Chain restaurants failing families: investigation finds kids menus packed with unhealthy ingredients & imported meat

unhealthy kids menu

A new league table examining the kids menus at the UK’s top 20 family-friendly restaurant chains reveals that many chains are failing families – by providing unhealthy and unsustainable meals for children.

The ‘Out to Lunch’ (OTL) league table, compiled by the Soil Association, surveyed the biggest 20 restaurant chains and recruited 100+ secret diners. Children and parents were asked to sample children’s menus over the summer – scoring them on family friendliness, menu healthiness, food quality, value, sustainability and ingredient provenance.

The undercover investigation follows the publication of the National Food Strategy, an independent review which warned of an escalating child obesity crisis in the UK, noting that ‘eating out of home is no longer a treat’, with one in four (27%) adults and one in five (20%) children now dining out at least once a week.

In light of this, the investigation uncovered damning evidence that many chains are still failing to serve-up good, sustainable, healthy food for children:

  • Two in five puddings at favourite family restaurants contain enough sugar to blow a child’s entire daily allowance.
  • Deep-fried and processed ingredients overwhelm healthy and fresh food choices.
  • Lower welfare, ultra-processed imported meat from places including Thailand, China and Brazil was found on many menus – undermining British farmers.
  • Just three out of 20 restaurant chains offer 100% British meat.

The winners & losers

Pizza Hut came bottom of the league table and was the worst offender for sugary meals. Staggeringly, a child eating a typical Pizza Hut meal with a fizzy drink and dessert could easily consume 68 grams or 17 teaspoons of sugar – almost four times the maximum recommended daily allowance (19g) for a four to six year-old.

Hungry Horse, in 19th place, narrowly missed last place with a menu low on fresh foods and high on processed meat (a proven carcinogen) – and they still have menu items containing food colourings associated with hyperactivity.

By comparison, one of my favourite UK restaurant chains, Wahaca, scored highly – gaining points for their award-winning sourcing policy including 100% free range meat. They were also commended for encouraging children of eight and over to be adventurous eaters and choose small dishes from the adult menu.

The top five placed restaurants have a good selection of meat-free options for kids, and parents scored them highly for their variety and family friendly atmosphere. You can see the full league table here.

Soil Association Policy Officer for Healthy and Sustainable Diets Laura Chan said: 

“Renegade chains are continuing to hammer children’s health with free refills of fizzy drinks and excessively sugary puddings. Parents told us that fresh food and healthy choices are their number one priority. Why are leading chains continuing to serve ultra-processed, ultra-sugary and deep-fried rubbish when we know this isn’t what families want?”

The ‘meat-free revolution’

There is some good news; many chains are responding to the dual climate and nature crisis (and consumer demand) by putting more meat-free meals on the menu.

  • At least half of Zizzi, Giraffe, Wetherspoon, Bella Italia, Leon and Wagamama’s menus are now vegan or meat-free.
  • Ten other chains are offering children’s menus where at least 25% of the menu is meat-free.
  • Restaurants reported increasing vegan and meat-free options has been a top priority for parents concerned about sustainable diets.

healthy kids menu

When it comes to getting fresh veg into children’s diets, the worst performer is McDonald’s (in 18th place) with no veg on the menu at all. Every other restaurant offers either a crudité option as a starter, or at least one portion of veg with every meal.

And when it came to ‘seasonal veg’ – some chains appeared a little confused about where & when those seasons were taking place – with options being imported from Kenya, South Africa and Peru. 

Now in its 8th year the Soil Association’s ‘Out to Lunch’ campaign is calling on all restaurant chains, to take simple steps to improve the quality of food they offer to children. You can find out more – and tweet the restaurants who performed badly in this year’s ratings – by visiting www.soilassociation.org/causes-campaigns/out-to-lunch. 

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