What are we feeding our children?

The children’s food on offer in the UK’s biggest family restaurant and pub chains is a national embarrassment, says Jo Lewis

The Soil Association recently joined forces with babyfood company Organix and a small army of ‘secret diner’ families to investigate 21 of the biggest chains and rank them in a league table, published today as part of our ‘Out to Lunch’ campaign. Nuggets, burgers and pizza still dominate the majority of children’s menus, and shockingly, 8 out of the 21 chains offer no portions of veg in most of their children’s meals – and half don’t include a portion of fruit in any of their puddings on offer.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Jamie’s Italian tops the rankings and Burger King is found in the bottom spot, but beyond that, average meal price was no guide to where chains appeared in the rankings. To prove this point, Wetherspoons is up there in third place, while the more expensive options – Zizzi, Giraffe and Brewer’s Fayre – were all in the bottom half of the rankings. Not the result diners would necessarily expect.

The Government’ School Food Plan recently highlighted that nearly 20% of children are now obese by the time they leave primary school, but is improving children’s diets just a job for schools? Restaurants are often quick to say it’s not their responsibility: they’re in the business of serving up the occasional treat and giving parents and children what they want on those occasions. That argument is starting to look thin: over 40% of parents told us they eat out with their kids at least once a fortnight and 66% of parents say the food for children just isn’t good enough and doesn’t tick the right boxes.

Shockingly, in the wake of Horsegate, only one of the chains – Jamie’s Italian – could reliably tell parents where their meat comes from, which is all the more worrying when you grasp that ready meals – not freshly prepared food – is the norm. Parents expect to be cooked for when they eat out but only 11 of the chains were willing to tell us what they were cooking on site and of those, only 4 – Carluccios, Jamie’s Italian, Wagamama and Café Rouge – could confirm they are making and cooking the majority of food on site.

Interestingly, a draft consumer law is currently being proposed in France that would remove the label ‘restaurant’ from any eating house that was only reheating ready meals. In the light of these findings, maybe the UK should be following suit? After all, the Oxford dictionary definition of ‘restaurant’ is “a place where people pay to sit and eat meals that are cooked and served on the premises”.

So what else needs to change? Parents and child health experts alike are backing the campaign’s call for children to be offered child’s portions of the meals on the adult menu. Only Carluccio’s is currently doing this. A recent University of Edinburgh study confirmed that when children eat ‘separate food’ it is invariably more calorie dense and nutrient poor than if they were eating adult meals. Why not take another leaf out of the book of the Continent and do away with children’s menus altogether?

The Out to Lunch campaign is also calling for parents to be spared the battle over fizzy drinks by offering all families free tap water on arrival, made tempting with colourful cups and straws. And finally, for children’s cutlery to be readily available – only one of the chains, Harvesters, currently does this – so that parents no longer have to watch their toddlers struggling with knives and forks the length of their arms. Restaurants claim that parents would steal children’s cutlery – but doesn’t that just speak volumes about its rarity value? Would many people think to steal adult cutlery?

As the summer holidays get underway, we’re turning parents into secret restaurant critics with our campaign pack, available to download which gives them review slips they can leave in the restaurants when they pay their bill. A number of the chains have indicated a willingness to make changes, but for the less willing, maybe a good strong dose of parent power will move them. We intend to supply it.

 Jo Lewis is head of policy at the Soil Association 

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