Why does the kids' menu always have to include chips?
Why do hamburgers, chicken nuggets and chips dominate kids' menus, when child-size portions could easily be produced from the main menu, asks our reporter
We may not be eating around the dinner table as a family as much as we used to, but according to a 2013 report by the Restaurants Association of Ireland, we do like to eat out as a family. Fifty-two per cent of parents surveyed take their children out to eat once a month, and 18pc go once a fortnight.
Interestingly, 88pc of those parents expressed a preference for their children to eat from the main menu as opposed to a special 'kids' menu'. However, they were aware that ordering from the main menu often means that their children are eating portions that are too large.
So, is it time to bin the traditional kids' menu of food options consisting largely of highly processed food such as chicken nuggets and chips or Margherita pizza with not a vegetable in sight? A number of Irish eating establishments think it is.
In these days of heightened awareness around healthy eating and the scourge of childhood obesity, it seems that many family restaurants are making great strides to provide healthier meal options for our offspring. Take, for example, Airfield Estate in Dundrum, Dublin - a very popular place to take young children at any time of year.
They offer a good menu for younger guests for both breakfast and lunch. Breakfast options include a 'mini Irish' with sausage, poached egg and tomato or a boiled egg with soldiers. For lunch, junior can have sausage and mash with vegetable of the day, or pasta with tomato sauce.
Farm Restaurants (Dawson Street and Leeson Street in Dublin) is an Irish-owned business which prides itself on its freshly sourced local ingredients and a menu that has plenty of options for vegetarians and vegan diners. So, it's no surprise that their Junior Menu (for guests aged 12 and under) is simple and ticks all the boxes for any parent conscious of their children's health.
Options for main courses include the old favourites made healthy, such as organic, free-range chicken goujons with mash or fries, or salad, but with either peas or beans. Sausages and mash equally comes with either peas or beans.
Japanese restaurant Wagamama (Cork and Dublin) is another good option for family eating. Children have their own menu consisting of small portions of some of the chain's best-loved dishes such as chicken ramen and grilled chicken katsu. Desserts are a scoop of ice cream or a natural fruit ice lolly.
Emma Buckley is a mother and director of nutrition at Gourmet Fuel. What does she look for when eating out with her son Jackson, aged nine? "Good ingredients and food that is freshly made and not a ready meal that has been sitting there all day. Why is it that you can have a lovely array of food for the adults but are stuck with nuggets and chips and sausages and chips for the kids?
"It just seems to be so dumbed down for children and it doesn't have to be that way," says Emma.
"Green beans are great; they are like fries in that they can be picked up in children's hands. And a bit of garlic and olive oil can really bring them to life. A side of raw cucumber or carrot is great for them to nibble on too.
"These are such easy things and kids generally like to eat them - they go down a treat. And I make a deal: if you want to eat a Margherita pizza, you have to have some greens to go with it."
Emma says that eating out provides a great opportunity for kids to try new tastes by getting them to sample what the adults are having, and she sometimes gets a pleasant surprise.
"Jackson has recently taken a liking to salad," she adds.
It's one thing having healthy options for kids in restaurants, but it can be quite another to get your little darling to eat their vegetables. This process must start at home.
Joanna Fortune, a child psychotherapist, says: "I like the teaspoon test: each meal comes with a teaspoon (no more) of a new food and is placed beside everyone's plate, not just your fussy eater. Everyone tries what is on the spoon and then continues with their meal.
"Don't praise, punish or persuade a child to eat what is on the teaspoon. You do it, exclaim 'mmmm I really like that' and move on. If they refuse it, let it go."
Joanna also suggests that there is a family mealtime rule that nobody gets their favourite meal every day, but perhaps once a week instead. She says that "there is one meal cooked at mealtime and everyone has the choice to eat it or not".
No choice at mealtimes at home is easier said than done but is well worth enforcing if you don't want to make a rod for your own back for years to come. For the children, it also means that having a menu of choices when eating out is a treat in itself.
Author and film-maker Caroline Grace-Cassidy has two daughters, Grace aged nine, and Maggie aged five. Caroline avoids the kids' menus unless she is in a restaurant where they are particularly good. She recommends Mao or Siam Thai in particular.
"In my experience, kids' menus in other restaurants only offer the nuggets, burgers or sausages plus chips options. I'm not a snob when it comes to the odd plate of the above, but I want to develop their taste buds when eating out, not shut them down."
Caroline has a particularly good tip for getting the children to be more adventurous with their eating. "If it's a regular restaurant, I usually order a few things to share - thereby encouraging them to try new things without them feeling they have a whole plate of what they don't like." Caroline also thinks that restaurants should offer kids' portions from the adult menu.
A restaurant doing just that is Fenn's Quay in Cork, whose head chef and proprietor Kate Lawlor is passionate about the quality of food she serves to all her clients, regardless of age. She tells me of a wedding they hosted recently and of meeting the couple with their young son some weeks after the event.
"The boy was able to tell me exactly what he had and that he ate all of it and thought it was lovely. He had pork croquettes to start and feather bladed beef and then strawberry and ice cream for dessert. And to have a kid tell you exactly what he had some weeks later - well for me that was a success."
Fenn's Quay has also adopted the 'Kids Size Me' initiative by the Restaurants Association of Ireland and the Nutrition & Health Foundation, which aims to help restaurants design healthier options for children dining out.
The Restaurants Association of Ireland state that "by making child-size portions of adult meals available in addition to the standard kids' menu, participating restaurants will be able to give more value to their customers as well as tackle Ireland's growing childhood obesity problem".
Of course, getting healthier options for our kids when eating out isn't enough to tackle childhood obesity unless changes are also being made at home.
Dame Professor Sally Davies is the chief medical officer for England. At a recent conference in London she cited the fact that children are now snacking far more than ever. She feels that parents must get a firmer grip on the tendency for kids to help themselves to food between meals.
"I find it fascinating when young people come and stay with me, and they start grazing in the fridge. This isn't the way to do it.
"We need to move back to proper meals."
Kate from Fenn's Quay sums it up nicely when she says: "It's not always a success to get kids to eat healthily as they can be very picky." On the plus side, she believes children's eating habits are slowly changing.
"We get great satisfaction out of plating up a kid's portion and then seeing the plate come back empty."
THE GOOD KIDS' MENU
• Fresh, quality ingredients, rather than processed. Goujons are fine if made fresh using chicken breast
• Chunky chips are better than the traditional French fries and should not be pre-salted
• Vegetables, especially if they are colourful and well presented to appeal to kids
• Water, milk or unsweetened fruit juices
• Kid-size portions from the main menu
• Desserts of fruit, yoghurts or low-fat jelly and ice cream
THE NOT-SO-GOOD KIDS' MENU
• Fizzy drinks with everything
• Everything fried
• Everything processed
• Chips as a side
• Everything beige
• Not a vegetable in sight
• Everything chocolate for dessert
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