When Melbourne father of three Jonathan Pangu dines out with his family, he is often disappointed in the kids’ menu.
“You can predict the menu before you’ve even seen it,” he said.
“It is nuggets and chips, and the usual suspects of spag bol and fish and chips.
“It’s all very beige … it’s all pretty boring.”
The sameness of these menus prompted Mr Pangu to start Death To Nuggets, a campaign for better children’s food in restaurants and cafes.
“I just saw that no-one had really given it any thought since the 1970s, which is amazing in a town like Melbourne where so much energy, talent and passion goes into our food,” he told ABC Radio Melbourne‘s Hilary Harper.
“We’ve got to this lowest-common-denominator approach where as long as the kids just sit and eat quietly, we’re happy.”
But Mr Pangu is not happy.
He said kids’ menus could and should play a role in encouraging healthier eating in children.
“When you look at the stats around food — rising levels of obesity, diet-related health problems — you see that we need to do something different.”
Death To Nuggets holds dining events for children and their parents. (Supplied: Andy Diprose)
Will reverse fish and chips do the trick?
Death To Nuggets works with interested cafes and restaurants to improve their children’s menus and also promotes establishments that serve healthy food to kids.
It also leads by example, holding regular events where children aged five to 13 are presented with exciting, healthy meals.
The menus for the events are filled with playful dishes such as “reverse fish and chips”.
“The chips look like fish and the fish look like chips,” Mr Pangu said.
“A little bit of fun and imagination goes a long way — an interesting name, something a little bit daft.”
The dishes are designed to tempt even the fussiest eaters.
“We’ve done a grazing plate in the past [where] there’s loads of different things to pick at; if they don’t like one thing they’ll move onto another,” Mr Pangu said.
He said such dishes took the pressure off children and allowed them to enjoy eating.
It was an approach parents could also take when preparing meals at home, he said.
“We’re role models … The behaviour that we exhibit rubs off on the kids.
“Making time to eat, eating together, all of these things are kind of important.”
Colour and variety is key
Dietician Nicole Dynan said that when at home, young children should be eating the same meal as the rest of the family.
She said she would like to see restaurants make kids’ menus more like the ones for adults.
“If there was some sort of pasta dish for the adults, it would be nice to have a modified version of that [for children],” she said.
Ms Dynan said the secret to feeding children was colour and variety, and by thinking creatively it was even possible to get children to eat salad.
“They love things like iceberg lettuce, cucumber, carrots.”
She said there was no reason for a restaurant to serve a processed chicken nugget when they could serve real chicken instead.
Mr Pangu said he called his initiative Death To Nuggets because they “were a good symbol of everything that’s going wrong with the food that we’re eating”.
“Most factory-made nuggets are 30 per cent chicken. What’s the rest of it? You probably don’t want to know.”
Creative challenge for chefs
Mr Pangu said he wanted to inspire chefs to put as much thought and creativity into kids’ food as they did into adult’s meals.
“Chefs and restaurants have had such an impact on our adult culture, done loads of interesting things — I think they can have a positive impact here too.”
While accepting that chefs were “super busy and stretched”, Mr Pangu said there were ways to incorporate better kids’ food into the menu without placing an extra burden on the kitchen.
“Some of the cafes we’ve worked with have adapted items off the adult menu to make it fit for kids,” he said.
“That means less ordering, the kitchen is all set up for it already, it goes through nice and easy.”
He said making good kids’ food also required interesting presentation, a skill already “part of the chef’s armoury”.
“It’s a good creative challenge,” he said.
“Kids are highly creative, highly visual, so that’s a good fun brief to have.”
Mr Pangu said parents also had to be prepared to pay more for better food for their children.
“We’ve got to this point where it’s $6 or $7 a plate for some beige fried food,” he said.
“But this is our kids, they’re supremely important to us and so is their health and their happiness — I’d argue its worth spending a little bit more.”