How are chains performing when it comes to healthy children’s meals?

The Soil Association sent out secret teams of kids and parents to investigate 28 pubs, restaurants and supermarket cafes to find out if they are providing nutritious options, as well as supporting sustainability.

2 August 2019
image credit: Getty Images

An undercover team of children and parents was sent out by the Soil Association to discover whether kids were being offered healthy and sustainable meals in 28 of the UK’s most popular chains.

It used the research to compile the Out to Lunch league table, which ranks pubs, restaurants and supermarkets on their offerings. The secret investigation comes after 88% of parents said that children’s food in high street chains isn’t good enough and 70% regarded environmental sustainability as important to them.

Pub chain Wetherspoon topped the league table, followed by Ikea and Harvester, with organic and sustainable ingredients and lots of veg on the menu. Wahaca and Leon also ranked in the top five.

Children’s meals in the highest-scoring chains were on average £1 cheaper than meals in the lowest-scoring chains, showing that price isn’t a barrier to good food, added the Soil Association.

Supermarket cafes, which serve millions of meals each year, were included in the league table for the first time, alongside high street chains. They generally scored near the bottom of the table, with no British meat served at Tesco Café, mouldy fruit at Morrisons Café, no veg on the menu at Marks & Spencer Café and Asda Café declining to say whether they use free-range eggs.

Revitalising veg

Overall, Gourmet Burger Kitchen (GBK), Pizza Express and Tesco Café ranked at the bottom of the league table.

GBK was ranked last due to its big portions, calorific milkshakes served before the meal, the big choice of sugary drinks and only one side veg option listed underneath the chips, while Pizza Express was ranked poorly due to its failure to provide information on sourcing and how meals are prepared.

Tesco Café was also in the bottom three as there was no British meat and none of it was farm assured or higher welfare; hardly any dishes were prepared or freshly cooked in the cafe, portions were small and kids could choose to avoid veg.

Several chains were also offering excessively sugary puddings, including Pizza Hut, TGI Friday’s, Harvester and Hungry Horse. For example, the Soil Association found Hungry Horse’s Mini-Mania Sundae contains 56.2g of sugar and 495kcal – more than double a child’s daily sugar allowance.

Parents may also find it hard to pick a healthy option for their children, according to the research. Asda, Brewers Fayre, Las Iguanas, Morrison’s, Tesco, TGI Friday’s and Waitrose all withheld nutritional information from parents, failing to disclose any details for children’s meals, the research revealed.

But the Soil Association campaign has persuaded 13 chains to commit to serving two portions of veg with every child’s meal within the next 12 months.

The operators to sign up to the pledge are Harvester, Ikea, Ask Italian, Zizzi, Giraffe, Hungry Horse, Wetherspoon, Prezzo, Leon, Wahaca, Wagamama, Sainsbury’s Café and Brewers Fayre.

This means more than 11m portions of veg will be served to children across the UK in the coming year, the Soil Association said.

A need to serve up sustainability

A failure to invest in sustainable alternatives also plagued some chains.

Single-use plastics, including cups, straws and cutlery were served with children’s meals at Bella Italia, Brewers Fayre, Giraffe, Pizza Express and Sainsbury’s Café. One parent reported six cups and straws over two courses for two children at Giraffe.

Twenty chains, including Café Rouge, Las Iguanas and Giraffe, are failing to ensure sustainability in their supply chains by serving meat fed with animal feed that lacks sustainability certification, commented the Soil Association, adding that the this is responsible for wildlife loss and deforestation abroad.

But in a spot of good news, 15 chains are serving organic ingredients, up from four chains when the Out to Lunch campaign began in 2013: Brewers Fayre, Café Rouge, Frankie & Benny’s, Harvester, Ikea, Las Iguanas, Marks & Spencer Café, McDonald’s, Nando’s, Prezzo, Sainsbury’s Café, TGI Fridays, Waitrose Café, Wetherspoon and Zizzi.

Lack of local produce

However, the campaign also found chains are failing to support British farmers, serving chicken from Thailand and Brazil; meat from Hungary and Uruguay; fish from China, Indonesia, and Malaysia; cucumbers from the Canary Islands; tomatoes from Tunisia and Senegal; and mushrooms from Poland.

No British meat was offered at Tesco, Giraffe and Wagamama. Meanwhile, Tesco, Ask Italian, Giraffe, Harvester, Hungry Horse, Prezzo, and Zizzi were unable to trace the meat they served to children back to the farm.

Hattie Shepherd, Soil Association policy officer, said many chains are being irresponsible and failing to offer children the food they deserve.

“It’s baffling that children aren’t offered a single portion of veg at Marks & Spencer’s cafes – this is simply rubbish,” she said. “Parents would be shocked if they knew popular chains were dishing up deforestation to their children – especially when it’s clear from top performing chains like Wetherspoon and Ikea that cost isn’t a barrier to healthy and sustainable food. And why are British chains and supermarkets sourcing meat from Thailand and China over British farmers? Our children deserve better.”

Its Out to Lunch campaign is calling on all restaurant chains and supermarket cafes to take four steps to improve the service and food they offer children. These are serving two portions of veg with every child’s meal; making water freely available and stop serving sugary drinks to children; providing children’s portions of adult dishes as long as they are healthy and nutritionally balanced; and using quality ingredients such as free range and organic.

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