Children eating out in the UK are being served up a concoction of processed meat from unknown sources and few vegetables, according to a damning new report.
An investigation into children’s meals at 21 high street pub and restaurant chains has revealed that burgers, nuggets and sausages dominated menus at more than half, while many did not offer vegetables or salad with most main course options.
Despite the horsemeat scandal earlier this year, only one chain could reliably say where its meat came from.
The research, part of the Out to Lunch campaign by the Soil Association and baby food manufacturer Organix, includes a league table of restaurants and shows that two thirds of parents think the food on offer is not good enough.
Just four out of the 21 chains surveyed were found to be serving food that was made and cooked on the premises, although only 11 were willing to reveal whether or not their meals were freshly cooked and where they came from.
Menus at all but two of the chains contained drinks with added sugar and sweeteners, while just one offered children’s cutlery as standard and none displayed signs welcoming breast-feeding.
Joanna Lewis, head of policy at the Soil Association, said: “Our investigation reveals that most high street restaurants are not even meeting the most basic standards families should expect when they eat out. Most are still churning out children’s menus dominated by burgers, nuggets and pizzas – turning the table into a battlefield for any parents wanting their child to eat well.
“Restaurants need to raise the bar and listen to parents who are saying they want fresh food not ready meals for their children, and the same kind of variety you would expect as an adult.
“In the wake of horsegate, it also rings alarm bells that only one restaurant knows where its meat comes from.”
Lothian MSP Alison Johnstone, food spokeswoman for the Scottish Greens, also criticised the standard of food being offered to children.
She said: “For most of us a family meal out is a special treat but it’s important the companies that dominate the restaurant scene provide balanced choices.
“The lack of transparency when it comes to whether food is freshly prepared and where it comes from is worrying. Those chains which maintain that attitude are in danger of families voting with their feet and choosing to eat elsewhere.”
A team of 40 families visited more than 70 pubs and restaurants, scoring them on the variety of dishes on offer and the quality of their provision for children. Criteria included whether food was freshly cooked, meat was traceable and free-range eggs and sustainable fish were used, while points were also awarded for the welcome and whether high chairs and children’s cutlery were available. Scoring guidelines were based on school and early-years nutrition standards, good practice advice from the Soil Association’s Food for Life catering mark and the views of 1,000 parents.
Jamie’s Italian, founded by celebrity chef and healthy school meals campaigner Jamie Oliver, came top of the list.
It was the only one where staff could reliably say where its meat had come from, and one of the four where children’s meals were cooked on site.
Children’s dishes at the chain, which has branches in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, include organic meat and sustainable fish and also include salad and a glass of fruit juice.
Wagamama and Wetherspoons were second and third respectively.
Wetherspoons senior food development manager, Jameson Robinson, said: “We serve more than two million children’s meals each year and appreciates the importance of sourcing UK ingredients and offering balanced meals. We know there is more work to do to enhance the menu, including offering varying portion sizes, and we will be working towards this.”
Hard to chew
12 of the 21 restaurant and pub chains surveyed have children’s menus dominated by nuggets, burgers and sausages
8 of the 21 do not include vegetables or salad in the majority of their children’s main meals
10 do not include a portion of fruit in any of their children’s puddings
11 were willing to say if their food was freshly cooked and where it came from. Of the 11,
4 were making and cooking the majority of their children’s food in the kitchen: Jamie’s Italian, Wagamama, Carluccios and Café Rouge
1 chain – Jamie’s Italian – could reliably tell parents where its meat came from
1 offered children’s cutlery as standard
0 had signage welcoming breastfeeding on their premises
2 offered a children’s drinks menu free from added sugar and sweeteners
Laura Stewart: Our recipe for eating out is simple and we’d encourage the big names to give it a try
THE statistics are shocking, we’ve all heard them. One in three children is now overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school.
This, together with the fallout from the horsemeat scandal means it is more important than ever for parents to know what their children are eating, where their food comes from and how it is prepared.
The Out to Lunch league table from the Soil Association and Organix was created with the help of an army of parents from all walks of life determined to put the spotlight on children’s food in high street restaurants.
The results are telling. There is plenty of room to improve and most restaurants are not even meeting the basic standards families should expect when they eat out.
In general, we found that children’s menus are still dominated by the usual suspects: nuggets, burgers, sausages and few fruits or vegetables.
Most of the 21 restaurants surveyed just aren’t making the cut.
Through our Food for Life catering mark we ask that caterers as a minimum prepare 75 per cent of dishes freshly, and school caterers in Scotland are rising to the challenge.
One in five primary schools now carries the mark – which also encourages food that is seasonal, local and higher welfare.
Why do we not expect the same quality of a restaurant meal as we do a school dinner?
Only four of the restaurants surveyed prepare the majority of their meals freshly on site.
We know that children’s eating habits are formed at a young age. The variety, taste and quality of the food they eat has far-reaching effects on their food choices and health later in life.
Restaurants have a key part to play in normalising a healthy diet and good food choices. Forty per cent of parents now eat out with their kids at least once a fortnight and children are influenced by what they see as “treat food” in restaurants.
Two-thirds of parents said the food being served up to their children was not good enough.
We rated restaurants based on what parents told us they care about, and what we would expect from any establishment serving food to children.
The league table shows the current state of play in some of the most popular restaurants on the high street, and clearly, they can all improve their offerings
We have five asks of restaurants and we are really not demanding much; offer children’s portions of adult meals, serve freshly prepared food – not ready meals, offer families free water and children’s cutlery and make breastfeeding mothers welcome.
We are calling on all high street restaurants and pubs to take steps to improve and we will work with those willing to translate our calls into action over the next 12 months and beyond.
We have a toolkit available offering advice and support. We also need parents’ help. We want you, the parents out there, to add your voice to the cause, demand better, tell restaurants what you think, be vocal, ask how fresh your child’s meal is and where it comes from, because you have the right to know.
• Laura Stewart is director of Soil Association Scotland