The Soil Association has released its annual survey into the country’s most popular restaurant chains to find out the healthiest places for our children to eat. SARAH SINGLETON reports on some surprising findings

FAST food chain Burger King, which has a branch in Swindon’s Dudmore Road, came bottom in a survey of UK restaurants providing healthy eating for kids.

The list, compiled by the Soil Association, was released on World Obesity Day, when governments around the world were urged to tackle soaring obesity rates and a ticking time bomb of ill health.

They were rated on the provision of fresh, traceable food, the availability of healthy choices and family friendliness.

Jamie’s Italian came top of the list – though you would have to travel to Bath or Oxford for one – and Wetherspoons was second, a pub chain with three outlets in Swindon: the Savoy, the Sir Daniel Arms and Dockle Farm House.

Burger King came in last for the third time in a row and was criticised for its long list of fizzy drinks and sugary puddings, the lack of healthy options such as vegetable sides, and the lack of information on the sources of their food.

Nearly one in 10 children in Swindon is obese by the time they enter the reception class at school, according to the National School Measurement Programme 2016-17 – and if you add this to the number who are overweight, the proportion of children with excess weight rises to 23.2 per cent.

By the time children reach year 6, 17.4 per cent are obese – nearly one in five – and 32.7 per cent are carrying excess weight.

Fiona Dickens, public health programme manager for Swindon Borough Council said the figures were average for the UK and welcomed the Out to Lunch project.

“It makes it easier for parents to go out and eat together,” she said. “Portion size is so important. We welcome a scheme like this which supports restaurants that offer more child-size portions.”

The Soil Association teamed up with TV chef and food campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to reveal the best and worst of 25 children’s menus – based on a survey of online menus, a survey sent out to the restaurants and research by parents recruited to carry out secret investigations into the food and service at the UK’s most popular chains.

Swindon nutritional therapist Helen Auburn said parental choice, availability and education were all key elements to improve the diet of children and young people.

“Everyone has a choice of where to eat. Somewhere like Jamie’s is going to have traditional Italian food, with a wider choice. Go to a burger place and you’re going to have a burger and a bun.”

The therapist, who is based in Old Town, said: “With teens it’s a bit different as they have a free rein and choose where they eat.

“It’s down to education and having more choice in the area.”

Wetherpoons pubs were praised for their healthy drinks, flexible menu and use of sustainable fish, free range RSPCA eggs and British beef, as well as food information on the menu.

Eddie Gershon, a spokesman for the chain, said: “We have a number of pubs in Swindon, and we’ve been operating in the town for a number of years.

“More and more people are coming to the pub with their children, and they expect good quality food for them.

“We are proud to say we take that very seriously.”

Several other Swindon eateries found themselves in the bottom five for their children’s menus – including Nando’s and Prezzo, which have restaurants in Regent Circus, and KFC, which has several outlets in the town.

A spokesman for Nando’s defended their menu: “We try to give parents and children as much choice as possible so that they can enjoy our peri-peri chicken as part of a balanced diet.

“Our Nandinos menu is aimed at the under-10s, and we provide a range of different meat, veggie and dessert options, including more healthy choices such as chicken breast fillet strips, veggie strips, corn on the cob, little tomatoes and fruit ice lollies.”

He said they had a free water machine and offered organic milk or squash for children, and did not have refillable soft drinks. Nutritional information for their food is also available on their website.

The research revealed restaurants serving oversized children’s puddings – one pudding at Hungry Horse was found to include 78g of sugar, more than 400 per cent of a child’s daily sugar allowance.

Chains could do more to support British farmers, the Soil Association said – some places were serving potatoes from Egypt, apples from Canada, and a side salad with ingredients sourced from 32 different countries.

Meal price did not determine where chains were scoring in the league table – the average meal price at the top five chains was cheaper than at the bottom five chains.

It was not all bad news, however – the Out to Lunch league table shows that children’s food has undergone overall improvement since the campaign was launched in 2013. Now 13 chains serve a portion of vegetables or salad with every meal, up from six in 2013, and 12 include organic ingredients, up from four.

Rob Percival, of the Soil Association, said: “Thanks to our secret diner families, Out to Lunch is transforming children’s food on the high street – many restaurants are now prioritising child health and investing in healthier and more creative meal options. But there is still a national scandal unfolding in plain sight: 75 per cent of UK parents say they are worried by the portion size of children’s puddings when they eat out.

“We found that renegade chains are ignoring parent concerns by dishing up super-sized calorific junk, undermining national efforts to tackle childhood obesity.”

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall joined several Out to Lunch secret diners, filming their experiences for his new BBC1 series focusing on the UK’s national obesity crisis.

He said: “I’m delighted that two chains have risen to our challenge and gone some way to stop selling children ‘bottomless’ fizzy drinks — which of course amounts to ‘all the sugar you can eat’, and some chains have also reduced the shocking amount of calories that are often found in puddings. Recognising that this is completely irresponsible is a big step forward. But there’s still much more to do be done.”

The Out to Lunch campaign is calling on all high street pubs, restaurants and cafes to serve two portions of vegetables with every child’s meal, to make sure puddings are an appropriate size, to make water freely available to stop promoting sugary drinks and to offer quality ingredients such as free range and organic.

Parents who are worried about their children’s weight can visit NHS Choices online and use the body mass index calculator to work out if they are overweight.

Ms Dickens said: “Be a role model for your children. Eat a healthy diet and be more active.

“The recommended amount of physical activity for a child is 60 minutes a day. Portion size is very important, and making sure they have breaks in screen time.

“Sleep is also a factor – have a structured routine to encourage them to sleep well, as people eat more when they don’t get enough sleep.”