The restaurant sector has a crucial role to play in tackling the UK’s childhood obesity crisis – and it starts with serving at least two portions of veg per plate. Elly Earls investigates what’s on the menu
Childhood obesity is on the rise in the UK, with 9.3% of four- and five-year-olds and nearly one in five 10- and 11-year-olds classed as obese in 2015-16. But with families eating out on average 1.5 times per week, the restaurant sector is in a position to help turn this round.
As many as one in seven four- to 11-year-olds aren’t even getting a single portion of vegetables each day. Moreover, although kids get 13% of their weekly calories from eating out, only 4% of their vegetable quota comes from restaurant food.
According to the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), this can be evened up by restaurants serving two portions of veg on every child’s plate, which is why the body is calling on the hospitality sector to ‘Feed Children Well’ and help the younger generation establish good eating habits for life.
It’s not just the SRA that’s been working hard to raise awareness of the important role restaurants play in providing good food for children. Since the Soil Association launched its ‘Out to Lunch’ league table in 2013, which ranks high-street restaurant chains on three criteria – healthy eating, ingredient provenance and family dining experience – significant progress has been made.
“We’ve worked with a number of chains to improve their menus and service and more chains are serving a portion of veg or salad with every meal, while fewer chains are offering fizzy drinks or unlimited refills,” says senior policy and campaigns officer Rob Percival.
Other brands continue to go above and beyond the minimum requirements for a healthy meal. When the Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group, which has always offered at least one portion of veg per kids’ dish, started planning its 2017 menus, the team decided to step it up to two portions, as well as introduce a five-a-day lunch box with three portions of veg and two fruit.
“The changes we’ve made to our children’s menu are in line with what we’ve also been doing with the adult menu and both are really just responding to consumer demand,” says Rebecca Bailey-Scott, assistant nutritionist at the Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group. “That means more vegetarian and healthy options on the menu because that’s what our customers are demanding.”
The biggest challenge for restaurants is serving something that kids actually want to eat. As Bailey-Scott stresses: “It’s all very well putting it on the menu, but making sure kids eat it is just as important, if not more so.”
The easiest way to do this is not to offer an unhealthy option. At Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group, for example, the pizza and pasta sauces may look like standard tomato sauce, but they actually include seven vegetables – carrots, spinach, swede, onion, butternut squash, courgette and sweet potato. “Every option on our menu is a healthy option, including the pizza and the burger, so parents can give the children the menu and let them pick what they like,” Bailey-Scott says.
Other operators, such as Lussmans Fish & Grill, have gone down the route of simply serving a smaller version of the adult menu (see panel). “Kids on the whole are quite versatile and what’s good for our adult customers and popular with them usually works well for our younger diners,” says owner Andrei Lussman.
The kids’ menu has two vegetarian dishes and one fish: paella with chargrilled vegetables; halloumi, ricotta, peperonata and lemon thyme ravioli with fresh peas; and a house fishcake with baby spinach and a caper and parsley butter sauce. “All of these have a good helping of veg and are a simple rendition of our main menu,” Lussman explains.
Another technique that’s worked well for many restaurants is making food fun and interactive. For example, at Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group, salad is served in a jam-jar with dressing, which children can add and shake themselves, while the Georgian House hotel offers free-range egg with toast soldiers and bear-shaped pancakes with fruit and yogurt on its children’s breakfast menu.
“Something as simple as cutting toast into the shape of soldiers or making pancakes into the shape of a bear is both cost-effective and adds a fun and engaging element,” says general manager Adam Rowledge.
Menu presentation can also make a big difference, according to Iain Duncan, marketing director at Smashburger UK. “Over and above the expected quizzes and colouring page, we have created menus with push-out, perforated items, such as fresh and cooked meat items and our unique cooking implement, the Smashing Iron,” he explains. “Our menu not only stimulates and amuses children, it also educates them about the unique way we cook our food.”
Kathryn Coury is marketing director at Brasserie Blanc, where dishes for kids include mini charcuterie boards and burgers made from outdoor-reared Cornish beef: “Supporting the menus with attractive and educational materials that keep the younger children entertained throughout the visit makes it a fun place for them to come to, and an easy place to visit for parents – all at relatively low cost.”
Don’t double up
Restaurants certainly don’t have to make a loss out of their kids’ menus, according to award-winning, Michelin-starred chef Tom Aikens, owner of Tom’s Kitchen. “Look at the produce you already use for the à la carte menu and work from there. If you’re using the produce and labour in making the normal à la carte dishes, you should be prepared and equipped enough to make the children’s dishes,” he stresses. Kids’ menu items at Tom’s Kitchen include fishcake, fresh tomato sauce and spinach and mini berry pancakes.
