I’m going undercover. Somewhere near you, I’ll be there, in sunglasses and a cap pulled low, acting like a Z-list celebrity, only with a clipboard under the table. I’m going undercover for a subject I am passionate about, the food that children eat.
I’m not the only secret agent in town. Across the country, hundreds of parents will be visiting restaurants to check out the food. This is all part of the Soil Association’s Out to Lunch campaign, which provides children with a free meal in return for their parent carrying out a detailed survey of both the meals and service on offer by popular high street restaurants such as Jamie’s Italian and Nandos.
I’ll be looking for healthy choices on the menus, the option to have a reduced size meal from the adults’ menu (children are after all small people rather than another species that requires everything dipped in breadcrumbs and deep fried) and freshly cooked vegetables. In addition, free water should be offered to families on arrival and breastfeeding mothers should be made to feel welcome.
The campaign has been going on since 2013 now and the results so far aren’t too pretty. The majority of venues have menus dominated by the usual suspects such as chicken nuggets, burgers and sausages and nearly half don’t offer a pudding with a portion of fruit it in.
Of course, I’ve eaten plenty of naughty foods in restaurants because it is a special occasion or a treat. This isn’t the fun police saying children must only munch on lettuce leaves. Instead, it’s about addressing the systematic failure to provide good quality ingredients and choice on children’s menus – adults simply wouldn’t eat out if we only ever got offered fish fingers. Where is the creativity and the wonderful flavours that our world has to offer?
Currently top of the Soil Associations league table is Jamie’s Italian and bottom is Burger King. However, before father of four Jamie Oliver pats himself on the back, it is worth noting that Jamie’s Italian still only scores three out of five. There is clearly room for improvement across the board. I’m not sure how much I’m looking forward to eating in the two establishments I have been given, both of which are languishing in the lower reaches of the table.
However, there is hope. Some restaurants have already upped their game in response to the campaign. Earlier this year, both Harvester and Giraffe made improvements such as increasing the amount of healthy food available and providing responsible and traceable sourcing.
The Soil Association have shined a spotlight on the way society condemns children to make unhealthy and unsustainable food choices. If you want to stop this, then always ask questions when you are eating out … where did this meat come from? Is this freshly cooked? Can children have a small adult’s portion? I’d love to hear how you get on and will let you know how the league table changes in October. I’ll also keep you posted on my reviews… we’re visiting Hungry Horse and Zizzi’s.
First published in the EDP and EADT