It’s all a matter of context…

Kathie Auton - 14 May 2013

Eating out at StradaSo, I’ve been out for my two research meals as an undercover eater (or something), one of around 50 parents doing this for the Soil Association’s Out to Lunch campaign. Two very different meals, I should say. Some highs, some lows and a whole lot of food... for thought.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the whole eating-out-with-kids game. The Soil Association were recruiting volunteers for their research into what’s on offer in restaurants for our kids. The team of volunteers are now duly recruited and are out there in restaurants with their kids, answering the 13 salient questions and trying to subtly write things down without coming across all Jay Rayner about it.

It does rather focus your opinions though, going to a restaurant with a questionnaire in hand and research brain engaged and I now have a few rather more clear thoughts on the matter. Most people do, it turns out. Everyone I’ve talked to about this agrees it’s a really interesting topic - eating out with kids - and gets right to the heart of many of our thinkings about food, family, money, waste, healthiness et cetera, et cetera. You’ll have views of your own, but here are some reflections of mine based on my two research meals at Strada and Burger King.

Burger King toyNow, one of these meals was significantly better than the other, but I’m very keen not to get into snooty, predictable, burger-bashing here. So I’ll start with Burger King and what was good about it, before touching on the slightly more depressing aspects. We went to the Eastgate branch in Bristol and it is a clean, modern, pretty cool-looking restaurant. It’s rather like an American diner and has a climbing frame playground bit outside, so the kids were thrilled when we pulled up.

The food is fast, often a good thing when you’ve got hungry children. The staff were friendly, helpful and polite. There was music on, but it wasn’t too loud. There are tables and booths to choose from, all clean and in good nick. In fact there’s a cleaner doing a constant circuit round and round the restaurant. The salad in our grown-up burgers was beautifully fresh. The kids adored their free toy, which was actually a reasonably decent bit of plastic tat - plastic tat definitely, but sturdy and not totally rubbish. That’s the good stuff.

The not-good stuff all rather depresses me. Not because of the obvious arguments, like that Burger King isn’t healthy. Of course it isn’t healthy – it’s a burger joint. And being healthy isn’t always what’s needed when you’re eating out. I’m much more likely to pour cream on a pud as part of a meal out than when I’m home; surely indulgence is part of the pleasure of a meal out? Having said that the calories for a kid’s meal at BK are stratospheric. It’s slightly baffling how they get so many calories into such a small amount of food really. But, no, it isn’t the unhealthiness that really bothers me.

What bothers me is that this isn’t a meal out. It’s fodder. It’s fast food. Trying to analyse it as a ‘meal out’ venue just doesn’t work. Yes, you do sit down to eat, but that’s the only part of the experience that bears any resemblance to a family meal. And to be fair to Burger King, they aren’t really aiming to be a ‘meal out’ type of venue are they? A friend told me she goes to BK at motorway services on long journeys with the kids and they love it. That context I get, stopping for a quick feed, but a meal out?

You can be seduced into thinking that £2.99 is cheap for a kid’s meal, and it is when compared to £6.50 at Strada; but this is not a like-for-like comparison. BK is not a meal out. We spent £18 for all of us, and the whole experience took about ten minutes. So, if you can reconcile yourself to the fact that this is just purely grab-a-bite type eating, then it’s okay, but don’t let’s pretend that popping to Burger King is a family meal out.

I had more of a ‘meal’ experience a few days later when my daughter and I popped into the café at the Ikea opposite, 99p for her organic pasta and parmesan and a free piece of fruit, proper cutlery, an actual plate and a sit down and natter over our lunch. For the time we spent at Burger King, £18 didn’t feel like a bargain. The kids didn’t even finish their food, not because it was too much but because they were distracted by the toy and it was all a bit dull. I wouldn’t have minded the calorie hit so much if they’d actually thought it was tasty, but they didn’t, it was a bit boring to be honest. Next time we’ll swap the fries for the ‘apple fries’ - sticks of apple cut up like chips, which I really wish we’d had because they sound exactly like the sort of good idea needed to counterbalance the burger.

