Given the chance, many children will look beyond the staple fare of chicken nuggets and chips. Diane Lane looks at some more exciting additions to children's menus
For any establishment keen to appeal to the lucrative market of families with children, ensuring that the children are fully catered for should be a central part of the business strategy. This doesn't just mean providing appropriate seating and a wide range of soft drinks, but also making sure the food menus offer tempting dishes for small appetites.
"It is important to strike a happy medium with a children's menu," says Hugh Judd, food service project manager for the English Beef and Lamb Executive. "Parents need to feel that their kids are being offered high-quality, healthy food, but the food also needs to appeal to the children themselves.
"Red meat is a valuable source of nutrients for children, and many really enjoy the flavour of beef and lamb, so burgers, meatballs, pies and roasts tend to be popular choices on the children's menu."
Low-fat pork recommended
The virtues of pork are similarly championed by the British Pig Executive (BPEX) which suggests using low-fat and reduced-sodium sausages with high meat content for the popular children's choice of bangers and mash and using pork in a variety of other ways, such as meatballs and stir-fries.
"It is also worth bearing in mind that, when eating out, older children sometimes like to order off the main menu but find the portions too large," says BPEX food service trade manager, Tony Goodger. "There are recipes based on pork mince that are ideal for adult-style meals served in smaller portions."
Judd also points out that providing reassurance to parents on the traceability and the provenance of the ingredients is vital.
In fact, provenance of ingredients is something that captured the imagination of children in St Andrews, Fife, when they became involved in creating a new children's menu for the two-AA-rosette restaurant at the five-star Rufflets Country House Hotel. General manager Stephen Owen had long felt that provision of food for young children eating out was never really given enough attention. "When taking children out to eat you wouldn't even need to see the menu to know what would be on it," he says. "It's always chicken nuggets and tomato soup."
Bearing in mind that restaurateurs do market research to find out what adult customers want, Owen thought he would conduct his own research into what children wanted to eat. He set up a competition aimed at 10-year-olds in local primary schools to create a children's menu with a view to adopting the winning menu for use in the hotel.
Owen found four schools where the teachers were enthusiastic about the competition, as it fitted in with various curriculum requirements.
Local foods investigated
There was much enthusiasm from the children, too, and the exercise prompted them to investigate local foods. Some bought carrots from farm shops and supermarkets and compared them in blind tastings. Another visited a local smokehouse. Classes also visited the hotel and worked with the chef to create home-made pizzas.
"They also did market research among other children about what they'd like to eat and with parents on what they'd pay - for instance, would they pay more for organic food for their children?" says Owen. "The amazing thing is, the winning menu doesn't have a chip in sight. In fact, there's nothing deep-fried on there."
Instead, the children's menu now in operation at Rufflets features starters such as Bugs Bunny's sweet and creamy local carrot soup and Captain Hook's smoked haddock quiche made with locally smoked haddock and Fife eggs. Main courses include mermaid's fish pie - fresh locally caught fish topped with creamy Fife potato - and Scottish lamb curry, a mild curry with coriander and served with rice and a naan. Layered crêpes with seasonal berries sit alongside dark and light chocolate mousse in the dessert section. The menu card itself is designed by the children and features drawings of food and incorporates facts such as "the carrots used in this soup came from about five miles away".
As a result, Owen has seen uptake of the children's menu increase by 9.5% since the introduction of the winning menu just after Easter. Additionally, he has found that more children are being adventurous and trying dishes from the main menu.
Offering healthy option
Health is obviously still high on the agenda when it comes to children's food. Research conducted by Beacon, a purchasing organisation for independent operators, indicates that operators are taking measures to address the issues raised about the health of meals eaten by children outside the home. More than half of the operators questioned said they already offer healthy options for children on the menu, and 27% of those who don't are looking to introduce them.
Spirit Group, the managed house division of Punch Taverns, has responded to the issue of health and children's eating by launching a new children's menu at its Wacky Warehouse venues.
"We take our responsibilities to healthy eating seriously," says head of food Paul Farr. "It is why we have put renewed efforts into improving our menus from a nutritional point of view." The group has reduced the fat and salt content of all the main courses, provided gluten-free meals and flagged up a nutritional table on the menu.
January saw the launch of an Eat Well Feel Good campaign at Butlins resorts nationwide following disappointing feedback on its children's meals last year. The initiative, developed with the help of Brakes, involves highlighting the healthier menu items in all the food outlets on site.
Chips have been taken off the menu for those guests choosing the half-board package, and deep-fried products have given way to oven-baked items. There are low-fat choices and plenty of vegetables.
Healthy menu items are marked as Eat Well Feel Good options, and when children select them they receive stamps in an Eat Well Feel Good passport they are issued with on arrival at the resort. On reaching a total of 15 stamps, the children receive a badge. "The response has been phenomenal," says Gary Johnson, catering and development manager for Bourne Leisure. "So far, 20,000 passports have been completed."
There are plans to extend the initiative next year with the introduction of organic baby food and organic food counters.
For Karen Hasson, who runs South Eastern Education and Library Board Catering Services (SEELB) in Northern Ireland, introducing healthy eating initiatives isn't just a matter of reviewing menus. She explains: "In primary schools we've removed the snack bars and now concentrate on a traditional meal service, offering a choice of main courses and, in some cases, a lunch box special, which includes items like a wrap or panini, yogurt, fruit and a drink."
Fish for students
SEELB is working with suppliers to find products that are not just healthy but will appeal to the students and has found salmon fillets in a wholemeal crumb, supplied by Bernard Matthews Food Service, very popular in trials. "We're very keen to encourage students to eat more fish," says Hasson, "and the salmon fillets have the potential for child appeal."
Not surprisingly, the British Potato Council (BPC) is keen to promote potatoes as an excellent source of low-fat carbohydrate energy for children and suggests jacket potatoes, new potatoes, potato wedges and potato salad as popular children's options.
It has developed an information pack particularly aimed at school caterers to help them establish a jacket potato bar. The pack is available to download from the BPC website at www.potatoesforcaterers.co.uk.