Medical chat with Dr Stu

WHEN I was a child, going out for a meal was a special treat. In the mid-80s, most restaurants didn’t have kids’ menus: they simply served up a child-sized portion of whatever Mum and Dad were having. The McDonald’s Happy Meal had not long been catapulted onto our shores and – thanks to a barrage of television advertising – my eight-year-old mind could imagine nothing more gastronomically satisfying than a paper bag containing burger, fries and a plastic toy. Aware of its reputation for being ‘junk food’, my parents vowed to never let me have a Happy Meal, despite much blubbering and begging.
Today almost all big chain restaurants offer food tailored to children. A brightly coloured kiddie menu comes complete with tiny crayons and a colouring sheet. This is great for avoiding tantrums and getting kids involved, and you would imagine that most restaurants serve up nutritious fare to go with the cartoon cucumbers. Given everything we know about healthy eating, and the dangers of a ballooning childhood obesity problem, the actual reality is depressing: a few carrot sticks pushed in next to a pile of chips, chicken nuggets and a dollop of tinned spaghetti doesn’t quite cut it. 
Kids’ meals have not always been bags of greasy stodge. The American fast food companies didn’t invent the children’s meal – the idea had far more savoury beginnings. Bizarrely, American pub owners first invented children’s menus in the 1920 during prohibition. Unable to make money from selling liquor, bars up and down the States devised children’s meals to try to coax families in. Back then, feeding youngsters was all about affordable nutrition. The standard child’s meal was a simply broiled cut of meat, served with vegetables and/or rice. Desserts were similarly unflamboyant and lemonade to the under-10s was strictly forbidden.
Fast-forward to 2017, and many restaurants offer kids free refills of sugary pop, fries with everything, and one well-known pizza restaurant chain still boasts an all-you-can-eat ‘ice cream factory’. For the past two years, the Soil Association has dispatched ‘secret shoppers’ to rate major restaurant chains on the quality and healthiness of their children’s menu offerings. Burger King was ranked bottom, scoring a pitiful score of 11 out of 80. KFC, Pizza Hut, Nando’s and Hungry Horse weren’t far behind, all being shamed as promoting uninspiring greasy and sugary kids’ fodder.
It’s not just lack of greens that is the problem but portion size. At Harvester, for example, a kid’s size cheese hamburger with a side of sweet potato fries and a ‘healthy’ fruit smoothie clock up nearly 1,000 calories. And that’s before you add in a dessert. Children aged between four and eight need no more than 1,400 calories a day – and that’s only if they’re fairly active. 
If family outings were a rare treat then a plate of indulgence wouldn’t be such a bad thing but this is no longer the 1980s. Today, a third of families eat out at least once a week, and every year we Brits spend more on meals out. 
Mercifully, public pressure is forcing the big-profit establishments finally treat kids’ diets with the respect they deserve. 
Nevertheless, It is a good idea for parents to be cynical of any super-cheap kids’ meals: do a quick internet search to check out a restaurant’s nutritional information before taking the family. And if all else fails, then ignore the hot-dogs and breadcrumbed bits – just pick something nice and order them a smaller portion of whatever you’re having.