Despite the Good Pub Guide suggesting the number one bugbear for pub customers is noisy children, providing proper food for little people is a market worth tapping into.

The Soil Association published its findings on children's menus earlier this year. They showed two pub groups — Harvester and JD Wetherspoon — are in the top five most child-friendly restaurant chains in the country.

But if there's one thing the Out to Lunch report highlighted, it's that the state of children's menus around the country can be pretty worrying.

One of the findings was restaurants were serving potatoes pre-mashed in Holland and fish fingers pre-cooked in Poland. One of the chicken products inspected had 19 additional ingredients from Kazakhstan, Russia, Vietnam, Argentina, Malaysia, India, Singapore, Indonesia, China, Ukraine and Slovenia.

And despite the pub chains providing a positive uplift in the statistics, it still means pubs and restaurants have a long way to go when preparing food for children.

The Soil Association's Rob Percival says: "Our 2015 league table includes big winners and big losers — adults expect to be offered real food and real choices in restaurants and we think children deserve the same.

"We've found some upmarket eateries are designing menus that make healthy eating for children almost impossible and price is no guarantee of quality — lower-cost restaurants are outperforming more expensive chains. Since our first league table Harvester and Prezzo have proved it's possible to make major improvements — we're now calling on other restaurants to raise the bar and give our kids the food they deserve."

Cheap and cheerful

Providing healthy meals doesn't have to be costly for the provider or the customer. The top five healthiest chains' average meal price was £5.55, which is 6p lower than the average meal price for children of £5.61.

JD Wetherspoon came fourth in the league table with its 'sustainable fish, free range eggs and good-quality chicken'. Spokesman Eddie Gershon says:
"Wetherspoons has always taken food very seriously. If you go back 20 years, food was not a massive part of our offering, but now it generates £700m to £800m per year."

When the smoking ban came in, Wetherspoons saw it as a good opportunity to invest in the family dining aspect.

Eddie says: "We always had a children's menu, but due to smoking, people wouldn't want to take their kids in to eat. Food is the only thing we have on offer for the kids, we don't have any entertainment or anything.

"We don't make out that our food is Michelin-starred, but you don't want to patronise kids and their families, so we try to do healthy, good-value food with good provenance."

 

Playing to the parents

But the main thing to focus on is appealing to the parents, Eddie says. "Children aren't going to come in on their own — they come with their families."

He adds the other big thing the chain is trying to do is make sure the food quality is consistent across all 950 sites. "The days when pubs would serve any old rubbish are gone and we strive to make sure all our food is cooked to the same high standard," he says.

So with sustainable fish, free range eggs and "good-quality chicken", how are the prices in Wetherspoon so low? "That's the million-dollar question," Eddie says. "Wetherspoons looks to be competitive — other pubs charge a fair bit, but we're a big commercial company. Are we making money on the kids' meals? Absolutely.

"We've always been big on value and what people can't quite work out is that the food is as good and high quality — and it's cheaper. Some people are snobby about 'spoons but the fact the Soil Association ranked us so high across our big group takes hard work and good values."