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A revolution in children's high street food

A revolution in children's food

Two years ago the Out to Lunch campaign recruited a small army of ‘secret diner’ parents to find out what the nation's high street restaurants were serving up to our youngsters. The response from parents was emphatic: "these restaurants would go out of business if they treated their grown-up guests the same."

We surveyed 21 chains and found that none were making the grade. We found menus dominated by the usual suspects - nuggets, burgers, fish fingers - plates lacking colour and creativity, and a scarcity of tasty fruit-based pudding options. Staff failed to really cater for kids (let alone speak to them), offering takeaway teaspoons as 'kid's cutlery' and one-size-fits-all portions regardless of age or appetite.

Two years on – has anything changed?

After two years of meeting with chains and working tirelessly to promote the plight of children’s food on the high street, we’re launching a new Out to Lunch league table today.

The league table reveals significant successes: more chains are serving a portion of veg or salad with every meal, more chains include information on where ingredients come from on the menu, and a small group of chains have significantly improved their children’s offer. Despite much bad practice, it is clear that a revolution in children’s food on the high street is underway.

Jamie’s Italian, Harvester, giraffe, and Prezzo have significantly developed their menus in response to our campaign. Prezzo now offers fresh fruit and an organic lolly for pudding; giraffe has ditched the chips and switched to free-range egg; Harvester has swapped sugary drinks for no added sugar options; and Jamie’s Italian is using more seasonal produce and now offers two portion sizes for smaller and larger appetites.

Collectively these chains serve over 5.5 million meals each year – these restaurants are showing that it’s possible to make major improvements and give kids the food and service they deserve.

But we still have work to do

Our investigation also uncovered some concerning practices. We found that few chains are freshly preparing and cooking the majority of their meals in the restaurant, and parents would be shocked if they knew where some of the ingredients their kids were eating had been produced and prepared.

In the course of our investigation we found potatoes pre-mashed in Holland, fish finger pre-cooked in Poland, chicken from Thailand and Brazil, and cheese from Australia and New Zealand.

Only one chain offered children’s cutlery to families, and we found menus dripping with sugar. Three chains offered free or discount refills of sugary soft drinks, while others failed to offer a fruit-based pudding. In many cases, restaurants failed to provide parents with any guidance on the menu to support them to make the healthy choice. 

The Out to Lunch campaign is having a significant impact, but we still have a long way to go before children and families are provided with the food and service they deserve.

Calling all parents!

The power is in your hands – the more we ask for what our children deserve, the more restaurants, pubs and cafés will listen and make changes.

We’ve teamed up with our friends at Eat your Veg to produce a ‘Family Eating Out Guide’. 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.

Out to Lunch is transforming children’s food on the high street – and you can be a part of this. We’re inviting you to join the revolution.

The ‘Family Eating Out Guide’ can be downloaded for free here.

Rob is Policy Officer for Food & Health at the Soil Association.

What do you think of kid's menus? Let @SoilAssociation know using #OutToLunchUK