Ready meals for kids

As kids become bombarded by the ready-meal market, Carol asks, what's wrong with what the adults eat?

Ready mealsI'm sure I'm not alone in noticing the amount of food advertising aimed at children. Companies spend millions of pounds bombarding kids with adverts for foods that are often high in fat, sugar and salt. A whole range of popular breakfast cereals, for instance, feature favourite cartoon characters and free toys are often included as an extra incentive.

But it's not just children that are being targeted, it's parents too. A huge market has grown up in children's ready meals, as manufacturers successfully tap into parents' concerns about their children's health, by offering an ever increasing range of brightly packaged frozen, chilled, organic, 'healthy' meals. The ages targeted range from 6 months to 15 years, with meals including cottage pie, Lancashire hotpot, lasagne, curry, pasta, risotto and exotic desserts made with mangoes, guavas and pomegranates.

TV ads try to convince us that ready-made meals are much better than anything we could make at home; but - think about it - given that many of theseKids' food are mass-produced in factories, is this credible?

Why do we need special foods for kids anyway? Why do we think that children won't be happy to eat the same foods as adults? After all, until Gerber created baby food in 1927, babies ate a puréed version of what adults ate and 'children's meals' didn't exist at all until the late 1970s.

The rest of Europe expects children to eat the same meals as the grown ups, whether in a restaurant or at home. In France, Spain and Italy, the evening meal is a time for the whole family to sit down together and talk about their day.

In Britain, some enlightened restaurants do offer smaller portions from the adults menu, but there are lots of 'family restaurants' offering special children's menus featuring the usual uninspiring fish fingers, sausages, burgers, chicken nuggets, et al.

I was in a smart restaurant in Italy recently, when a large family group arrived - children, parents, grandparents and a very young baby. The staff welcomed them with smiles and cooed over the baby in his basket. There was no special menu for children. The children aged from about two to 12 years, ate exactly the same as the adults, just smaller portions. No one made a fuss - they just enjoyed their meal together as a family.

As a mum myself, my experience is that children who grow up with fresh, home cooked food develop a love of food and enjoy tasting new foods. A survey by Dairy Farmers of Britain revealed that many children have no idea where their food comes from and has launched a campaign to reconnect children with their food. Let's hope it succeeds.