Family friendly restaurants: why kids are getting a raw deal

"kids restaurant food"I am a girl who likes her food. My restaurant travels are well-documented on this blog, and I have often turned restaurant critic in an endeavour to give praise and recognition where it’s due. So I’m aghast today at news that most food outlets – yes, including the so-called “family friendly restaurants” – are falling drastically short of providing healthy and interesting children’s meals. So I’m asking for your help.

Family friendly restaurants are giving kids a raw deal

Out to Lunch is a review of children’s food offers across restaurants from high-street chains to celebrity dining venues. Undertaken by kids food brand Organix, and sustainable food charity the Soil Association, the project used a points system to score UK restaurants of their children’s food offer. Chains were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their offering, and a team of 40 families visited and reviewed over 70 establishments from the league table. Based on school and early years nutrition standards, the Soil Association’s accreditation criteria, and the views of 1,000 parents, the study released today has found that:

    • Almost half of restaurants do not offer vegetables or salad with a majority of their children’s main meals.
    • 12 out of the 21 restaurants and pubs have children’s menus dominated by nuggets, burgers and sausages.
    • 10 don’t include a portion of fruit in any of their children’s puddings.
    • Only 11 out of 21 chains were willing to say whether their food was freshly cooked, and where it comes from. Only 4 were making and cooking the majority of their children’s food in the kitchen.
    • Only one chain (Jamie’s Italian) could reliably tell parents where its meat came from.
    • Only 1 offers children’s cutlery as standard.
    • Only 2 chains offer a children’s drinks menu free from added sugar and sweeteners.
    • No-where overtly welcomes breast-feeding mothers.

Jamie’s Italian, Wagamama and Wetherspoon’s ranked highest in a league table – two of my favourites in there – I’ve never been to Wetherspoon’s, probably due to M&D’s perception of it as an “old man’s pub.” Clearly change is afoot, so I’ll be dragging my parents down the pub over the weekend!

"league table of best restaurants for kids food"

Now I’m not an adventurous eater. I do like my chicken nuggets, but then most kids do, in my experience. But that’s not to say that I want to eat them every time I’m out for lunch with my family. My meal of choice at the Alex in Felixstowe, for example, is grilled pork loin, with fries and garlicky green beans. My best ever meal is medium cooked steak with broccoli and carrots. The Bug is more experimental with his food choices – at the age of 9 months he ditched his baby food jar in favour of picking Ginger Chicken Udon off Mummy’s plate. She left Wagamama hungry. His order these days is more likely to include the Chilli Squid, or the Edamame Beans.

"kids food in restaurants"

What winds me up most is when the grown-ups get gorgeous-looking menu options, and we get nuggets, sausages and macaroni cheese. Now I’m not for banning those – my Mum knows all too well that there were days when that was all we’d eat, and for an enjoyable meal out, she was willing to sacrifice nutrition occasionally. But now we’re older, I want more of what they’re having! I just can’t stomach the portion sizes, and Mummy won’t stomach the price! Which is why we were so thrilled to find that Huck’s at Center Parcs would give us half sizes of anything off the standard menu!

The Out to Lunch campaign is calling on all high street restaurants and pubs to:

  1. Offer all young diners the choice of a children’s portion of adult meals.
  2. Serve freshly prepared food, not ready meals.
  3. Offer free water to families on arrival.
  4. Offer children’s cutlery as standard
  5. Make breastfeeding mums feel welcome

Joanna Lewis, Head of Policy at the Soil Association comments:

“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’d expect as an adult. In the wake of horsegate, it also rings alarm bells that only one restaurant knows where its meat comes from.”

This is where you can help. Let’s raise arms against crap food for kids, and get enjoying the cool stuff parents have been munching on while we’ve been chewing a fish finger! Here’s how you do it:

  1. To tell restaurants what you think. The Out to Lunch downloadable Campaign Pack includes a review slip to make is easy for families to leave it behind on the table.
  2. To be vocal and share feedback with family and friends.
  3. To vote with their feet. If a restaurant is not up to scratch, don’t go back.
  4. To support by wearing the ‘I support Out to Lunch’ badge on their Facebook and Twitter profiles. Just save the image from the Organix Facebook page and upload to your profile.
  5. Bloggers and tweeters can use the #OutToLunchUk to discuss the findings of the report.

What do you say? Shall we give them a fight? Or are chicken nuggets your life-saver?

