Getting children's favourites on the menu

14 March 2007 by
Getting children's favourites on the menu

How can restaurant operators offer kids healthy options that they're prepared to try and likely to enjoy? Three cheffing dads give us their views and offer some recipe ideas. Amanda Afiya reports

Hardly a week goes by without concern being aired about the diets of our children. But while nutritionists will rightly tell us what children should be eating, industry operators are left trying to find a happy medium between what's good for children and what they're really prepared to eat.

There's no questioning the fact that a healthy diet is vital for children's growth and development, but dietary surveys will confirm that foods most commonly eaten by children are the bad ones - biscuits, savoury snacks, chips, chocolate and fizzy drinks. Getting the Government's recommended five fruit and vegetables into our kids' stomachs remains a challenge for the average parent and those with restaurants aimed at this sector of the market.

Earlier this month, we pulled together three cheffing dads and their children to trial a selection of fun food cleverly blended with fruit and vegetables. The three dads in question - Alan Bird of celebrity hang-out the Ivy in London Rob Kirby, chef-director of Lexington Catering and Stephen Carter of London club Boodles - all members of the Academy of Culinary Arts and active in the association's Adopt-a-School scheme, explained the difficulties they faced as parents when eating out with their children.

"When we think of children's food in this country we tend to slip into a coma when offered the same old fare," Bird said. "Chicken dinosaurs, smiley faces, whale-shaped fish fingers and, of course, frozen burgers. Then, the vegetables - just a choice of baked beans or peas. There are too many processed foods and not enough fresh alternatives."

Bird feels there's a general lack of imagination when it comes to offering kids a decent, healthy choice. "Give children a better-quality product and they will eat it," he said, "such as fresh, oven-baked haddock or ripe, in-season fruit instead of a strawberry in December."

Carter agreed that a lot of operators lacked creative thought when planning children's meals. He said: "It is not difficult to come up with a few funky ideas and I think children get a raw deal in restaurants because they are a minority customer. But they are future customers, so it's crazy not to look after them."

Surprisingly, few restaurants offer children a broad range of vegetables and fresh fruit. "I think chefs have a duty to offer their customers a choice - and children are no different," Bird continued. "But you can't preach to kids as to what they eat - they'll just rebel. However, I think it's important that you offer them the facts about ingredients and where they come from. They can easily decide whether they like something or not."

Kirby believes there's nothing wrong in making food fun for children, particularly toddlers, but it's worth noting that children over the age of six are going to be less enamoured of smiley potato faces. All three chefs agreed there was currently a gulf between toddler food and adult portions.

"All menus should do a small version of all main courses at a reduced price. There's a real need to educate children as early as possible, as they do in Europe," Kirby said.

He believes the easiest route for operators is to offer smaller portions of the main menu to children, fresh, seasonal, local produce is a must, and he encourages chefs to consider tapas for children. "Tapas are ideal for children," he said. "If every single restaurant just thought about serving ‘children's tapas' (such as tapas-styled portions of international cuisine), that would be great."

Carter said Britons seemed to be reluctant to take their children into fine-dining restaurants and it was an issue parents had to get over as children needed their horizons and palates to be broadened.

At the Ivy, Bird offers the same food to children as he does to adults. "We've never offered a ‘children's menu', but I'm often asked to cook plain pasta or mini-burgers, fish and chips or shepherd's pie - which is never a problem," he said.

More adventurous

Bird suggested that parents often didn't let their kids try foods because they didn't like them themselves. He urged parents to be more adventurous with their children's food and choice of places to dine in.

"They try to be different or adventurous when thinking of new places to take their children for activities or to keep them fit, so why not experiment with their food and diet, too?" he said, adding that his eldest son Edward, six, was eating chicken curry by the age of three.

Many parents believe that making a child eat what's in front of them, as in the good old days, is the way forward, but our chefs believe this "eat what you're given" approach can be counterproductive.

"If you police children's food or tell them what to eat all the time, they will generally do the opposite," Kirby commented. "Promotion of food in a positive way is the way forward. We ask restaurants to take responsibility in educating and inspiring our children to eat great food - and they do have a role to play - but it still has to come from the heart of the home at a very early age.

"We have to make changes to our lifestyle, for example take our children to walk around Borough market, and go into schools to create a real children's food culture in this country."


Edward Bird

  • Dad Alan Bird, the Ivy, London
  • Age Six
  • Favourite food Tomatoes
  • Favourite restaurant The Ivy, London, and Daphne's, Barbados
  • What would you like to see on restaurant menus? Freshly made ham and tomato pizza
  • What did you enjoy eating today? Mango, strawberry and marshmallow kebabs

Jasper Kirby

  • Dad Rob Kirby, Lexington Catering
  • Age Eight
  • Favourite food Sausages
  • Favourite restaurant Abaco, Bluewater, Kent (tapas-style)
  • What did you enjoy eating today? Mango, strawberry and marshmallow kebabs

Imani Sadiq

  • Age Seven
  • Favourite food Spaghetti and tomato sauce
  • Favourite restaurant Nando's
  • What did you enjoy eating today? Apple and berry jelly

Tabitha Kirby

  • Dad Rob Kirby
  • Age Nine
  • Favourite food Chicken and chips, mussels and spider crab
  • Favourite restaurant Yo! Sushi
  • What did you enjoy eating today? Chicken goujons and apple and berry jelly

Liam Carter

  • Dad Stephen Carter, Boodles, London
  • Age 11
  • Favourite food Spaghetti bolognese
  • Favourite restaurant The Outback, Romford
  • What did you enjoy eating today? Chicken goujons

View all chef jobs on Caterersearchjobs here >>


Alan Bird's home-made tomato sauce >>

Rob Kirby's lamb and apricot kofte >>

Rob Kirby's Chegworth Valley apple and berry jelly >>

Stephen Carter's flapjacks with white chocolate, apple and apricot >>

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