Lussman agrees: “It’s actually more difficult for us to make [different dishes for kids] and it increases wastage. Moreover, by offering smaller versions of the adult menu, we can also cater to the older generation, who often have smaller appetites.”
For Bailey-Scott, there’s no question that restaurant owners who put the effort into kids’ menus will reap the rewards. “If a parent knows they can let their children choose what they want and they’re confident it’s a healthy choice, that’s a big draw,” she says.
Ultimately, the positive impact of making healthy kids’ menus the norm could be even greater. “Just think –if we could teach this generation of children how to eat, we’d solve the obesity crisis for good – because they’d teach their kids and so on,” concludes the SRA’s vice president Prue Leith. “Chefs can really help by wooing them with delicious veg.”
The school caterer’s perspective
At CH&Co’s specialist education caterer the Brookwood Partnership, the team’s highest priority is helping children eat healthily. And while their approach varies widely depending on the age of the child, the starting point is always to make sure menus are nutritious and familiar.
“Restaurants can take some tips from the journey we have been through,” says managing partner Sue Parfett. “The first step is to look at the items that are high in salt, fat and sugar and address these. This can be achieved by cooking the same food but in a healthier way.”
Other simple changes restaurants can implement include immediately giving children a pot of crudites as soon as they sit down and keeping the menu simple.
“My top piece of advice is to put a child’s ‘shoes on’ and understand how children respond to the food they are asked to eat,” Parfett says.
“Younger children like food in appropriate portions, they like uncomplicated food (keep sauces separate) and don’t like ingredients they can’t identify, such as sultanas in apple pie.”
Andrei Lussmann, founder and director, Lussmanns Fish & Grill
A recent survey ranked the UK 29th in a global ‘family friendly’ league table. I’m not sure whether I should be jumping for joy or weeping. You see, I’m quite old-fashioned when it comes to children in restaurants.
We describe ourselves as being family friendly, but that’s definitely not to be confused with child-oriented. As a society, I think we are losing our connection with sitting round the dinner table, talking and enjoying a meal together. Eating at Lussmanns is like coming to eat in my house. I’ve been in restaurants where kids are allowed to get away with murder and that’s not remotely enjoyable for anyone.
Part of my responsibility as a restaurateur is to share my principles with customers, to motivate them and to explain our approach. Serving ethically sourced, nutritious, tasty food that includes plenty of vegetables is a key part of that. Sharing our understanding of the value of food is another critical element. I really don’t think kids should eat for free. Food isn’t free, it has a value and everyone, children included, should understand that.
We have three dishes on our children’s menu: a vegetarian paella, a ravioli with fresh peas, and a house fishcake with baby spinach, caper and parsley butter sauce. All of these have a good helping of veg, and are just a simple rendition of our main menu.
My intention is that children should enjoy tasty, interesting food. In fact, some of our adult customers, particularly some of the older ones, often ask if they can choose from the junior menu – and of course the answer is yes! That’s my definition of family friendly.
It’s why I’ve signed up to the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s Feed Children Well campaign and would urge all responsible restaurateurs to follow suit.
Top tips to encourage families into a restaurant
Make it automatic
If kids aren’t offered an unhealthy option they won’t take it and there are loads of ways to squirrel away vegetables, even in dishes like burgers, pizzas and brownies. Swap chips for sweet potatoes, add extra veggies into sauces or follow the Brookwood Partnership’s example and get creative by offering a veggie-based brownie.
Keep it fun
Not only do dishes need to be both appealing and fun, the added extras are vitally important, too. While Tom’s Kitchen provides a supervised arts and crafts session on Sundays, Brasserie Blanc’s association with children’s cartoon character Henri le Worm has undoubtedly given the brand extra appeal for young diners.
Engage with the kids
As Bar + Block Steakhouse’s brand development and marketing manager Annelise Watson emphasises: “Sometimes kids can also be the biggest critics – that is why all of our hosts always take the time to chat to the children, serve them delicious food and make sure they leave happy.”
For more tips on how to encourage families to dine at your restaurant, the SRA’s ‘Veg Made Good’ toolkit offers help, inspiration and advice on overcoming challenges. Businesses can also sign up to support the SRA’s ‘Feed Children Well’ campaign at www.foodmadegood.org/kidsveg and join the conversation on social media via @FoodMadeGood and #KidsVegOut.