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Does 'treat' food always have to be unhealthy?

Does 'treat' food have to be unhealthy?

The UK is in the grip of a childhood obesity epidemic. One in three children is overweight or obese by the time they finish school and the cost of treatment is threatening to bankrupt the NHS. As the Government prepares to launch a childhood obesity strategy later this year, the Soil Association’s Out to Lunch campaign is working with restaurant chains to revamp and revise their children’s menus, transforming children’s food on the high street.

Trick or treat?

We all want to indulge a little when we eat out – a meal in a restaurant can be a treat for all the family – but are popular high street chains providing children with the treat food they deserve?

We published a league table last year, naming and shaming the high street chains guilty of making a quick buck from calorific junk. We named Pizza Hut and Frankie & Benny’s as two of the worst sugar offenders – both chains were promoting unlimited refills of sugary soft drinks to children, tempting little ones to get tanked on the white stuff.

Lunch at Pizza Hut was found to include a potential 44 sugar cubes – 745% of a child of 10’s daily sugar allowance. And at Frankie & Benny’s, as one of our ‘secret diner’ parents commented: “The puddings were all sugar. The drinks were all sugar. The puddings were promoted on the table, like an ice-cream candy shop. I was on my own with three children – what do you think happened next?

Other chains, such as Zizzi and Pizza Express, offered an inflexible 3-course menu that excluded any fruit-based pudding options, while at Carluccio’s parents were hard-pressed to find a single side of veg with any main meal. Twelve chains provided no nutritional information or healthy eating guidance on the menu, and only Jamie’s Italian could reliably tell parents where their meat came from.

These findings will come as no surprise to many parents – 66% of UK parents say that children’s food in high street restaurants isn’t good enough. But does it really matter? Eating out in high street restaurants isn’t a daily occurrence – so what if treat food is junk food?

Habits for life

26,000 children had to have rotten teeth removed in hospital last year and 135 people are having body parts amputated because of diabetes each week. While we typically do not eat in restaurants on a daily basis – only a quarter of our calories are eaten outside the home – popular perceptions of treat food are nevertheless shaped by our experiences on the high street.

For children these experiences are particularly significant – eating habits form early – what we learn to enjoy in our younger years sets the tone throughout our lives. The image of treat food and indulgence promoted by high street chains informs a child’s eating habits and affects their lifelong health.

We believe that our children deserve good grub. The Out to Lunch campaign is working with popular restaurant chains to make healthy, high-quality, creative and appetising meal options more widely available to families, demonstrating that you can eliminate the junk without eliminating the fun of eating out.

More of the good stuff

Strada’s new menu shows how restaurant chains can support children and families to eat well.

The menu includes a side salad as the default option with every main meal, helping children towards their five-a-day; children’s portions of adult meals are on offer, meaning little ones are treated more like grown-ups; there are quality ingredients on the menu, including RSPCA chicken, sustainable fish, and organic juice; children are given the option of choosing fresh fruit for pudding; and fizzy drinks are nowhere to be seen.

When we asked UK parents what they wanted from high street restaurants, they told us they wanted restaurants to make life easier for families to enjoy a healthy treat. Strada is among the chains striving to meet this demand; their new menu considerably boosts their potential standing in the Out to Lunch league table.

Tom James, Operations Director at Strada, said: “As a parent myself, I’ve been thrilled to work alongside the Out to Lunch campaign to deliver a new menu that includes both healthy options and high quality ingredients. We also believe strongly in treating little ones like adults by allowing them to choose from the main menu rather than a token menu, which is out of step with our core offer. 

“We have big ambitions for our children’s menu and will continue to innovate to provide the food our children deserve. At Strada we’re relentlessly committed to what we call 'the good life'; proper wholesome food and drink created from some of the best quality ingredients in the market, and our kids menu perfectly embodies this.” 

Be part of the solution

The scale of the challenge posed by childhood obesity demands a significant shift in our cultural attitudes towards food. Restaurant chains can contribute to this shift by making healthy and high quality meals accessible and affordable for everyone – transforming popular perceptions of a family treat.

Parent power plays an important role in influencing chains to take their children’s menu seriously. We’re inviting you to join the Out to Lunch campaign and become a restaurant critic – the more we ask for what our children deserve, the more restaurants, pubs and cafés will listen and make changes.

Find out how you can become a restaurant critic and support the campaign – download our ‘Family Eating Out Guide’ for free at: https://www.soilassociation.org/better-food/our-campaigns/out-to-lunch/calling-all-parents/

What do you think of kids’ menus? Let @SoilAssociation know using #OutToLunchUK

Rob Percival is the Soil Association Policy Officer for Food and Health. Follow Rob on Twitter.