If you’d like to take a review slip next time you go out to lunch with your child, you can download the slip from the Organix Facebook page, or simply copy and print the one below:

"download the Out To Lunch restaurant review slip if you want better kid meals"

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39 Responses to Family friendly restaurants: why kids are getting a raw deal

  1. Mammasaurus says:

    There really does need a an overhaul in the food that restaurants offer to kids. We recently took the kids to a new mexcian restaurant for a change and to try and introduce them to new food and flavour and the kids menu was just chicken and chips, burger and chips. Disappointing stuff!
    Mammasaurus recently posted..Latitude Festival – past and presentMy Profile

  2. Carolin says:

    Gosh that’s shocking. Fast food chains don’t surprise me, but even Jamie’s Italian doesn’t really convince, does it? Really disappointing, I hope restaurants take a good look at this table and make some necessary changes.

    We cook a lot of exotic food and Amy likes new flavours and at 2 years old eats everything from olives to curry or mussels.
    Carolin recently posted..Bristol Foodies Festival 2013 in picturesMy Profile

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I’m not sure why Jamie would be happy with that figure. I imagine he’s looking at his kids menus right now! I had the world’s fussiest eater in GG when she was 2, so that’s why I wouldn’t want to see the nugget/sausage/pizza option disappear, but she now chooses quite happily from an adult menu, so it’s totally possible to wean kids onto healthier and more interesting foods.

  3. Jo Wilcox says:

    I struggle with this too – hate it when the kids meal doesn’t even have a few peas on the side. I find it more difficult as well, because my offspring have a range of food allergies. Proper ones, I might add, not just fussy eating. Dairy and egg affects my eldest’s breathing and results in itchy hives appearing all over his body, kiwi has our youngest visiting A&E and anything nuts or sesame – well, it’s epipens to the ready. So, cheese burgers, pizza and cheesy pasta are not an option. Its even worse with desserts – which all tend to be dairy based – ice-cream, cream, yoghurt etc. I always take my own. I found Harvester to be good recently – they have a help yourself salad bar, and fruit skewers for dessert, but otherwise its a pretty poor show. I simply wouldn’t go to somewhere like Jamie’s with the kids, for fear of other diners getting annoyed with the kids upping and downing, chatterboxing and tendancy to get food everywhere – even over the next table.
    In short – great campaign, I’ll support that one!

    • Helen says:

      Allergies make it even more difficult.
      As regards other diners being upset by children, I think this is just another thing that restaurants have failed to get right. I wrote about Petrichor at the Cavendish Hotel recently, where they are totally happy to accommodate children, and other guests know this. It makes the whole thing feel much more relaxed, so the kids don’t act up as much as they might if we had been feeling stressed about their behaviour. I think a lot of the time it stems from the waiting staff’s attitude to kids. If they don’t get it right, neither do the kids, so neither do other customers. You don’t see continental restaurants with customers complaining about children. Another reason I liked Huck’s was the facilities for children to wander off to a play area throughout the meal – staff-monitored and set apart from the diners so everyone was happy.

  4. I am surprised that Pizza Express isn’t higher up, that’s somewhere I have been a lot with kids.
    Slummy single mummy recently posted..Why I won’t actually miss primary school that much after allMy Profile

    • Helen says:

      Yes, a lot of suprising results in there, including why Jamie Oliver still doesn’t have a great score, even at the top of the table. Hardly what you’d call a standard-bearer!

  5. Mamacook says:

    Interesting Wetherspoons is rated so highly when parents want more food cooked from scratch on site. I don’t think they do? Happy to be corrected if I’m wrong?
    Mamacook recently posted..Sausage Pasta for the Whole FamilyMy Profile

    • Helen says:

      I might ask the folk at Out To Lunch to comment actually as they didn’t give me that specific info. I’m surprised at Wetherspoon too, tbh, though I know they’ve really upped their game recently so who knows?

      • Helen says:

        Here you go, I asked Out to Lunch why Wetherspoons scored more highly, and this is their response:

        Below are the elements that were marked really highly by parents and us. Yes their food was not fresh and it’s an area we’ve asked them to work on, but the fact they served veg with every meal, had lots of healthy options, and fruit on the pudding menu, they performed much better than other chains that had no signs of any greens or fruit on their children’s menu.
        They let the menus do the talking, highlighting that their spuds, ham, ice-cream and sausages are all from the UK.
        There is veg with every meal and lots of fruity options for pudding, even the meals that count towards your 5-a-day are highlighted – one of the best we’ve seen for making healthy eating easy.
        Parents rated Wetherspoons well for their family friendly approach – activities linked to healthy eating were provided and staff treated children well.

