The UK is in the grip of a childhood obesity epidemic. One in every three child is overweight or obese by the time he or she finishes school, and the cost of treatment is threatening to bankrupt the NHS.

What role do high street restaurants play in shaping the eating habits of British families? Is it exclusively the responsibility of parents to ensure that their children eat well, or should the onus be on restaurant chains to make healthy eating easy?These questions are at the forefront of the Soil Association’s Out to Lunch campaign.

Out to Lunch is working with parents to investigate the quality of children’s food in British high street restaurants and pubs. With the help of a team of 60 ‘secret diner’ families we surveyed 21 top chains in 2013 and then again in 2015, ranking their performance in an online league table.

In the course of our investigation we found a number of family-favourite chains offering menus laden with sugar and lacking in healthy options. Frankie & Benny’s and Pizza Hut were two of the worst sugar offenders, both offering unlimited refills of soft drinks and a calorific pudding menu. A straightforward lunch at Pizza Hut was found to include 44 sugar cubes, 745% of a child of 10’s daily sugar allowance.

Other chains, such as Zizzi and Pizza Express, offered an inflexible 3-course menu that excluded any fruit-based pudding options, while at Carluccio’s parents were hard-pressed to find a single side of veg with any main meal. When we challenged chains, suggesting that their menus should be more health-promoting, many responded according to the principle of parent choice, saying ‘it’s up to parents to ensure their children eat well’.

Parents disagree. A nationally representative sample of parent opinions, conducted by Research Bods on behalf of the Soil Association, garnered an emphatic response: 66% of parents said they didn’t think children’s food in high street restaurants was good enough. And when we asked parents what they wanted when they ate out, they told us they wanted restaurants to make life easier for families to enjoy a healthy treat.  

High street restaurants are increasingly influential actors that can fundamentally shape what children think good food looks like. 40% of parents told us that they are eating out with their families at least once a fortnight – high street chains are not an occasional treat, but are a prevalent presence that can shape child eating behaviours and impact on future health outcomes.

Out to Lunch is amplifying parent opinion by calling on high street chains to take seven simple steps to improve the service and food they offer children, including ensuring that healthy and balanced meals are provided, and that action is taken across supply chains to source more sustainable and better quality ingredients.

We’re also calling on government to send a clear message to chains that the marketing of unlimited refills of sugary soft drinks is irresponsible, and that steps will be taken to prohibit the practice if chains do not take action themselves.

The French National Assembly recently voted strongly in favour of a healthcare law amendment that will ban unlimited refills of sugary soft drinks in restaurants nationally. The UK Government should follow suit in the upcoming childhood obesity strategy by ensuring that chains know that no option is off the table.

A small group of chains are showing that good practice is possible and is achievable at scale. In the last two years Harvester has cut the calorie content of their kids’ menu, removing refillable soft drinks, introducing no added sugar options, and making tap water freely available. Wetherspoons – serving close to a million children’s meals every month – offers a fresh fruit pudding with every main meal, and serves farm assured beef, free range eggs, and sustainable fish, all at an affordable price. Jamie’s Italian uses quality organic ingredients, and money raised from a sugary drinks levy is supporting child health education projects nationally.

Hiding behind the false-premise of ‘parent choice’ is no longer a viable option for high street restaurants. Parents have said they want chains to support them to eat well by making the healthy choice the easy choice. Out to Lunch is calling for action from foodservice on the twin challenges of obesity and sustainability – it’s time that high street restaurants cleaned up their act and provided our children with the food and dining experience they deserve.

The full results of our investigation may be found here.