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Kids' restaurant menus: does it have to be chips with everything?

Sue Quinn, guardian.co.uk, Modified: May 20, 2013 12:15 IST

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Kids' restaurant menus: does it have to be chips with everything? Studies have shown that children who eat the same food as adults are healthier. It's time to wave goodbye to chicken nuggets and pizzas.

Nothing is certain but death and taxes. And chicken nuggets on children's menus. For a nation glittering with awards for the quality of its restaurants, there's a decided lack of sparkle when it comes to bills of fare for junior. Breadcrumbed bits, burgers, pasta, pizza, macaroni cheese and bangers all dominate - it's groundhog day out there. And now, researchers from the University of Edinburgh have found that kids who eat the same food as adults are healthier. So isn't it time to wave bye-byes to cartes for kiddies?

The Scottish study chimes with research by the US Centre for Science in the Public Interest (pdf), which discovered that obesity is being dished up at most restaurant chains, with 97% failing to meet expert nutrition standards for children's meals. So what are kids being offered in the UK?

I spend many a pleasant hour drooling over restaurant menus but, picking through the children's offerings of British food chains, I felt my taste buds starting to wither. What a dull old landscape it is in kid-food land: processed nuggets and fish fingers, mini burgers and pizzas, pasta with vapid sauces, chips. And lots of carrot sticks plonked on the side as a nod to healthy eating. Most of it falls into the category of what food writer Joanna Blythman describes as the "ghetto" of mass-produced, highly refined, additive-filled "children's food".

There are some exceptions. My kids like Wagamama's options (pdf) (vaguely adventurous noodles, ramen and curry) and Nando's (for spicy grilled chicken or vegetables and a good selection of veggie sides). But overall they find kids' menus an unappetising let-down. And in many cases, the food is more than simply disappointing. Most restaurants don't provide nutritional information about their children's meals but some do - and it's an eye-opener. Chicken nuggets, chips and beans at Wetherspoons ,for example, contains a whopping 700 calories (almost 40% of a child's recommended daily calorie intake and 80% of their guideline daily amount (GDA) of salt.

Sadly, uninspiring kids' menus are not just the preserve of mass-market chains. While mum and dad feast on delicious roasts and braises at Gordon Ramsay's Savoy Grill, kids are offered this barely legible little selection (pdf). Jamie must have been at a low ebb when the kids' selection on his menu was devised for Jamie's Italian. Or how about beans on toast at this luxe country house hotel (pdf) (£6.50, no less). If chefs want to offer kids their own bill of fare, surely they can do better than this?

As a parent, I'm familiar with the warm embrace of the kids' menu: a safe and less expensive option, smaller portions. At the same time, I worry that these menus of dumbed-down food enable picky eating habits and discourage children from trying wonderful new tastes. Do kids' menus have to be the culinary equivalent of painting a room magnolia?

Henry Dimbleby, who runs the healthy fast-food chain Leon and was appointed by the government to review school meals, believes there is a place for children's menus but says pint-sized diners deserve better. "All of our research shows that children love having their own menu," he says. "It is a really good opportunity for restaurants to do something imaginative and entertaining. It doesn't have to be too out there, but they deserve better than a culinary desert of chicken nuggets."

But food blogger and parenting author Liat Hughes Joshi says restaurants need to fundamentally rethink their approach. "I despair at the lack of imagination in kids' menus in many restaurants," she says. "When we're tucking into a fabulous piece of fish and my son's getting nuggets, his heart sinks and I don't blame him." She's started a No More Nuggets lobby to encourage restaurants to overhaul their children's menus, while the Soil Association, in partnership with Organix babyfood, has launched the Out To Lunch campaign and a national survey.

"Some restaurants are doing positive things to improve children's menus but there's still a long way to go," says the Soil Association's Amy Leech. "We're not just looking to see healthier food, we want to see more choices so children don't just get everything with chips."

In Italy, children's menus are virtually non-existent and chefs will cheerfully prepare tasty dishes that individual bambini diners like. Some restaurants in the UK - notably the better ones that cook fresh food from scratch - do this too, offering half-size portions and flexibility in the kitchen. I reckon we've outgrown kiddie menus. How about you?

Kids' food in restaurants can be tricky ... Photograph: Alamy

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