So, for me that’s what I thought was a shame. You buy something called a ‘kid’s meal’, but it’s not really a meal in the sense that I understand it. BUT, it really could be. I wish Burger King would change a few things: put salad and pickles in the kids’ burgers - just put it there as standard, don’t assume they won’t want it, it’s in your grown-up burgers and it’s good; please let us recycle the colossal pile of recyclables we ended up with on our table - I know you recycle out back (I asked and you were very helpful about it) but everything you give the customer just goes in the bin - recycling bins would take the same space wouldn’t they? And could you think about using British meat? One of your main competitors does...

Vegetable colouring in at StradaThe Strada meal was a meal out. A proper meal out with the kids. To be focussed about it, there were several things they got right from my point of view. We liked the colouring-in kids' activity; it was ever-so subtlety healthified, vegetable outlines which you added silly faces to to make characters. The kids’ drinks on offer were fruit juice, water, milk or a ‘fruity cooler’ - which is a decent Belvoir cordial and water served ‘over ice’; I like this. It’s special, it’s eating-out but it’s not excessive - the kids declared it ‘a fancy restaurant’.

The kids’ menu is good, but they can also have half portions of anything on the main menu. They can have an ice lolly for pudding - 26 calories and pure fruit. They had proper metal cutlery for children. They source their red meat locally and all their chicken is free-range. The kids’ menu uses proper Italian names for things and the Italian-ness of the meal is at the fore – something that’s important to me because I think eating out is an opportunity for experiencing different cuisines... not that we don’t cook pasta endlessly at home, but you know what I mean. There was a lot of food for a three-year-old though, and a flat rate of £6.50 means we’re buying more than you need - why does no-one do sliding scales of portion sizes for kids?

Okay, a Strada kid’s meal is over twice the price of a Burger King one, but it depends what you think you’re buying as to what judgements of value you bring to this. I would certainly think £6.50 was too steep for a quick bite grabbed on the hoof, but perhaps not for a longer, quality meal out with three courses, quality ingredients and plenty of family chit-chat. I’d also think £2.99 was a pretty good deal for a quick meal on a long journey, I’d feel a hell of a lot better about it if they put a bit of salad in with the burger though, and maybe a free bit of fruit instead of such an elaborate toy? Just a thought... sometimes £2.99 can be a bargain and sometimes it feels like a rip-off - it depends on the context.

So, where does this leave me on the eating out topic? Probably with another host of questions... What’s the point of your meal out? Is it a treat? Is it because you need a quick bite of something? Is it family time? Is it a regular thing? Where you go and how much you spend depends on all these sort of questions doesn’t it?

And that brings me to my final point. Context. Giving your meal out a context might be one of the most useful things you can do to avoid the onslaught of marketing, the complacent expectation of ‘treats’, the taking for granted of quality or the craving of rubbish. Tell them why you’re eating out: ‘We’re just stopping here for a quick bite because we’ve got another three hours until we get to Cornwall...’, ‘We’re going out for a special family meal together because we’ve all be working hard lately…’ - why you’re there in the first place will dictate some of your expectations

Kathie has two young children and is taking a break from teaching to be a full-time mum. She is passionate about cooking and growing good food and takes any opportunity to get her kids involved in the kitchen.

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10 July 2013 14:48

A very detailed review, incredibly informative and pretty fair I thought. I think you are right a quick stop somewhere is very different to a proper family meal out.Thanks for writing.

15 May 2013 11:08

Re: Strada's portion size for children, Pizza Express will do an even more miniature portion from their kids' Piccolo menu, at about half the price. Which is ideal for toddlers. They also serve food on china plates, with proper cutlery and good colouring in distractions. And the staff are endlessly patient with kids too.

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