A family outing to a restaurant should be a treat, and not one that shortens children's lives or leaves them with thickened arteries. But young diners' menus at some of the nation's most popular eateries are dangerously unhealthy. Wherever parents choose to go this summer they are unlikely to escape the tyranny of the chip, the burger and the chicken nugget.
A survey of 141 children's meals served in restaurants, cafés and leisure centres found every one failed to meet nutritional guidelines for school meals. An apple or other fruit was a rare sighting and only two establishments offered fresh vegetables. There were lashings of fat, salt and sugar but too little of vitamins, minerals and fibre.
Researchers from the Food Commission visited the family restaurant chains Garfunkel, Beefeater and Harvester, they ate in popular attractions including London Zoo and the Natural History Museum, and bought meals in children's play centres and department stores including John Lewis and Ikea.
Their view is echoed by many of Britain's leading chefs, who welcomed the report, to be published this week. The restaurateur Antonio Carluccio, who has five grandchildren, aged five to 10, said: "There are a lot of crimes committed in the name of food. People are ignorant ... I don't take my grandchildren [to these places]. I would rather take them to a delicatessen and give them a couple of slices of ham with bread.
"A well-balanced diet is everything - well-chosen food that is produced nicely. Then there is no reason why children shouldn't eat everything."
Antony Worrall Thompson, restaurateur and television chef, who has two children, aged seven and eight, said: "I wouldn't take my children. Any branded meal should have calorie-counts. But they are all the same, awful, terrible.
"I hate kiddie meals anyway. You can always have a half main portion for children. What's the point of making happy faces that are deep-fried, or chicken nuggets that are deep-fried? People give their kids things to shut them up, rather than thinking about it, and kids get the taste for it - it's like drug culture."
A spokesman for Jamie Oliver said he was so unhappy with the children's food offered in restaurants that he was now doing his own investigation into the issue.
According to the new report, the meals had no shortage of waist-expanding calories. Among the unhealthiest was Harvester's Rib Ticklers meal which contained more than twice the calories, and four times the fat recommended for a child aged seven to 10. Harvester said yesterday it was aware of the report and was modifying the meal as a consequence.
A chicken nugget meal called a "healthy option" served up in Wacky Warehouse, the chain of soft play centres for children, still contained too much saturated fat, too many calories and too little fibre, iron, calcium, vitamins A and C, and folic acid, despite its "healthy" label. A Wacky Warehouse spokesman, Mark Beeston, said: "We agree with the Food Commission that the sodium levels in our chicken nuggets are too high, and had already taken steps to significantly reduce it. These changes will be implemented in all of our Wacky Warehouses as soon as possible."
A similar meal of chicken nuggets served in a Garfunkel restaurant registered the highest level of saturated fat in the survey, at five times the recommended amount for a five-year-old.
Garfunkel's won a Nasty Nosh award last year because of the poor quality of its children's meals from the 1,800-member Parents Jury established by the Food Commission. Parents were critical of the "heavily processed" offerings which provided a "mainly fried and unimaginative choice".
As more meals are eaten outside the home, the calories and nutrients in restaurant food are likely to make a significant contribution to children's diets, the Food Commission says.
Rachel Foulds, author of the research, said: "Most meals analysed were energy-dense and low in fibre and essential vitamins and minerals. We found a woeful lack of fruit and vegetables on the menus. Those that included pudding on the menu failed to offer any fruit. It was very difficult to choose a healthy meal from the children's menus."
The lack of healthy choices was the biggest failing identified by the researchers from London Metropolitan University. The nutritional guidelines against which the meals were compared were drawn up by nutrition and health charity, the Caroline Walker Trust, and were adopted by government departments in England in 1996. They state that a single meal should provide no more than a third of a child's recommended daily intake of calories, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates or added sugar. They should also provide no less than 30 per cent of the recommended intake of protein, fibre and vitamin A, 35 per cent of vitamin C and calcium and 40 per cent of iron.
Annie Seeley, nutritionist and co-ordinator of the Food Commission's Parents Jury, said: "Families are eating out more than ever before but these meals perpetuate the cultural norm that children's foods should be highly processed and devoid of fresh vegetables or fruit.
"These outlets must take greater responsibility and improve the quality of their children's meals."
Is there a healthy alternative?
We asked the leading chef Antony Worrall Thompson yesterday to devise an alternative, healthier, tastier menu to the children's menu on offer at the Science Museum in London.
Mr Worrall Thompson said: "You have to let kids be kids and give them fun things, but my theory is to try and bring them up eating the same as adults, only smaller portions."
At the Science Museum yesterday, parents were unimpressed with the standard of food on offer. "It's just so unhealthy," said Emma Harpin, as her four-year-old son James tucked into a bowl of chips smothered in tomato ketchup. "You have to have lunch here because you are here all day," said Mrs Harpin, 33. "He absolutely loves the museum but the food is a problem. He likes healthy food."
After picking at his chips, James moved on to the ice-cream. "I dread to think how many calories it's got," Mrs Harpin said. James looked less concerned, but he did have one complaint: "It's a bit rich," he said.
The Science Museum's head, Jon Tucker, denied the food was a problem.
"Of course we can't force our visitors to buy healthy meals for children, but we certainly can and do provide healthy choices," he said.
Andrew Johnson and Steve Bloomfield
'CHILDREN'S MEAL PACKAGE' AT THE SCIENCE MUSEUM'S
DEEP BLUE CAFÉ
Corn on the cob and chips
Mini margherita pizza or Pasta with cheese and tomato sauce
Jelly or Organic ice-cream
Orange squash or Blackcurrant squash
Main course, dessert and drink: £3.95
ANTONY WORRALL THOMPSON'S HEALTHY JUNIOR MENU
Salad - smoked mozzarella cheese, salami, avocado, yellow cherry tomatoes and lettuce
Fried rice with vegetables
Corn on the cob with mash or Cheese and pasta bake layered with fresh vegetables
Fresh fruit with yoghurt
Milk or Pure fruit juice
Estimated cost: £3.95