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Soil Association: does kids’ restaurant food cut the mustard?

Child eating pancakes

Most of us eat out as a treat, but are children getting a raw deal when it comes to the meals they’re offered? In this guest post, Amy of the Soil Association argues that it’s time to shake up kids’ food on the high street.

With parents forking out close to £6 on average every time they buy a children’s meal at our biggest and most popular high street restaurants, many will be surprised to see what little chains like Prezzo and Zizzi offer children.

At the Soil Association we surveyed 21 restaurants for our ‘Out to Lunch’ league table and found that they all had room for improvement. And that’s putting it mildly for the majority.

Restaurant’s kids meals aren’t my cup of tea

I kicked off the investigation early this year by asking 1,000 parents what was important to them when they eat out with their children. They told us that they want to see more meals cooked from scratch in the restaurant, and more choices for children – in the following months I found that even our leading chains aren’t living up to their expectations.

We may have moved away from the ‘everything with chips’ cliché, but for 12 out of 21 chains, meaty meals are still dominated by the usual suspects – coated and reformed meat and fish like nuggets, burgers and sausages and fish fingers.

Just 11 of 21 chains were willing to tell me whether their children’s food was freshly cooked and where it comes from. Of these 11, only four were making and cooking the majority of their food in the kitchen: Jamie’s Italian, Wagamama, Carluccio’s and Café Rouge.

What have restaurants got to hide?

If ingredients aren’t being cooked in the kitchen, where are they cooked? A popular Italian restaurant told us that their roasted vegetables and meatballs are just warmed up in their restaurant, having been cooked offsite. Roasted vegetables? Really?

Then there’s the meat. The team of 40 parents that helped me with the research found that only one chain – Jamie’s Italian – could consistently give a detailed answer when they asked where the meat on the menu comes from. Being told ‘it comes off a van’ or saying it’s ‘pre-packaged’ didn’t cut the mustard.

Parents and health experts agree, children’s meals are in need of shake up.

What the Soil Association wants to change

At the Soil Association, we’re calling on restaurants, pubs and cafes to take five simple steps to improve the food and service they offer children – and we are asking for the help of aunts, uncles, grandmothers, parents, anyone eating out with children, to make them listen.

The first step? We want to see all children given the choice of a child’s portion of adult meals as standard, written on the menu as an option, not just for the few that feel able to ask. Children should be given the same choice, variety, and service as adults, shouldn’t they?

A parent ‘secret diner’ said they left one restaurant feeling ‘like they only cater for children because they have to’. Would any restaurant survive on the high street if they offered the same service to adults? I don’t think so.

Do you agree with the Soil Association and think that high street restaurants should provide better meal options for children?

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is by Amy Leech, Policy Officer at the Soil Association. All opinions expressed here are her own, not necessarily those of Which?


I agree that child portions of “standard dishes” on the menu should be offered – and not just to children. There are other people who may not want, or be able, to eat full-size portions. Or fancy 3 courses, but can’t manage 3 full size dishes. However, much of the cost of a meal is not in the food – it’s labour and overheads – so let’s not complain about the cost: it may not be that much less.
Many restaurants and pubs seem to provide pre-prepared food – bought in meals. Not my idea of an eating-out treat – I can buy those myself and cook them at home. Perhaps Which could look at real-food restaurants, cooked on the premises. It’s time, perhaps, we were more critical of where we choose to eat out?

I like it when pubs give the option of making anything into a kids portion – it allows children to be more adventurous and think about what they really want to eat, and shows that most of it is cooked on the premises too. Sadly, too few do this. Often, the ‘chips with everything’ rule still applies in pubs – and my daughter isn’t that keen on chips anyway!

I also get really annoyed when they do a basic pasta with tomato sauce for a fiver – such a rip-off as it costs about 50p to make – surely they can think of a more interesting pasta option for kids?

Totally agree that chains should make more effort – especially when it comes to making from scratch – but it would be good to do a wider study on how much of ALL their food is cooked on the premises – my bet is that they have improvements to make to their adult menus too.

Doreen says:
10 June 2014

I am a bit late with this comment, almost a year late, but have just noticed the blog. I agree that children should have more choice in pubs and restaurants. Simply offering rubbish like fish fingers, sausages or chicken nuggets to children is an insult. My grandchildren don’t get that stuff at home so why should they be expected to eat it outside. They eat proper home cooked, healthy food at home so why should they be offered only convenience food in restaurants?