A secret diner's perspective
It can be pretty stressful taking a young child to a restaurant. My daughter is 17 months old so I’m always wondering if there’ll be room for the buggy, if they’ll have high chairs, if I’ll get a chance to eat my own meal or have to get a doggy bag. The last thing you expect to worry about is the food.
What I feed my child is the single-most important consideration for me as a parent, after keeping her safe. It astounded me that one of the restaurants I visited offered sugar- and salt-heavy baked beans as an alternative accompaniment to vegetables. Adults don’t have this choice so why do children? It also makes it really hard to mirror the good eating habits you’re cultivating at home when the dessert menu is basically a series of glossy pictures of ice-creams with a fruit salad option buried at the bottom.
Some restaurant chains are locked into thinking that children want burgers; that a treat, which eating out is, is necessarily unhealthy. There are many ways to make eating out a special occasion. It’s about the experience as much as the food itself, so restaurants should be innovative and fun when thinking about how children choose their meals and how they are presented.
Last week the Soil Association launched their Family Eating Out Guide as part of the Out to Lunch campaign. This is designed to help you as a parent to choose which restaurant to eat in and understand what is important to you when making the decision. The Guide includes tips on how to ensure that your kids eat a healthy, balanced meal once you are in the restaurant, and guidance on how you can become a restaurant critic and influence high street chains to give a better service to your children.
At the launch event, one of the chains visited by secret diners for Out to Lunch said; “How do we stay in touch with what parents want? We got it wrong two and a half years ago, as shown by our low ranking in the Soil Association’s 2013 League Table. That was a lightbulb moment for us.”
The Soil Association is calling for all parents to drive this forward. It really is up to the customer to tell these chains what we want from them! I’d encourage parents to use the Family Eating Out Guide and tell restaurants what we really think of the food and service on offer. By supporting those businesses that are making headway with nutritious and responsibly-produced food for children, and leaving critical feedback for those that aren’t, we’re sending them the right message. Be sure to tell your waiter if you’ve used the Guide.
You might also find a website I launched in September a useful tool. AsktheQ supports consumers, as parents or otherwise, to make informed choices about the businesses they support. AsktheQ empowers customers to engage with company management about what they want from them. Food is a big one, but the initiative covers other purchases too such as clothes, electronics and toiletries. It encourages us all to engage with the businesses we support on a daily basis, simply by asking questions about the wider social and environmental impacts of the amazing array of consumables at our fingertips. This includes our and our children’s health.
Download the Family Eating Out Guide for free here.
Anya Hart Dyke is a freelance sustainability professional, and Founder of AsktheQ