  6. Mamacook says:

    Sorry, a second comment. I’d take a bit of an issue with some of the categories. I’d prefer that my son had a freshly made pizza with tomato and mushrooms on in Pizza Express than sausages in cafe rouge. I’d prefer none of the options to have chips with them because I find when my son is eating with other kids he won’t eat the veg if they’ve got chips but will if he’s just eating with me. So having veg in the menu isn’t the only thing.

    Some of these ratings are “we offer this…” but what is the point if parents don’t take that option? How many people actually order fruit in a McDs? The last time I ordered a salad in a burger restaurant, I was looked at like a freak.

    That said, the one place we do eat out a fair amount as I said before is Pizza Express. I would much prefer a healthier pudding option like fruit.
    Mamacook recently posted..The Best SaladsMy Profile

    • Helen says:

      Well then I guess the point is to educate the parents there. I tend to order chips if they eat their veg as well, but I can see why taking kids in a group would cause a problem with that. And you’re right about McDonald’s. Who ever orders the apple and carrot sticks option! To be honest I’d see McD’s as an unhealthy occasional treat rather than a real meal, and I don’t think any amount of change on their menu would encourage me to view it as anything else. Take the point about Pizza Express though – again, I guess it depends on which outlet you’re in as to how fresh and quality the food is.

      Re desserts, I think there is so much scope to add fruit whilst still making it interesting. Fruit kebabs and maple syrup? Strawberry ice-cream sundae, crumbles? Too much chocolate and “ice-cream as an afterthought” desserts.

  7. Sussex Mummy says:

    We obviously take Little Man to McDonalds for a nugget based treat now and then, but I’ve also taken him to Pizza Express where we had a great experience with lovely quality food. We’ve also done well at Smith & Westerns. Frankie & Benny’s is a great place to go too. We went there recently with Nana and he had a lovely breakfast which despite being aimed at children up to 12 – and him not quite 3 yet – he ate pretty much all of. Clearly the sign of good food is a near empty plate.
    My main issue with taking him anywhere to eat apart from McDonalds is the lack of toddler friendly cutlery. Whilst he’s quite confident of his ability to use adult sized cutlery I’m less keen on the idea of being jabbed with it!!
    Sussex Mummy recently posted..Foodie: #Schwartz2in1 RangeMy Profile

    • Helen says:

      We love Frankie and Benny’s too. I think it depends on the outlet, the one in Hatfield can’t do enough to get you what you want, even if it means flexing the menu. I’d never really thought about cutlery before this, but it makes so much sense.

  8. Pinkoddy says:

    I heard this on the radio today actually. I’ve been to Jamie’s Italian on my own, and tbh, it isn’t the kind of place I’d take my children. If you have impeccably well behaved children (as I’m sure you do) then fine, I don’t think it’s right for us – so it would be great if places like McDonalds could creep up the old table a bit. It’s not just the salad and veg options though. When we take the boys out my 9 year old wants things like gammon and has to have an adult meal as the children’s option don’t do them.
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  9. Hmmm… bit of a catch 22. The reason there might be so few non-chip, non-nuggets etc options might be because restaurants find it largely pointless trying to cater for anything else.

    I know loads of parents whose kids are ‘fussy eaters’, but I don’t think I know any whose kids are ‘fussy’ for fresh fruit and veg, non-processed meat products and bottled water. Far and away the most popular choices of the fussy eaters I encounter are nuggits, yoggits and choklits (the three ‘its’), with pizza, burgers, fish fingers and sausages running them a close second. As for drinks – high sugar juices and smoothies, fizzy drinks – either loaded with sugar or (possibly even worse) Aspartame or cartons of squash that offer the worst of all options seem very popular.

    I think you have to look at the bigger picture and ask which came first – limited choices or limited expectations. Given the less than supportive general response to Jamie Oliver’s school dinners campaign (burgers through the bars and packed lunches full of ‘its’) and the sales statistics for convenience/highly processed foods my guess would be that supply and demand are a huge part of the problem.

    My own son, BTW, followed a GF/DF diet from the age of 3, never touched aspartame etc… We rarely had problems finding places to eat out, but we did have to negotiate quite a lot, and if McDonald’s etc were the only options (i.e. a friend’s birthday party) he would take his own home made versions of whatever or the nearest packed lunch equivalent. In the simplest terms, the ‘its’ weren’t options for him, so I took responsibility for making sure those weren’t the only options available and he learned to live with the fact that he couldn’t always eat the same things.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks David, I agree that in many cases the nuggets option is the easiest, and lord knows I’ve taken advantage of it myself often enough. But often I’ve opted for the rubbish stuff simply through lack of choice. I don’t see why a restaurant can’t offer half portions of everything else on the adult menu – it’s not a question of having to buy in/cook food items that won’t be used that way, just offering a decent choice.

