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Children's menus: the best and the worst

July 2003 

It's summertime, and families are setting off for days out and holidays. But what sorts of children's menus are on offer in cafés, restaurants, shops and service stations? The Parents Jury investigates...

Hundreds of members of the Parents Jury have complained to us about the quality of children's menus on offer around the UK. So we asked them to nominate the best and worst children's menus that they had seen. Then a panel of 12 Judges from the Parents Jury examined the menus and gave their verdict. Their responses are quoted on these pages.

Restaurants and cafés

Many restaurants and cafés promote themselves as good places to enjoy a family meal, offering special menus for children. The Posher Nosh Award is for the restaurant or cafe that offers the best food for children.

The winner of the Posher Nosh award

The Yellow River Café offers children a Bento Box selection. The Judges thought that it was an "inspiring menu with an option to taste grown-up food at a smaller price", with foods such as chicken satay and grilled salmon. They also praised inclusion of fruit salad on the pudding menu - very rare! The café provided "a great range of fruit juices" and it was felt that children could "have a healthy … or balanced meal".

Runners-up
The Judges thought that Browns Restaurant offered "proper food" for children with a "decent choice" that was "well priced". They liked the fact that chips were only offered with one of the meals, the menu included inexpensive fruit juices. The only downside was that there was only one vegetarian option and not enough vegetables offered.

Wagamamas came a close third. The parents said the menu was "nutritionally sound" with vegetables a-plenty. One Judge said: "Great to see environmental and ethical business concerns on the Wagamama menu". The lack of child-sized portions, and therefore higher prices, however, meant that this restaurant lost points. We were told that children could share a dish, which is fine as long as you have more than one child and they happen to want the same dish!

Pizza Express also received praise. Parents said that their children enjoyed eating there, but again the lack of child-sized portions was a major downfall because it meant that this was an expensive meal out.

The loser: Nasty Nosh

Garfunkels was criticised by parents for offering "The usual kids' menu - heavily processed… with little nutritional value." There were no fruit or vegetables (only baked beans on the breakfast menu) and most of the foods provided a "mainly fried and unimaginative choice".

Nando's was also criticised by parents especially for its refill policy on fizzy drinks. One parent said, "I've seen kids drink six large cups of fizzy drinks in an hour. It's a sort of help yourself to hyperactivity!" There was no vegetarian option (on the menu submitted), no vegetables and no salad, however one Judge reported that their family had eaten organic beanburgers at one branch of Nando's.

On a positive note, one parent said, "at least they don't use reformed chicken". While Café Uno was thought to have a good range of dishes for children, the judges would have liked to have seen vegetables and salad on offer as side dishes. The Judges were also critical of the fact that the only pudding on offer was ice-cream, and most of the drinks were sugary and fizzy.

Holiday food

Parents report that it is very difficult to find healthy food for children when they are away on holiday - the usual fare is chicken nuggets with chips and beans. However, a few places are making more effort to help parents.

The winner of the Healthy Holiday Food award

Judges thought that the Eden Project's Morocco Redmenu, provided a "good selection" of "uncomplicated dishes", which included fruit and vegetables. They were impressed that the fruit juices were fair trade, and that this restaurant was the only entrant that used locally produced food wherever possible. Parents also commented that the menu offered "A nice range. Its suitability for children and appeal value seem well thought out."

Runner-up

London Zoo's Oasis Cafécame a close second. The Judges thought the café offered a wide variety of choice at good prices with vegetarian options and vegetables. On a negative note, it was thought a shame that the menu included teddy-bear-shaped chicken alongside child-sized portions of adult food. One parent asked, "Have they got one good and one rubbish chef?"

The judges also liked the many juices on offer, although many were disappointed to see the same old additive-laden, low-juice Fruit Shoot drink on offer (Fruit Shoot contains only 10% fruit juice). Parents also thought that the lunchbox option was too expensive at £3.50 and did not provide enough healthy or interesting options.

The loser: Hopeless Holiday Food

The pub chain Wacky Warehousewas slammed by parents for its narrow range of children's foods for children's parties - including chicken nuggets, mini burgers, and cheese & tomato pizza with chips, accompanied by a low-juice drink and ice-cream. The Judges thought this provided very little choice and was expensive at £4.99. "It's disgusting", "Very expensive for food which is little better than McDonald's". "Awful, nothing remotely healthy", "Bog standard children's junk - full of sugar and fat."

