C., Shan, L. C., McCafferty, C., Tatlow-Golden, M., Corish, C., Livingstone, B., Pourshahidi, L. K., Kearney, J., Mooney, R. & O'Rourke, C., Oct 2019, (Published online) Safefood.

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