Nutrition: Bye bye chicken nuggets and chips
A new restaurant initiative could mean the end of the kids' menu as we know it
EVERY now and again, an idea comes along which seems so obvious you wonder why it hasn't been done before. One such idea is the recently launched Kids Size Me, a joint initiative from the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI) and the Nutrition and Health Foundation (NHF) which aims to take a fresh approach to eating out with children and may mean the end of the kids' menu as we know it.
The idea behind Kids Size Me is to offer younger diners half-sized portions of meals from the regular adult menu as an alternative to the usual suspects found lurking on the kids menu -- nuggets and chips, mini burgers and chips, pizza and, you guessed it, chips -- yawn. And yes, we know that fancy names like fish goujons really just means fish fingers in disguise.
With the Kids Size Me concept, our children will be able to enjoy a healthy, interesting, 'grown up' meal while we enjoy ours. Genius, we cry!
It's a progressive initiative which, as far as the organisers are aware, is not being done on a national level in any other EU country.
Dr Muireann Cullen, Manager of the Nutrition and Health Foundation (NHF), explains the background.
"Traditionally the children's menu was provided for children and choices could only be made from these menus.
"While we are aware of a number of restaurants providing child-sized portions of meals from their adult menus at a reduced price, there are cases where if you order from the adult menu, you get an adult-sized portion and pay the full price.
"This initiative is trying to provide a way for a consistent national approach to be taken by restaurants."
From casual conversations with a few parents about dining out with children, the NHF commissioned the 'Eating Out With Children' study* among 500 parents.
The results showed that despite the economic downturn, 52pc of parents surveyed take their children out to eat once a month and a further one-in-five dines out with children every fortnight.
In terms of cost, over half the parents surveyed felt that a children's meal costing €5 to €7.50 represented value for money while a further 32pc felt that up to €10 was acceptable to pay for a child's meal.
The survey also showed a significant interest in child-size portions of adult meals, with 98pc of parents surveyed supporting the move and asking for clearly marked healthy options.
As well as meeting demand from parents for healthier food, greater choice and sensible pricing for children's meals, the provision of child-size portions of adult meals is seen as an important step forward in tackling Ireland's childhood obesity levels which are among the highest in the world at 10pc of children aged five to 12.**
"This initiative on its own is not going to solve the issue of obesity," explains Dr Cullen, "but it will support other aspects of work being carried out in relation to obesity.
"We know that 10pc of children are eating in a restaurant once, twice or three times a week.
"For these children, if the choices available on the adult menu are chosen by the parents, it will help to reduce calorie intake and improve nutrient intake."
Brian Fallon, president of the Restaurants Association of Ireland and the Fallon of Fallon & Byrne restaurant in Dublin and Fallons bar and cafe in Kilcullen, agrees.
"It's definitely a step in the right direction, helping to raise awareness of the importance of healthy eating.
"We'll be issuing the NHF voluntary guidelines to our 600 member restaurants across Ireland to encourage as many as possible to commit to providing child-size portions of adult meals and to actively promote this."
So why hasn't this been done before? Have restaurants perhaps been lazy in the choices offered on the standard children's menu? Fallon doesn't think so.
"While some restaurants may not always have been hugely inventive, most have offered a kids' menu of some form and there are actually lots of restaurants already offering a child-size portion from the adult menu.
"As with most other things in a commercial sector, demand drives supply. With the Kids Size Me initiative, restaurants are being encouraged to offer a more diverse range of foods and a more interesting dining experience for children, but ultimately it will depend on parents demanding and embracing the new option."
Therein lies, perhaps, the only real stumbling block.
For some children (and parents), swapping nuggets and chips for steamed fish and vegetables may be a step too far and, let's face it, we all want the occasional night off from the tea-time battles over broccoli and peas.
With this in mind, rather than replacing the standard kids' menu completely, Kids Size Me will be an additional choice and where available, it will be identified through a logo or sticker on the menu.
Those behind the initiative fully appreciate that success will depend hugely on parents making a different choice when it comes to their children's meal selection.
And in many cases, that success will depend on re-educating their children in the type of food they associate with eating away from home.
"Success comes down to the restaurants taking on this initiative," Dr Cullen says, "but also on the parents availing of the healthier choices that have been made available."
As with any new concept, it will take time and a sustained effort to ensure success.
"Raising awareness among parents is the main aspect of ensuring the success of the initiative," says Fallon.
"Our aim is that within 12 months of the launch we will have 100pc compliance among our members."
In practical terms, it remains to be seen how restaurants will adapt to the idea of half-sized portions for half the price.
"Common sense will have to prevail," Mr Fallon says. "For example, a younger child may only want a third of a portion size, or an adult may want to avail of a half-portion. What's encouraging is that our members are very supportive and keen to embrace the idea."
So, while we may not be mourning the tragic demise of nuggets and chips just yet, for many parents Kids Size Me offers a real opportunity to encourage their children to enjoy healthy, grown-up food in a grown-up environment.
I, for one, am all for that but I guess the proof will ultimately be in the pudding -- as long as it's a healthy one.
See nutritionandhealth.ie or wheretoeat.ie. Participating restaurants will carry the new Kids Size Me symbol on their menus.
Log on to wheretoeat.ie to see a list of participating venues
* Eating Out With Children study conducted by Empathy Research on behalf of the Nutrition and Health Foundation, August 2010 (500 participants);
**National Children's Food Survey (2005)
Health & Living