The judges also found the Wetherspoons pub 'Tom & Jerry' menu very disappointing. Despite there being some vegetables (peas) on offer, parents particularly disliked the 'turkey dinosaurs' on the menu. They thought that the food was highly processed, the puddings were full of additives. They were also disappointed that there was only one vegetarian option - tomato and cheese pizza and chips.

While there were some positive remarks about Centre Parc's children's menus, overall the parents felt it was dominated by processed foods, including "dippers, fingers, hotdogs, burgers and all the usual kids stuff". While some parents thought this children's food is fine once in a while, they pointed out that if you are on holiday for a week, such food would become repetitive. Plus points included mash offered instead of chips and fruit as a pudding choice.

Snacks while shopping

Whilst some offered hot meals, many supermarkets and department stores tend to offer children's lunchboxes. These are usually a selection of highly processed products with a long shelf-life, and low nutritional quality. The Judges were disappointed with the nutritional quality of food on offer on these menus. Out of the 12 lunchboxes nominated in this category, only four included fruit (either an apple, orange or banana), and none of them offered any vegetables.

The winner of the Healthy Shopping Break Award

The Judges thought that John Lewis should get "recognition for not automatically offering nuggets and chips" and also provided a reasonably healthy lunchbox with fresh fruit on offer. "Hot meals were scaled-down versions of adult food - always better than the kids' food." On the negative side, the drinks were expensive, with apple juice costing £1.85, it was cheaper to go for the less healthy option of Coke at £1.30.

Healthy Runners Up

Waitrose came a close second in this category. The judges thought the hot meals (including meat or vegetable curry, and carbonara) were good, providing children with smaller versions from the adult menu (it also had more than one vegetarian option). They found the fresh fruit juices to be good value too. On the downside the Judges thought the lunch box on offer was the same poor quality as others in this category

The Judges thought Debenhams provided a lot of choice on their lunchbox selection so that a healthy option could be made, however they still thought they contained "too much processed food" and children were likely to go for the unhealthier options! While the hot menu gave a choice of either "golden fishes" , "veggie cheese crunchies" or "turkey dinosaurs" the Judges did give points for offering baked potatoes, roast or new potatoes instead of chips and peas and beans.

The Unhealthy Shopping Break Award

Allders Grub Club was typical of children's food on offer in department stores. Older children could order fish fingers, a "chickstick" or a crispy pancake served with chips and vegetables. However, Judges were most concerned about the lunchbox for children aged 18 months to 5 years old. It contained a Kellogg's Frosties cereal bar, a Kellogg's Fruit Winder jelly sweet, a sandwich, cake and a Robinson's Fruit Shoot drink (10% juice). The food was highly processed and sugary, with "No milk or pure juice", "no fresh fruit". One Judge commented, "unbelievably poor", "obviously no great thought put into it".

Unhealthy Runners Up

British Home Stores came a close second, offering a picnic lunchbox which didn't include any fruit. And a hot menu offering, turkey drummers, turkey twizzlers, chicken nuggets, golden fishies and hotdog (all with chips but no beans or peas!).

Other runners up to the unhealthy shopping break award were: Asda, Littlewoods, Marks and Spencers, Sainsbury's and Tescos.

Judges were unimpressed by the processed foods on offer from these supermarkets and department stores:

"There is a high amount of predictability especially in supermarket … cafes which seem to cater to the lowest common denominator, the best ones are where they offer child sized portions from adult menus."

"All seem much the same - only two offer fruit juice in the lunchbox and only two offer hot foods that aren't fried junk and chips."

"The lunchboxes on offer are rarely healthy options, supermarkets and shops seem to fare the worst"

The Quick Pitstop Award

Meals at motorway service stations were also criticised by parents for offering nugget-and-chips meals and little in the way of healthy food or drinks. Judging menus from Little Chef, Moto and Welcome Break, Moto was deemed the best of a bad lot. Many service stations offered pick'n'mix lunchboxes for children, which one judge thought should be renamed 'junkboxes'.

Overall the Judges felt that service stations could do a lot to improve their children's menus. There was no overall winner in this category - all of the service stations received a thumbs-down from the Jury.

"They're all fairly awful - the children however are happy to eat the stuff. They're often enticed by the free toy. I'd prefer to get and share out an adult meal instead, but they've usually been won over by the freebie before I can achieve that."

You are often tired and not in the mood to complain. Having bad food makes travelling with children even more stressful than it already is."

