Upping the ante

02/01/2014 - 15:24
With schools and parents wanting their children to eat well, the pressure is on caterers to keep them well fed with tasty, compliant and affordable menus. Sheila Eggleston reports

Ever since the publication of the Government’s School Food Plan in July, interest in children’s menus has heightened. Coupled with research on children’s menus in UK restaurants that revealed lacklustre options, which hit the headlines, the foodservice sector knows it needs to raise the bar.

“First a report by the Soil Association and Organix found that eight out of Britain’s 21 leading restaurant chains do not include any vegetables in the majority of their children's meals, and only 11 out of 21 could say whether food was freshly cooked and where it came from,” says Susan Gregory, head of food at Nestlé Professional. “Then we heard that Annabel Karmel, a leading child nutritionist, has been forced to remove the word ‘healthy’ from a kids’ menu she devised for retail giant BHS after complaints that it included burgers, ice cream and chips.

“With one in three British children now overweight by the time they leave primary school, it is time for the industry to start making some changes. Children’s menus don’t need to be fried food like burgers and chicken nuggets, or indeed different from adult menus. On the continent, children simply have smaller portions of adult meals and this can be replicated in the UK.”

Brakes business unit director Wayne Tessier says the group supports the School Food Plan and will be doing all it can to help bring the vision to fruition.

“The plan contains exciting aspects such as the focus on quality of ingredients, increasingly sourced from the UK with nationally recognised accreditations such as Red Tractor and Freedom Foods. Seeing schoolchildren as customers who will only use the service and persuade their parents to use the service, if it is good enough, is another interesting perspective offered by the report.

“Brakes has been asked to work in partnership with LACA, CEDA and Annabel Karmel on food solutions for schools that, due to their size, struggle to achieve financial viability.”

Paul Rogers, operations director of Alliance in Partnership (AiP), says that hardly a day goes by without another negative story about poor standards in school catering and poor diets where children are concerned.

“AiP’s ethos is to provide fresh meals daily, which offer a high standard of nutrition, using ethically sourced ingredients at an affordable price,” he says. “One thing we undertake is to emulate high street favourites but in a healthier way – recreating popular dishes using Red Tractor meat, MSC approved fish, and locally sourced, organic or free range ingredients wherever possible.

“We’ve noticed a rise in popularity in global cuisines – maybe attributed to the fact that children eat out with parents more now. We also find that variety plays a large part in repeat sales. As well as rotation on our main menus, we also make sure there’s plenty of choice in our grab and go range, and we’ve recently introduced a ‘baguette of the month’ in several schools.

“We regularly have meat-free Mondays, which are also a hit with customers,” he adds. “From an economic standpoint, meat-free days allow us to spend more money on better quality meat for other dishes throughout the week.”

BPEX foodservice trade manager Tony Goodger says well-designed menus can have a positive impact on meal uptake. Parents are also concerned with knowing if the meat their children are eating is ‘good quality’, which suggests caterers should develop menus to appeal to parents too.

Burritos, fajitas, curries and stir-fries are easy to prepare and eat using wraps and bread to replace cutlery, he says. Recipes such as spiced collar flatbread and sang chow bow are in its booklet entitled: Perfect Fit. “The booklet encourages caterers to think about delivering tasty pork-based meals inspired by popular cuisines to deliver a successful children’s menu,” says Goodger.

Both BPEX and EBLEX say that lean red meat is a great contributor to a balanced diet and, when served with a portion of seasonal vegetables, provides essential vitamins and minerals during the day.

Roy Shortland, development chef for Dolmio and Uncle Ben’s at Mars Foodservice, says menu developers are under more pressure to produce quality food while keeping costs within budget.

“Add into the equation the School Food Plan, which looks to develop a financially-sound school food system that by 2018 is serving 70% of pupils against the current 43% figure, and the job becomes infinitely harder,” he says. “We are likely to see more developers plan to continue offering freshly made options daily, but call on compliant ready-to-use products that will help speed things up to increase uptake without compromising on quality.”

Shortland says there is an opportunity to treat kids as ‘foodies’ in their own right, and ultimately, he says children should not be patronised when it comes to food.

“Gimmicky doesn’t work for me, whether children are eating in a restaurant or tucking into a school meal. We go on about getting children to engage with food and understand it better, so why go down the novelty route? It should be about good quality, fresh ingredients that we, as adults, would expect to eat.”

Mark Taylor, foodservice channel controller at Premier Foods, says that with the time constraints many caterers face, products need to be quick and easy to use.

“Dessert is the final way for caterers to impress children. If children are impressed by this course, they are more likely to return to the school canteen for their meal on a regular basis.

“Offering desserts such as Angel Delight will be popular; mixed with natural yogurt and fresh fruit means it will count towards one of their 5-a-day and makes it a great source of calcium. Ambrosia individual custard and rice pots are also perfect for children. They come in a variety of flavours, are naturally low in fat, gluten-free, nut-free and suitable for vegetarians.

For a successful school meals service, it needs to be aligned with the whole school approach and teaching staff, says Jo Simmons, senior brand manager at McCain Foods.

“Great school food supports learning, a fact backed by the School Food Plan, papers published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition and by the Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning,” says Simmons. “Caterers shouldn’t be afraid to remind academic staff of this wherever possible as well fed students perform better and improve overall school results.”

McCain has recently launched a set of Simply Sweet Potato school recipes to download. They include enchiladas, savoury sweet potato muffins and Moroccan chicken stew, and were developed alongside a set of key stage one and two worksheets that teachers can use in classrooms to help provide a whole school approach to healthy eating.

Latest data from Technomic Research, commissioned by Mission Foodservice, reveals there has been substantial growth in the tortilla market, with the use of tortillas tripling on restaurants’ sandwich menus.

Tortilla wraps are also ideal for satisfying children’s more adventurous tastes in the cost sector, says head of sales Dave Edwards. Its children’s options include mini wraps, and recipes specifically for them include jerk chicken salad wraps, Cajun chicken quesadillas and smoky Quorn and scrambled egg wraps.

“Caterers can use table talkers and menu boards to promote them and run daily specials to see how popular the uptake is,” says Edwards. “If one dish in particular sells well, it can be considered as a permanent fixture on menus.”

Schools interested in running promotions can offer a meal deal consisting of a wrap, a drink and a piece of fruit for a set price, he adds, but it was important for caterers to follow feedback from students in order to get their offer right.

Adults love street food, and youngsters too have latched on to the trend. In response PK Food Concepts, which is well known for its Pasta King brand, has added Street Heats to its portfolio of innovative products. PK’s new street food range is aimed at youngsters and is available frozen or chilled, and designed for wraps, toasties, paninis, naans, rotis and pots.

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