Next generation sustainability: The Feed Children Well campaign

"Just think: if we could teach this generation of children how to eat, we'd solve the obesity crisis for good - because they'd teach their kids, and so on. Chefs can really help, by wooing them with delicious veg."

Next generation sustainability: The Feed Children Well campaign

That plea comes from soon-to-be Bake Off judge Prue Leith, who doubles as the vice-president of the Sustainable Restaurant Association and has for years campaigned for better children’s food.

Wooing – a fantastic old-fashioned word, literally meaning to try to gain the love of, especially with a view to marriage.

When it comes to the food we’re serving children when they eat out, there really isn’t much to fall in love or form a long term relationship with. To the shame of the foodservice sector, the vast majority of dishes laid out in front of kids are beige, bland and singularly lack in imagination or, crucially, include anything that’s remotely healthy, like say vegetables. In fact, while kids consume close to a seventh of their weekly calories eating out (13%), they only eat about 4% of their veg out of home. Mainly because it’s not even on the menu.

Speak to progressive chefs and restaurateurs and they’ll tell you that the families coming to eat in their establishments want to see more appetising, creative and nutritious kids’ food on the menu and they are already going all out to think beyond the broccoli. These businesses aren’t telling the parents and children coming to eat with them that they’re a fun-free zone. Absolutely not. Rather they are responding to consumer demand for more veg-rich options.

That’s why the Sustainable Restaurant Association is running a month-long campaign throughout May calling on the whole foodservice sector to Feed Children Well. By that, we mean that every child’s plate should have two portions of veg on it.

We’ve produced a toolkit to help restaurants get their youngest customers to eat their greens. We’ve worked with a number of partners, including the Soil Association, which this year will again be publishing its Out to Lunch league table ranking some of the UK’s major restaurant groups on their family offering, as well as a number of the most forward thinking restaurant groups. These frontrunners are well and truly focused not just on putting veg on their kids’ menu, but also doing everything they can to ensure little’uns do actually eat it.

We reckon that by following a few basic principles, restaurants will be wooing kids with veg and enticing them to sign up to a lifelong relationship with it.

One of the commonest barriers raised by both restaurants and parents is that children will choose the veg-lite options given half a chance and that tends to lead to a family fight – just what you want when taking the kids out.

At Jamie’s Italian, making the ‘good’ choice the automatic choice, is a key ingredient in their winning formula, as Nutritionist Rebecca Bailey-Scott explains: “I think the biggest challenge some restaurants can face is that they might have one or two dishes that are healthier or feature veg, but then it can become a fight between parents and their kids over which one to choose. Because we’ve now gone down the route of ensuring all of the dishes on the kids menu are healthy, including the pizza and the mini burgers, we know parents can tell their kids to choose whatever they like.”

Likewise, Zizzi recently launched its latest three-course children’s menu and all of the starters are built around vegetables. Highlighting these healthy options and majoring on the veg is a recent innovation at the Italian chain, says Product Manager Cleopatra Zukas

“We’ve made subtle changes to how we list things on the menu to highlight the veg. So with the garlic bread starter, we list the carrot and cucumber first. Likewise, the green beans and tenderstem broccoli side dishes are really obvious on the menu. We want to make it easy for parents and their children to make the right choices.”

Interestingly, another trick of the trade practised at Jamie’s Italian is bit of veg skulduggery – hiding the stuff in popular dishes. And they’re not alone. Seven vegetables in their pasta and pizza sauce is smart and will often go unnoticed. Just like the crispy fried cauliflower and lentils in the sausage casserole at River Cottage Canteens.

A couple of broccoli florets plonked on a child’s plate really isn’t going to woo anyone. It’ll more than likely end up in the food waste bin.

Another key principle then is to make sure that the dishes are appetising, that they look good – one of the first principles of wooing – no?

Lussmanns Fish and Grill, with five sites in Hertfordshire, has a very specific offering for its children – three dishes, all of which are exact half portions of a trio of the most popular plates from the main menu. So a really tasty looking vegetable paella or classic fishcakes with spinach are the standard offering.

While perhaps this may not possible for all restaurants, The PIG hotels go all out to inspire their youngest customers and get them excited about veg. Blessed with large and abundant kitchen gardens, the hotel restaurants offer kids the chance to check out the dozen or so varieties of tomato and super colourful salad leaves and even pick them so the chef can then prepare them for their lunch.

From high street to high end, restaurants should see feeding kids well as an opportunity rather than a chore. Not only do we all need to step up to the veg plate to power the next generation, but by failing to do so we’re missing out on the mushrooming consumer demand from families for vegetable-rich options.

With our Feed Children Well campaign, we’re looking to plant a seed, helping the next generation grow up with healthy eating habits ingrained. Share your veg successes and challenges and be inspired by some of the children’s food champions in the sector. Join the conversation using @FoodMadeGood / #KidsVegOut.

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