Trying to encourage my kids to have a healthy and balanced diet, I am very often frustrated to see the poor choice on kids’ menus when we are out and about. In restaurants, we now resort to ordering from the adults’ menu. In order to avoid the sugar-laden and unhealthy pre-packaged lunch box (and if I can get organised beforehand), I much prefer to bring our own lunch when visiting places such as museums. Still, once there, I am still facing an uphill battle against junk and sugary food directly marketed towards children.
The Soil Association’s Out to Lunch campaign has published today a new league table ranking children’s food and drink at the UK’s top visitor attractions. A very timely release with the upcoming October half-term. As aware as I am that the choices can be poor I was still shocked to see the results.
Working with an army of ‘secret diner’ parents, the Soil Association has uncovered unhealthy pre-packed lunchboxes, dodgy ingredients, and a lack of transparency about food sourcing practices in the UK’s most popular museums, art galleries, zoos, visitor centres, and theme parks, as well as some good food at reasonable prices.
- The survey found children’s lunchboxes lacking in healthy options and overloaded with sugar. A lunchbox at London Zoo included up to 36g of sugar – 189% of a child’s daily sugar allowance.
- Attractions served burgers flavoured with monosodium glutamate (MSG) and meals that included E-numbers linked to negative effects on children’s behaviours (E120, E123, E131, E151).1
- 75% of children’s lunchboxes surveyed didn’t include any veg or salad options.
- The British Museum, the most popular attraction in Britain, declined to confirm whether it uses any British produce or local ingredients. Only a minority of attractions said they used British ingredients throughout their menus.
- The Natural History Museum and Brighton Pier scored in joint last place in the league table. The Eden Project scored in first place.
Interestingly, the five bottom scoring attractions were on average more than £1 more expensive than children’s meals at the five top scoring attractions.
A lunchbox at London Zoo included up to 36g of sugar – 189% of a child’s daily sugar allowance. Kiosks in the Zoo sell fizzy drinks at a cheaper price than water. The Zoo offers a range of ZSL own-brand sweets, marketed directly at children, with fudge, cola bottles, and brightly coloured lollies positioned at child height for small hands to grab.
The Out to Lunch campaign has uncovered a lack of healthy choices for children at popular family attractions. 75% of children’s lunchboxes didn’t include any veg or salad options. 50% of attractions offered lunchboxes including muffins, cakes and sweet treats, but no fresh fruit. These findings come weeks after the Government announced new plans to tackle childhood obesity.
Secret diner parents reported that while sugary drinks were readily available, few attractions were prominently providing free fresh drinking water for children. When secret diner parents at 900-acre Alton Towers asked for a glass of tap water, they were refused and told to buy a bottle from the restaurant. Secret diners at Stonehenge commented that free drinking water was available for dogs but not families. At no attractions were healthy drinks the normal option in vending machines.
“Visitor attractions are making life hard for parents who want to enjoy a healthy and happy day out. Lunchboxes loaded with sugar and unimaginative ultra-processed foods are the norm. So long as junk-filled lunchboxes continue to dominate family outings, parents will have a hard time convincing their children that healthy food can be a treat too.” – Rob Percival, Soil Association Policy Officer.
The survey also found a lack of transparency over ingredient provenance and quality, with 50% of attractions failing to come clean about where they sourced their ingredients, including whether they used any British or local produce.
The Eden Project (1st place) and Chester Zoo (2nd place) topped the league table. Both attractions offered healthier meal choices. Chester Zoo served locally sourced milk and farm assured meat. All meals at the Eden Project were freshly prepared and included locally sourced meat and vegetables.
The Natural History Museum ranked in last place, having declined to disclose information regarding the provenance and environmental sustainability of its food. The Museum declined to comment on whether it serves sustainable fish, seasonal produce, or whether it takes action on food waste. The Museum menu and website make no statements regarding ingredient provenance, seasonality or sustainability. Other attractions were found to be serving chips pre-prepared in Holland, chicken nuggets shipped over from Thailand, and potatoes pre-mashed in Belgium.
“I’ve lost count of the lunchboxes and children’s meals we’ve encountered on family days out that I just won’t consider buying for my child – as a parent you get used to the disappointment. Healthy, real food must be a priority for family attractions – I’d be far more likely to come back if I knew my child would get some proper food.”- Anya Hart-Dyke, Out to Lunch secret diner parent.
An interactive league table profiling each attraction can be viewed on the Soil Association website
The Out to Lunch campaign is calling on attractions to take five simple steps to improve the food and experience they offer to children and families:
1. Ensure that all children’s lunchboxes and main meals include a portion of veg or salad
2. Ditch unimaginative ultra-processed foods and focus more on fresh ingredients
3. Protect parents from an over-abundance of sweet treats, which make it harder to enjoy a healthy and happy day out
4. Make free fresh drinking water available to families throughout their visit
5. Support British farmers by buying the best of British produce, including organic
As parents, we can all make a difference. So next time you are out, make sure to rate your food and take some pictures posting directly on the restaurant’s social media page using #OutToLunchUK .