The best of a bad lot

Moto* provides hot food and a pick'n'mix lunchbox. "This menu is trying at least, but it's achieved with no great effort to sell good food." On the positive side, Moto did provide fresh fruit, raisins and milk and an organic juice drink, was cheaper than the others, and offered fish and pasta on the menus. Moto also provided children's meals without chips.

However, Moto also gave children easy access to lots of chocolate and sweets, and no vegetables were offered with the children's meals. The judges were critical of the pick'n'mix offerings, one said "If you offer children pick-and-mix or hot food, they nearly always want the junk. I would prefer this not to be offered," while another thought "I would have problems finding five items that I would be happy to put in my children's lunchboxes. I do not object to crisps and biscuits, it is the quantity in which they are offered that I object to."

* Note: One parent, after the judging, reported that some Motos sell fruit, salad and yoghurt.

The one's to avoid, if you can...

Welcome Break gets a special mention for offering "The dreaded [Dairylea] Lunchables" with "little nutritional value". Fruit juice was available but was too expensive at £1.85 a shot, one parent pointed out that with four children it would cost over £7 just to buy them fruit juice! Parents were also disappointed not to see any fruit available. The hot dishes were "all processed, high fat junk": sausage, chicken nuggets or fish all with chips and no vegetables. One parent said "They call this the Granary but where's the grain?!"

Little Chef had no vegetarian option and offered pasta with main meals, (hotdogs, chicken nuggets or fish), with chips but no vegetables. It also offered sugary desserts instead of fruit. One judge said that Little Chef provided "No fresh food. Everything is out the freezer and into the fryer or microwave. I bet they haven't got a chopping board in the kitchen."

Since the judging took place we have been contacted by a member of the Parents Jury who told us about an independent service station in Cumbria called Westmorland where they source local produce and provide healthier options for children, including smaller portions from the adult menu and a salad bar.

Its success has been attributed to the fact that it is the only motorway services in Britain with roots and ownership in the local farming community. It's great to see the Westmorland station showing that good local food can be provided at service stations.

A lack of healthy options
Many restaurants, cafes, department stores and service stations were nominated by member of the Parents Jury for the children's menu awards.

Of the 26 finalists, only four offered fresh fruit, and seven had no vegetables or fruit available at all. Often beans were included as the only vegetable option to have with hot meals, these were not labelled as being low salt/sugar.

As one mother commented, "The lack of fresh fruit and vegetables is alarming. Children like to nibble and crudités would have been an easy (and cheap!) option - jelly fruit strips are not fruit!!"

Many outlets didn't offer any vegetarian or vegan options and when they did there was not a good choice: "On the whole, there is a very poor selection of food for vegetarian children and what there is largely based around cheese and/or tomato"

"… it would be good to see organic food options, vegetarian and vegan, wholefoods and fair trade with lots of fruit and veg on menus as well as child portions. "

Parents' comments

"Industry produces visually appealing, highly processed products, suggesting children will only eat vegetables disguised as faces. They have a lot to answer for."


"If parents tasted the food that is available on children's menus I am sure that they wouldn't waste their money on it!"


"The best ones are those which offer child-sized portions from adults' menus."


"How predictable the menus are, and how disappointing. There's very little to excite a child."


"When on holiday and eating out a lot I get tired of fried fatty food, chips and ice-cream which is offered in so many places for children."


"I am not averse to soft drinks and ice-creams but would like to see them in their own wonderful ice cream parlours, to be enjoyed as a treat, and not as an everyday part of a child's diet."


"A shame to see all the usual staples of children's menus - chicken nuggets/animal shaped chicken pieces, etc … It seems obvious that half sized/half priced adult meals could be offered."


Most of the judges, indeed many members of the Parents Jury have said they would like to see "..children … offered smaller portions (and price) of grown up food - No children's menus FULL STOP!"

Drinks
The range of drinks offered by the majority of outlets was disappointing - drinks like cola and lemonade were offered on most menus.

Often where water or juice were on offer, it was more expensive than fizzy drinks, with fizzy drinks being much better value in terms of volume, sometimes with free refills.

One mother (with six children) commented, "Free tap water on demand might be a good starting point."

Another said, "It was disappointing how many places did not offer plain water."

The Panel

The Panel of Judges came from all over the country: From Angus and Glasgow in Scotland, Cardiff, Daventry, Devon, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Trillick in Northern Ireland, to Windsor.

We would like to thank them for all their great comments and the Parents Jury for sharing their views. We will be writing to all of the companies to let them know the Parents Jury verdict.