McDonald’s didn’t land in my home town until I was 13. Before that, once a month or so, my family would drive half an hour to the nearest branch to feast on burgers, nuggets and fries, washed down with strawberry milkshakes. One of my earliest memories is building a Happy Meal spaceship with my dad and then squabbling with my sister over who got to eat the gherkins out of his Big Mac.
Now I’m in my thirties with a young family of my own. At just two, my son is too young to be demanding trips to the golden arches, but I’m sure the nagging won’t be long in coming. I doubt I’ll deprive him of the kind of treat I was afforded as a kid, even though I now prefer avocado on toast to an Egg McMuffin, even when hungover
Yet a new survey by the Soil Association suggests I’d be doing something badly wrong in taking my child for a Maccy Ds or to its rival Burger King, the lowest ranked restaurant in the list. It’s a report that appears to be on a mission to suck the joy out of family dining experiences by shaming the UK’s chain restaurants into providing even healthier food options than children probably have at home.
Jamie’s Italian tops the Out to Lunch league table, with the Soil Association and its ‘army of secret diner parents’ fawning over its ‘high quality ingredients’ and ‘organic, seven-veg sauce’. The survey’s judging criteria also take into account sugar content, availability of free tap water and how much the waiting staff know about the provenance of the food.
Such is the clout of this annual review, which started in 2013, that this year two chains, TGI Fridays and Pizza Hut, have pledged to stop serving ‘bottomless’ soft drinks to children after being challenged on the practice. Of Nandos, which has so far refrained from making a similar pledge, the report notes with outrage: ‘Although not included on the kid’s menu, free refills of sugary soft drinks are available in restaurants and our “secret diner” parents reported that kids were drinking them’.
‘Nandos needs to take meaningful action to ensure staff aren’t making bottomless refills of sugary drinks available to children in their restaurants,’ it urges, although quite how you police that in a self-service restaurant is not made clear.
And, what’s this? Despite a glowing report, Jamie’s Italian scores just 75 out of a possible score of 90, meaning even the top-ranking restaurant gets four stars rather than the full-fat five. And where does the Soil Association think there’s room for improvement? ‘It would be great to see oily fish included on the menu,’ they propose. Tap water and oily fish? The grub’s probably better in prison.
I understand the noble intentions of this report. Childhood obesity is rising in the UK, particularly in deprived areas, and Theresa May’s decision not to ban pre-watershed junk food advertising was condemned by doctors and dentists. And I agree that restaurants should be applauded for offering more choice and for sourcing their food ethically. But who really goes out for fast food expecting to be served fresh vegetables? Certainly not kids.
The Soil Association’s mission to clean up kids’ menus is out of touch with the reality of family life. With both parents often working and the encroaching nature of our digital culture, family time is precious. in this context I’d always choose a harmonious meal out which involves chips and ice cream sundaes over a public battle of child-versus-mackerel.
The press have been quick to report on some of the high sugar levels in the restaurants’ deserts. Harvester’s Chocolate Cookie Pizza (a cookie topped with chocolate sauce, marshmallows, strawberries, butterscotch sauce and chocolate buttons) was revealed to contain almost 50 per cent of a seven-year-old’s total daily energy requirement. I don’t know about you, but I quite fancy the sound of this cookie. Maybe I’d order it under the pretence of it being for my child, and then ask for an extra spoon and scoff most of it myself. Maybe my husband would sneak in a few bites too. Maybe we’d all have a few spoonfuls to try it then push it away, saying we felt sick. It could be that it’s my birthday, and we’ve gone to Harvester so I don’t have to cook, and the cookie is my birthday cake. Or I have a seven-year-old, and he’s just finished two hours of rugby training and fancies some pudding.
The fact is, we don’t know how families eat, and what they eat when they’re not in these restaurants. Shaming restaurants into serving up healthy kids’ food and drink insults a parent’s ability to make choices for their children, and ignores the fact that there are far greater dangers at play, such as diminishing access to sports facilities and the food industry’s use of addictive high fructose corn syrup instead of plain old sugar.
Healthy eating shouldn’t be about calorie counting or obsessing over sugar content. Let’s not push our culture’s often absurd obsession with ‘eat clean’ on to the next generation. It’s about moderation, nutrition and balance. It’s about enjoying a burger one day and having a salad the next. I will feed my kids fresh vegetables and oily fish, and give them water and organic milk to drink, but why on earth would I go to McDonald’s to do it?
Lisa Williams is the editor of parenting website TantrumXYZ