Never has children's food been under so much scrutiny. Government concerns over child obesity and a call for a move to more healthy foods for the younger generation have hit the headlines increasingly recently. So it has never been more important to carefully consider your food offering for children.
"Caterers need to recognise the contribution they are making to children's diets," says the Food Commission's Annie Sealy, co-ordinator of the Parents Jury, a panel of more than 1,300 parents seeking to improve the quality of children's food in the UK. "Because children now eat out a lot, this contributes a significant amount of sugar and fat to children's diets. It's important for children to develop their taste-buds to accept fruit and vegetables."
And she is all in favour of offering children similar foods to those presented to adults.
Which is exactly what John Campbell, executive head chef at the Vineyard at Stockcross, does. His children's menu is a simple offering of freshly prepared meals incorporating meat, poultry, fish, vegetables and home-made pasta, with not a burger or spaghetti hoop in sight. "It's important that children are exposed to as many different flavours and textures as possible, so they can learn about food early on," he says.
In the education environment, contract caterer Wilson Vale takes a similar approach at Foremarke Hall, Repton's preparatory school in Derbyshire, where the company caters for more than 400 day-pupils and boarders. "What works with grown-ups, works for kids," says director Andrew Wilson, "so we run our school operations like our other restaurants. We honour our principles of freshly prepared, tasty food, fresh vegetables and good quality, locally sourced meat and bread."
The contract is to provide a seven-days-a-week service, and the brief was to add variety and improve quality. As a result, the menus change every day, and incorporate a blend of the more traditional with the adventurous. "You wouldn't perhaps expect rocket leaves and couscous to be popular options, but they are," says Wilson.
Fruit is presented in different ways to make sure the children get their daily requirement. Wilson explains: "For instance, we might create a fruit coulis with layers of yogurt and cereal, or a fruit kebab for lunch. We are realistic about a child's ability to consume a whole fruit, and have found more success offering it by the piece because it's portable and bite-sized. We also use up any overripe fruit in smoothies."
Manufacturers have taken note that healthy eating has become a particular issue for children. "The Government is increasing awareness of healthy eating and it's going to become more important, gradually influencing schools and educating parents and caterers," says Kate Snow, home economist responsible for children's catering at Marlow Foods, manufacturer of Quorn products.
In recognition of this, supplier Brakes has launched a range of foods for children with lower levels of fat, salt and sugar than their standard equivalents, in some cases by as much as 30%. The products are foods that are popular with children, such as pizzas, sausages, beef burgers and cheese.
And in wholesale distributor 3663's new product development for the education sector, salt, fat and sugar levels are reduced to a minimum and products are tested for suitability for oven-cooking, so the fryer can be avoided. Catering development manager Pamela MacLean says: "As children grow and go to school, parental control inevitably slips away. Whether this is due to availability, peer pressure, or the fact that they can please themselves, depends on each child, so it is important we help by developing healthier products."
Many suppliers and manufacturers are happy to help and advise caterers on what to offer younger diners. Pub group Barracuda, which has 150 outlets accross the UK, enlisted the help of Bernard Matthews Food Service in developing a children's menu to appeal to both children and their parents.
Concentrated mainly in the North-east of England, Barracuda's family-orientated community pubs tend to be located in suburban areas. "Families mean children, and we've concentrated on building a child-friendly food business in these outlets," says Martyn Smith, Barracuda's catering development manager. "It's a matter of weighing up what the kids want and what the parents want. We try to make sure that, as well as offering child-friendly options, all our meals are totally acceptable from the parents' point of view."
Ethnic foods have a place on children's menus, too. Masterfoods, manufacturer of Uncle Ben's sauces, organised a taste test at Eastbury Upper School in Barking, east London, of seven different curries including korma, balti and Madras. About 30 children aged 11-13 were asked to taste them and fill in questionnaires designed to find out whether they were regular curry eaters, then to find out which were the most popular curry styles, and how spicy they found the various curries to be.
The findings were that almost all the children ate curry regularly, mostly home-cooked rather than takeaway, and while korma came out top, the children were happy to tolerate quite high spice levels.
Meanwhile, Tilda Foodservice recently helped Dean Close Senior School in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, to add an Indian twist to its menu for its Taste of India themed day. Catering manager Barry Scott says that the pupils, aged 13-18, enjoyed being adventurous with their food, and that Eastern food is always extremely popular. n
Tips for keeping the kids - and their parents - happy - Parents are becoming more concerned about what their children are eating. Kids, on the other hand, know precisely what they like and dislike, so it's important to find a balance - cook food well, make it look appetising and always use quality products.
Offer two differently sized children's portions. Appetites can vary enormously between boys and girls, and across the ages, so try to accommodate them. Parents will appreciate your understanding.
Bear in mind that children of different age groups have different needs. A 12-year-old may well expect to be treated like a young adult, preferring adult meals portioned down - while a four-year-old will want something colourful and easy to eat.
Think about the difference between boys and girls. Teenage girls are more likely to opt for a vegetarian diet, as this is a common lifestyle choice for them, so ensure that you include plenty of vegetarian meal options that will appeal to them.
After fillets, kids' shapes, burgers and nuggets are the three biggest-selling types of poultry product sold into the catering market, respectively with 11%, 9% and 8% shares of sales. All three have shown growth year on year, the most significant being shapes (27.5%).
Kids' menus don't generally reflect the increasing demand for ethnic foods, although many younger diners are as comfortable eating ethnic foods as traditional foods.
Pizza and pasta are good healthy options, as they contain protein and carbohydrates. Vegetables can be subtly introduced as part of the pizza topping or hidden within the pasta sauce.
Children can have quite limited attention spans, so it's vital to serve them something visually appealing to hold their interest.
Desserts for younger diners should be extremely distinctive, making use of bright colours and original designs, imaginatively presented, perhaps with inventive use of wafers and sweets.
Try to incorporate on your menu photos of dishes such as the colourful desserts mentioned above, in order to promote familiarity and encourage uptake.
Don't make them wait - get the kids' meals out as a priority.
Provide something to occupy children at the table - fun menus or crayons and paper.
Provide high chairs that fit the tables. Booster seats are a bonus, since they reduce the need to move furniture around.
Bernard Matthews 01603 872611
Brakes 0845 606 9090
Daloon Foods 01636 701000
Fairway Foodservice 08451 662366
Food Commission 020 7837 2250
Jus-Rol 01895 201133
Kerry Foodservice 01296 318000
Nestlé 0800 742842
Padley's 0800 085 2749
Plusfood 01892 667155
Marlow Foods 0870 607 0182
Masterfoods 0800 9520011
Schöller 01483 205500 3663 0870 3663 000
Tilda Foodservice 01708 717777
Westler Foods 0800 027 6336
Wilson Vale 01530 563100
Woodward Foodservice 0870 600 6465
Ask yourself… - Are you offering a healthy, balanced meal?
- Are you offering fresh fruit and vegetables?
- Are meals low in salt or sugar?
- Are there children's vegetarian or vegan options?
- Are portions child-sized, and is this reflected in the price?