Beyond chicken nuggets and chips: The Irish restaurants getting their kids' menus right
A new report has found that the vast majority of food aimed at children contains worryingly high levels of fat. But some chefs are working to change that. Alex Meehan reports
For many parents, fighting with kids over food choices while out and about can be so exhausting that over time they stop bothering, allowing them to make poor choices like sausages, nuggets and chips.
But with a new report showing that 68pc of kids' meals in restaurants exceed nutritional guidelines when it comes to fat, should we expect more of the eateries we frequent when it comes to children's' meals? One restaurateur who has won awards for his offering for little ones thinks we should.
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"Handing out a kids' menu made up of deep-fried nuggets, sausages and chips is the easy option for a lot of restaurants. It's bland and unhealthy, and it does kids a disservice, and frankly it can be just lazy," says Michael Kelly of Grow HQ in Waterford.
Kelly recognises that at different stages of childhood, kids can be picky eaters. But that doesn't stop his staff from engaging with every single child who visits his restaurant to see if they can be persuaded to try something different.
"Everything on our adult menu is available in a half-sized and half-priced portion for children. Yes, it's a much harder sell, but really the core message is that even though children can be picky eaters, parenting isn't about always doing what your kids want. It's about doing what's right for them and encouraging them to make good choices," says Kelly.
Grow HQ staff encourage kids to expand their horizons and try new things off the main adults' menu. However, it does have a kids' menu with some old reliables on it, albeit with a twist.
"It's important to say, we do have sausage and chips on our kids' menus. But if they're made with care, that isn't necessarily bad. We use Jane Russell sausages, which are 80pc pork, for example, and that's an important part of the message we should be getting out there. Our chips are made with organic potatoes, picked out of the ground here on site," he says.
"We also have a ham and cheese sandwich on the menu but it's made with Crowe's Farm dry cured free range ham and Knockanore cheddar made locally here, and we use sourdough bread from Seagull Bakery. So it's not whether you offer sausage and chips or not, it's about the quality of the food you offer and how it's cooked."
Kelly and his team at Grow HQ also try to educate kids about where their food comes from and how to recognise good food when they see it.
"We try to encourage kids towards ordering off the adult menu and that means much more time spent by wait staff at the table side - they see a part of their job as being about food education. For example, we have conversations about ketchup every day. We only have tomato ketchup when it's in season from July to October, and we make a variety of other ketchups with other vegetables like beetroot when they're in season," says Kelly.
"People ask for ketchup every day. It would be much easier to sell a processed one, but that's not the point. Instead we have an opportunity to talk to kids about the seasonality of vegetables and about how nature works."
In Dublin's docklands, chef Gareth Mullins at The Marker hotel offers a similar deal to Kelly. All the main courses on his menu are available in kids-sized portions and priced at the same price as the dishes on his kids' menu.
"We've a kids' menu and the reality is that if you don't have chicken goujons or sausage and chips on there, then you have a recipe for miserable parents. But we make everything ourselves and the provenance of all the ingredients is really important," he says.
"Our goujons and wedges are all oven-baked so they're healthier, and all our kids' meals come served on a painter's palette with vegetable crudités and homemade hummus. We make all of our tomato and Bolognese pasta sauces ourselves in house."
Mullins also has fish and chips made with fresh haddock as well as steamed salmon served with butter-tossed green beans, mash and a homemade tartare sauce.
"Probably the bestselling item for kids is pasta with a fresh Bolognese sauce. But our surprise hit with kids is our surf and turf, a minute steak served with grilled prawns. We often have parents tell us they're delighted to see it, and the kids adore it," he says.
Mullins is the father of two children and believes strongly that looking after kids and making sure they are respected and treated as customers is the key to happy mealtime for parents too.
"I teach my kids that healthy eating is basically about trying to eat as little processed food as possible. Once they do that, they'll essentially be fine. When I bring them out for dinner, dessert is important, so they have to eat properly to get one," he says.
"I try to get them to order a starter off the adult menu and then a main course off the kids' menu, but we don't make a big deal out of it. Nobody knows their kids as well as their parents but I'd much rather hear about kids being taught that going out is a social experience to be enjoyed by them as much as the adults."
In Greystones in Co Wicklow, Indian chef Sunil Ghai and his wife Leena were inspired to offer healthy Indian-themed tiffin lunch boxes for sale as a result of seeing local kids taking the same bland and unhealthy food to school each day.
Ghai runs the critically-acclaimed Pickle restaurant on Camden Street in Dublin, but in 2017 opened Tiffin, a takeaway in the Charlesland area of Greystones, specifically to bring healthy Indian food to the area.
"The whole idea of opening Tiffin was to offer better food to the local population, and the kids' options were a big part of that. We wanted to do something special and healthy for kids to show them that school lunches didn't just have to be about cheese sandwiches and chicken fillet rolls," says Ghai.
"Some examples of our tiffin boxes include baked vegetable-filled samosa parcels with mango chutney, or Indian wholewheat chapati bread rolled with chicken tikka and fresh sauteed vegetables. The boxes cost €5 and include some fruit, some salad, some protein and usually some Indian bread or rice. It's tasty, it's healthy and it doesn't patronise kids," he explains.
Ghai was inspired by the tiffin boxes he brought to school in India as a child, and also by a family trip to Australia where it's routine for schools to require kids to bring fruit and raw vegetables for lunch.
"It's not as popular as I would like. We have some regular customers who get it often, but it's hard to persuade people to think a little differently," he says.
"In India, nobody buys food on the way to school, everyone brings food from home. Things are changing there, but it's still normal to bring foods that are home cooked and that generally means healthier lunches."