There’s nothing more fun than eating out with children. Tantrums, meltdowns, cries of “yuk” and upturned bowls - and that’s just the adults.
Which is presumably why 40 per cent of parents eat out with their kids at least once a fortnight, according to new research from the Soil Association, which this week published its annual ‘Out to Lunch’ report into chain restaurants’ offerings for youngsters.
Recruiting a crack reviewing team of hotshot child-and-parent diners, aka greedy volunteers - of which my daughter and I were part - they investigated how child friendly the restaurant chains were the length and breadth of the UK. Most importantly, however, they probed just how healthy the children’s meals on offer really are.
We were tasked with visiting Wahaca - the Mexican street food restaurant chain run by Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers - which ended up a respectable fourth place in the healthy food rankings.
Although Wahaca, which has its only Scottish branch in Edinburgh, is a place I would happily eat without kids, they were geared up to be surprisingly child friendly. There were colouring pencils, a decent children’s menu, and tap water arrived almost as soon as we sat down.
The menu was tasty - build your own beef tacos with lettuce, cheese and guacamole - and the adult food was a treat too, which always helps.
Our other assignment, however, was TGI Fridays, which was rated at the other end of the scale in the Soil Association’s report. It was easy to see why. Music blaring, free refills of fizzy drinks on offer everywhere she turned, it was almost too much for my five-year-old who, bizarrely considering she had been looking forward to what she called the “unhealthy food restaurant” for weeks - dreamily planning the giant burger and huge ice cream she was going to consume - had a change of heart at the last minute, opting for the more moderate menu choice of tomato pasta.
Her eyes nearly popped out of her head when she saw the drinks a boy was consuming at the next table - not very much older than her - featuring multiple scoops of ice cream the size of his head, topped off by layers of sweet sauce, which he consumed alongside his lunch of burger and chips - and then went on to order dessert.
TGI’s was not the only restaurant to offer “bottomless” fizzy drinks, while limitless ice cream machines were also on offer at some of the restaurants. At the Hungry Horse chain, one pudding alone which was deemed to be aimed at children was found to include 78g of sugar, over 400 per cent of a child’s daily sugar allowance.
In some restaurants, the report found, children’s meals were found to include additives linked to hyperactivity, additives made from insects, and flavour-enhancer MSG.
A survey out this week from STV showed that the majority of Scots would back a ban on junk food advertising before the 9pm watershed. Such a ruling would add on to the existing regulations which ban advertisers from publicising foods high in fat and sugar during programmes which are aimed at children - or for which children make up 25 per cent of the audience.
But whatever parents, or broadcasters, do at home, trying to maintain a lifestyle of healthy eating is nigh on impossible when the “fun” places outside of the house - from the restaurant where they grab a bite before a film to the school canteen where they eat while chatting to their friends - champion such unhealthy wares.
Things are improving. Little by little, the Soil Association’s campaign is chipping away at restaurant chains to improve their offering. There are 13 chains now serving a portion of veg or salad with every meal - up from just six when the annual report was first launched in 2013. Meanwhile, there are 12 chains which include organic ingredients on the menu - up from four chains four years ago.
As a result of this year’s report, thankfully, even TGI Fridays has pledged to improve its act. Along with Pizza Hut, it has committed to discontinuing free refills of sugary drinks by March 2018. Both chains have also committed to including calorie information on the children’s menu.
Harvester, Café Rouge and TGI Fridays have also committed to offering puddings in a healthier portion size by March 2018.
However while restaurant meals are undeniably an optional luxury and could be avoided by the most health conscious parents, school meals cannot.
I have written before about the poor choices on offer at both primary and secondary schools in Scotland. While menus seem to be improving, slightly - pink milk is off the menu in many a primary school these days - there is still too little of the good stuff, the lean protein and vegetables, in what is going into our children’s mouths.
Meanwhile, we have a perception problem - that unhealthy foods are not just an occasional treat, but a daily occurrence - which is engrained in Scottish society.
While many schools, my daughter’s included, appear to be telling children it is acceptable to eat both pizza and burgers for lunch in the same week - washed down with a giant slice of cake and custard - what hope do their class teachers have in promoting the healthy eating message which is part of the Curriculum for Excellence?
Reports like this allow parents to make informed choices about where they choose to take their children to eat. Thankfully, meal price does not determine where chains are scoring in the league table, so it does not have to be a decision made purely by those who can afford the pricier chains: the average meal price at the top five chains, which include Wetherspoons and Beefeater, is cheaper than at the bottom five.
Keeping pressure on food manufacturers and restaurants, as well as closer to home at school - as well as making sure we are making healthy choices at the dining table - is the least our children deserve. Our generation of Scots is still known as the sick man of Europe - let’s not let our children’s be the same.