A new league table ranking the health of children’s food in 21 of the UK’s most popular restaurant chains has been published by the Soil Association’s Out to Lunch campaign.
It has been two years since the first league table was published and there have been some significant improvements made by a small number of chains, in Scotland and across the UK.
However the Soil Association, working with an army of parent secret diners, has uncovered continuing widespread poor practice with many restaurants failing to serve fresh food or healthy choices.
The campaign found restaurants serving potatoes pre-mashed in Holland, fish fingers pre-cooked in Poland, chicken from Thailand and Brazil, cheese from Australia and New Zealand, and a chicken product with 19 additional ingredients produced variously in Kazakhstan, Russia, Vietnam, Argentina, Malaysia, India, Singapore, Indonesia, China, Ukraine and Slovakia.
Over half the restaurants give no indication of where their food comes from, and only one chain (Jamie’s Italian) could reliably tell parents where their meat comes from.
Three chains still offer children free or discounted refills of high calorie sugary drinks as standard (Café Rouge, Frankie & Benny’s, Pizza Hut). Just two fizzy drinks will see a child stack up 17.5 sugar cubes.
Size of chain does not determine position in the league table. Jamie’s Italian (the smallest chain) and Wetherspoons (the second largest chain) are both in the top 5. Strada (the second smallest chain) and KFC (the third largest chain) are both in the bottom 5.
Despite much continuing bad practice, it is clear that a revolution in kids’ food on the high street is underway. The league table reveals significant positive changes - 10 chains in Scotland are serving a portion of veg or salad with every meal (up from six chains in 2013) and nine chains include information on where ingredients come from on the menu (up from five).
Since launching the campaign in 2013, the Soil Association has been working with participating restaurants to improve children’s menus and as a result of the Out to Lunch campaign, over 5.5 million meals served to children this year include healthier options.
The biggest contributors to these positive changes are larger chains, like Harvester and Prezzo, and also giraffe.
Restaurants have a big role to play in influencing what children think good food looks like – going out used to be seen as a treat, but research2 shows it’s more common now with 40 per cent of parents eating out with their kids at least once a fortnight. Meanwhile, 66 per cent of parents say they don’t think kids’ food in restaurants is good enough.
Angela Mitchell from Soil Association Scotland said: “‘Our 2015 league table includes big winners and big losers - adults expect to be offered real food and real choices in restaurants and we think children deserve the same.
"We’ve found some up-market eateries are designing menus that make healthy eating for children almost impossible, and price is no guarantee of quality - lower cost restaurants are outperforming more expensive chains. Since our first league table Harvester and Prezzo have proved it’s possible to make major improvements – we’re now calling on other restaurants to raise the bar and give our kids the food they deserve.”
Jamie’s Italian topped the table with a great score of 64 out of 80 (up from 50 two years ago), and Prezzo was the biggest climber, moving an impressive 13 places to 6th position. Since 2013 the chain has introduced fresh fruit and an organic fruit lolly for desert, and has prioritised children and family enjoyment with an activity pack that includes activities related to fruit, veg, and healthy eating.
The Soil Association has also launched a new Eating Out Guide for families to help them select which restaurants are best to visit depending on what’s important to them.
Anya Hart Dyke, one of the parents who reviewed restaurants in Scotland said: “It’s pretty stressful taking your child to a restaurant as it is - will there be room for the buggy? Will they have high chairs? Will I get a chance to eat my own meal or have to get take-out again?
"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 astounds me that for example one restaurant offered baked beans heavy with sugar and salt as an alternative accompaniment to vegetables, while the adult menu is often a great deal healthier.”
The campaign also discovered:
· 12 chains offer a fresh fruit pudding but fail to include it as the default option in the meal deal, promoting instead an array of sugar-laden puddings that will quickly blow a child’s daily sugar budget.
· Only at Wagamama is every meal option balanced and only Wagamama provides children’s cutlery as standard.
· The majority of chains are not freshly preparing and cooking the majority of their food in the restaurant.
The Out to Lunch campaign is calling on all high street restaurants, pubs and cafés in Scotland and across the UK to take seven simple steps to improve the service and food they offer children:
· Make water freely available and remove sugary drinks from the menu
· Let children choose from the main menu
· Serve a portion of veg with every meal and fruit-based puddings
· Use quality ingredients such as free range and organic
· Provide children’s cutlery as standard
· Serve freshly prepared food, not ready meals
· Make breast feeding mums feel welcome