The Natural History Museum, London, came last in a survey of food served at popular family attractions

Poll: Are children's menus in museum cafes too unhealthy?

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 25.10.2016
National museums perform badly in survey of food at top UK attractions
A survey by the Soil Association has found that museums rank among the worst-performing attractions when it comes to offering healthy meals for children. 

The charity, which campaigns for better food and farming, looked at the UK’s top 20 family attractions for its Out to Lunch 2016 survey.

It found that the children’s menus in the Natural History Museum (NHM) and the British Museum, London, came bottom of the table in terms of offering fresh, healthy and family-friendly options.
The NHM ranked lowest, scoring 22 out of 150 on the league table; secret diners found that none of the children's meals in the museum’s cafe, which is run by the catering company Benugo, included a portion of vegetables, and free drinking water could not be found anywhere in the museum. The options on offer for children include cod goujons, pizzas, burgers and macaroni cheese.
Parents also felt that sweets were being “flogged” to children at museum shop checkouts, and found that the cafe lacked transparency about the provenance and quality of the ingredients it used.
“This seems notably at odds with the museum’s aim of inspiring debate over the future of the natural world,” the survey stated.

Similar problems were identified at the British Museum’s Great Court Restaurant and Gallery Cafe, also run by Benugo, which scored 23/150. Secret diners found that although adults could choose from a range of healthy meals, food for children was limited to choices like tomato pasta or sausage and mash.

Snacks and dessert options for children consisted largely of sugary, processed foods, with a lack of fresh fruit on offer, found the survey.

One diner was told that it would not be possible to add a portion of vegetables to their child’s meal, while another reported that the only drinking water taps they could find in the museum gave out scalding hot water.

Further up the table, Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery scored 55/150 for offering farm assured meat and free range eggs, as well as child-sized portions of adult meals, but its children’s menu was found to be dominated by chips and fried foods, and lunchboxes did not include any vegetable or salad options.
The Eden Project in Cornwall came top of the league, scoring 99/150 for freshly prepared meals that used locally sourced, seasonal and organic ingredients. The attraction won praise for promoting its core mission through the cafe, using the food served on the plate as "an opportunity to learn about where food comes from”.

The NHM said in a statement that Benugo’s cafes “exceed standard practice for ingredients’ provenance, welfare and farm assurance, and seasonality”.

“We look forward to engaging more fully in the survey next year and are confident that our high standards will result in a better ranking,” it added. The cafe’s menu is currently being redeveloped and will relaunch in December.

Do museum cafes need to raise their game when it comes to children's menus? Vote in the poll below and have your say.


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26.10.2016, 17:54
This has to take the biscuit for the silliest poll in a museum context I have ever seen. Of all the massively urgent issues facing museums today - is this important? Why does there have to be special 'childrens' food' at all? Will children's sized portions of 'adult' food not do? This is a fairly recent phenomenon surely - and one which teaches kids bad eating habits automatically. Adult food = healthy and varied, kids' food = of the fish fingers and chips/burgers type - it hardly helps children to learn good eating habits or start to enjoy a varied diet. If museum cafes, like any other place that serves food, serve a pleasant and wide range of meals and snacks, perhaps in small and large portions, then surely parents can make the choice? No parent, obviously, wants to have to order a huge portion for their six-year old which will go uneaten, but unless a child has special dietary needs, in which case you'd be bringing separate food for them anyway, what is wrong with letting them have the same soup, sandwich, sausage roll and salad or whatever, as their parents?
Geraldine Kendall
Staff Writer and Researcher, Museums Association
27.10.2016, 12:12
Hi anonymous, thank you for your comment but I have to disagree. Just because there are more urgent matters for museums at hand (which are given plenty of space for debate and analysis elsewhere on this website and in Museums Journal) doesn't mean this issue shouldn't be discussed at all. If a venue, especially one that will be visited by lots of children, serves food, it's only right that its practices should be interrogated.

We're in the midst of both an obesity epidemic and an environmental crisis - the survey results raise some important questions in relation to both of those issues. Are some museum cafes putting profit before health by flogging unhealthy, processed options with lower margins? Why is it so difficult to find out the provenance of the food they serve, especially in museums that have a strong environmental/eco-friendly mission? Why isn't drinking water freely available, as the law states it should be in any cafe or restaurant? Is it ethical to market sweets and unhealthy snacks directly to children at shop counters?

Regarding your point about why children need special menus - aside from the waste and expense of ordering a larger portion that gets left on the plate, which you rightly pointed out - it's all well and good saying children should learn varied eating habits, but it can be extremely difficult to get them to eat dishes with more complex flavours or unusual ingredients that are found on adult menus. If my son doesn't like the look of something he'll simply refuse it and go hungry - I'd prefer to have a children's menu with simpler dishes and flavours on it than not have him eat at all. There's nothing wrong with having children's menus, it would just be good if they had more healthy, fresh options.
28.10.2016, 09:49
Dear Geraldine

Point taken - though I suppose I am thinking of the food at our café - which is pretty simple and based entirely round soups, salads, sandwiches and quiches in which you'd be hard put to it to find a complex flavour or unusual ingredient anywhere!

I suppose this is merely the tip of the iceberg of healthy eating or lack of it - I do think it is pernicious to market certain menus as just for kids, as it does not encourage them to try anything new, and often it's the least healthy option, and over-priced too - with added gaudy packaging to attract children to it. It is part of a much larger problem concerning food and eating habits.

My sons are in their late teens and eat anything on the table and many things which aren't, but the girlfriend of one of them has grown up in a family where no-one ever cooks anything, she can't cook herself, and she does have problems when she comes to stay with us - she is genuinely unnerved by anything which goes beyond fish-and-chips-and-pizza, and though I do my best to compromise between her desire for chips and the boys' requests for curry, I think it is sad to see her so limited in this way - quite apart from the health issues, being able to enjoy different flavours can be an important part of learning about different cultures too. For very tiny children though, as you say, the issues are different.
Geraldine Kendall
Staff Writer and Researcher, Museums Association
01.11.2016, 09:54
Fair point :) most museum cafes don't have menus that are that complicated. I guess it was just on my mind because my son (who is a toddler) is going through a particularly picky phase at the moment so to him even a quiche is a bit too exotic. I'm hoping his tastes will have expanded a little by the time he's older! The issues are much bigger than that, as you say, museum cafes are just a tiny cog of the food industry. But if everyone took the time to think more deeply about the impact of what they're serving and where it comes from - and look after their own patch - it might just make a difference.