  10. Helen says:

    One of our favourite local restaurants offers a half portion of any of their adult meals (at half price too!) I think that really is the best option; they’re happy to omit or add ingredients too to make more child-friendly like a Chicken Caesar Salad but without the anchovies. Small, local often means family-friendly and more flexible.
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  11. I am shocked at the findings! I don’t gave adventurous eaters but probably because I’m not an adventurous cook. They absolutely should have the choice and be given appropriate cutlery to eat it. Astounding!
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  12. Emma says:

    Wagamama’s is my favourite with kids, largely because the food comes out so fast :-)

    We found on holiday that if we ate somewhere where there was no chicken nugget/ burger option the kids would try something new and generally enjoyed it.
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  13. I’m totally shocked that McDonalds is rated higher than Pizza Express; somewhere I’ve taken Bean a lot and enjoyed!

    I do have trouble finding anything decent to feed him while we’re out though, and often don’t bother, opting for some sort of packed lunch instead.

    When I managed a pub (which is owned by the same company as Harvester) I was encouraged not to allow children in to eat, there were no children’s options on the menu, cutlery or drinks. From a business point of view alone it made absolutely no sense to be turning families away to somewhere that would cater for them. And I’ve gotta say I think that that’s the attitude of a lot of places, they don’t want the hassle of having kids running around, disturbing other guests and some make it as unappetising an option as possible to discourage families eating there in the first place and therefore make little or no effort to those that do…

    Not good enough!
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  14. I guess the one I’m most shocked about is Giraffe – we’ve had some delicious, varied and balanced meals there and really enjoyed them. I like the fact that Frankie & Benny’s offer a small and a not so small child portion without having to go up to the full adult plate but all in all, there’s a lot that needs to be done!
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    • Helen says:

      Yes, we’ve always liked Giraffe. It’s worth checking out the Organix facebook page (link in the post) – they’re quite proactive at getting back to you about queries as to why certain places scored high or low.

  15. wow that makes a fascinating read, i’m gobsmacked at some of those stats x
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  16. I have recently shared some of these findings too because when my eldest daughter was little, she wasn’t interested in nuggets and chips, when she wanted fish, rice and vegetables and eating out was a nightmare. I much prefer the option of smaller size portions of the adult meals!
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  17. This is so interesting! I really find with a chain though that it can vary so much from restaurant to restaurant; we have been to an amazing Frankie & Bennies and then a terrible one, same with Pizza Express. I have to say that no kids cutlery really annoys me, my boy usually ends up eating with his fingers as there is no way I would let him wield a full sized fork and knife. Even ones that I’ve seen rated high don’t always really go that extra mile and half sized adult portions would be a brilliant start. My child is an incredibly fussy eater but he actually won’t eat chips/chicken nuggets but he loves fruit, just that bit of extra choice would make a massive difference to eating out as a family.
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    • Helen says:

      It definitely depends on the staff and more importantly the management. I was in pub retail before I had my kids, and the outlets with the great managers, delivered great food and service. Those with poor management didn’t. Simple.

  18. Wow I had no idea, we have a 14mo but rarely eat out, when we do we tend to choose Wagamama but the scores at the top aren’t exactly glowing are they?!
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  19. We took all of our lot to Wetherspoons the other month (I blogged it, it was epic), and we had a really great time. One of the things that really impressed me was that there was proper food on the kids menu – one of mine had ribs and one had a hot dog made with a proper Lancashire Black Spot or something like that. It was genuine food and it was nice :)
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  20. A really interesting post, Helen. When we eat out we always end up going to the same few places that we know will offer children’s portions of the adult menu or fresh food that’s cooked on the premises. My kids are more likely to opt for Spaghetti Carbonara or fish and chips than nuggets and I don’t want to pay for adult portions that I know they won’t eat, either. I also want them to have at least one portion of fruit or veg with their meals too so that’s something I always look for. Shocking yet unsurprising results, if you know what I mean?! Good on you for highlighting an important issue x
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  23. I’m surprised strada didn’t do well. When we were at center parcs we were very happy that the kids got freshly made small portions of proper pasta. Also they offer vegetables and tomato dip (proper tomato not sugary sauce) as a starter which I hardly ever see in other restraunts.
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