As we start the journey of getting back to some type of normal life, one of the first things a lot of us will be doing is eating out at cafes and restaurants with babies and young children.
Children’s menus can sometimes make or break a dining out experience, and of course some restaurants will have better options than others. The Soil Association (SA) found that 88% of parents from the ‘Out to Lunch Survey’ did not feel children’s menus were good enough. SA stated that ‘families were disappointed to find no vegetables and excessively sugary puddings on some children’s menus’ and although they are pushing for change, the demand from parents can help it improve even more.
So, whether you plan your visit to an eating establishment based on the children’s menu, family friendly activities or purely on convenience I will share some top tips to make your visit as healthy and enjoyable as possible for you and your family.
I have worked in the Out of Home sector for over 7 years with a strong focus on children’s menus and recipes. It is important to remember that most restaurants and cafes will accommodate where they can. However, some will not have the capability there and then, but you may spark an idea or the ‘demand’ they need to help make a change. So, no question is ever a silly question – go ahead and ask it!
Top Tips and Questions to ask
‘Please can you not add salt to the children’s meal/chips?’
Ask for the children’s food to be unseasoned. Added salt is very popular in a lot of meals and sometimes it can sneak through to the children’s menus., Iif you ask for the dish not to be seasoned (especially chips/fries) then this will help keep the salt content low.
‘Would it be possible to swap the chicken nuggets for a chicken breast from the sandwich menu?’
A lot of places tend to have the classic fish fingers or chicken nuggets, baked beans and chips on the children’s menu with not much else to choose from. These of course are winners with children and are ok to consume every now and then. However, if these options are not something you are wanting to offer to your child (or baby, perhaps!), take a look at the adults menu and see if there is anything on there you can share or ask for in smaller portions, for example:
- Chicken breast from a sandwich or salad and you could ask to swap out chicken nuggets
- Jacket potatoes and tuna/beans you could share with your toddler
- Rice or extra veggies to swap for chips on the side
- Adult side dishes tend to have some great options that you may want to ask for instead of the children’s menu. E.g. quite often a salad or avocado or hummus can be added
‘Please can I swap the chips for another side of vegetables?’
Chips are a children’s menu favourite but this doesn’t always mean they have to be a default option. If there aren’t options like baked or mash potato or rice/grains to opt for then ask for two portions of vegetables for example: beans and corn on the cob or even some vegetable batons.
‘Instead of the fizzy drink would it be possible to have a cup of whole milk/plant based milk?’
Swap sugary drinks for water or milk. Even if water and milk isn’t on the menu, if you want it for your child it will likely be possible. If they have running water and offer tea or coffee then they are highly likely to have milk for your little one (just remember to be specific on what type of milk you ask for to make sure it is age appropriate)
‘Please can we have the toppings on the side of the ice-cream? Or is there a smaller version available?’
Dessert portion sizes tend to be quite large when eating out of home with desserts being a theatrical, asking for a smaller portion is always an option. You could ask if there are any breakfast items still available such as yogurt and fruit that you could offer instead. Or, you can ask for sprinkles or toppings on the side so you can add it together with your child (managing the portion size too)
‘Let’s see how many different colours of food we can get on our plates?’
‘Help yourself stations’ like salad carts are great for getting children involved in making their own food choices and can add some excitement and independence to the outing. Being positive and role modelling in these scenarios is an encouraging way to see if your child opts for the colourful fruit and vegetable options.
‘Can we have two portions of fruit instead of the crisps please?’
Lunch packs and picnic boxes are great to grab and go! However, they tend to have sugary drinks, crisps and chocolate. Again, these are ok in moderation but if you want to make a couple of quick healthy swaps see if you can change the sugary drink to a bottle of water and then swap one of the high sugar/salt snacks out for an extra piece of fruit.
‘Please can I have a little plate for us to share?’
Sharing your food with your child is another great way to role model and lets’ be honest, they always want a bit of what you have any way! It may mean you have to think a bit more consciously about your meal and what is child-friendly but it could be a good way of getting more nutritious food if the children’s menu is really limited.
‘Are the baked beans and sauces low sugar and salt versions?’
This may seem a little bit of an awkward question to ask but swapping baked beans and table sauces for low salt and sugar could be an easy swap for the establishment and doesn’t have too much of a cost implication for them, they might just not have thought of making the switch. This could halve the sugar content of a portion of baked beans or halve the salt and sugar of tomato ketchup.
Look out for 5 a day messaging
Now vegetarian and vegan options are becoming increasingly popular, there maybe some hidden veg options on the menu. If this isn’t clearly highlighted with 5 a day messaging then there is no harm in asking the kitchen team
Working with what’s on offer
If there are limited options on the entire menu and some of the above aren’t available, fish fingers could easily be stripped of their batter. Then they can be offered as finger food with peas or beans, which is especially ideal for a weaning baby. However, please don’t be hard on yourself, eating out is there to be enjoyed for the whole family. You can always keep an eye on the salt/sugar content etc for the rest of the day if it is a concern.
I know from working behind the scenes in the out of home industry that a lot of hard work goes into the preparation and creation of children’s menus. All the questions above should be able to be catered for in a lot of places and if you don’t ask, you don’t get. This is especially true if it just a case of swapping a couple of things around. As mentioned above if the establishment says “no”, it may not be possible without approval but don’t forget your question is completely valid and you won’t be the only one that’s asked.
We are campaigning for healthier children’s meals in schools and in the out of home industry. How good would it be to go out and have a variety of meals, containing veggies, age appropriate and still appealing to children?! Parent power can create the push the industry needs to make those changes.
See Charlotte’s full series for her tips on:
…which you may find useful as they include practical tips on what to do beforehand and some great appliances to take along with you!
Other useful resources:
https://www.soilassociation.org/causes-campaigns/out-to-lunch/ – great campaign with secret diners
https://view.publitas.com/ukh/bha-industry-nutrition-guide-for-catering-managers-and-chefs/page/1 – Sarah along with other nutritionists in industry wrote the above guide, if you know someone with a café that may need some guidance this free document maybe useful.