Soft play centres ban parents from bringing their own food, and their children’s menus offer nothing but processed, high sugar junk. But can we really blame them if this is what the customer wants?
Any parent knows that keeping the kids entertained over the long summer holidays isn’t always easy, especially when the sun hasn’t made an appearance for almost a week. After four days of intermittent rain and having exhausted all other possible options, I headed to the local soft play with my son. After half an hour of being buried in sticky plastic balls and sustaining a nasty friction burn on my elbow, I stepped out for a break. As I sat there I looked around at the leftover detritus on the tables around me, and felt a mixture of horror and depression at the so called “lunch” these kids had just consumed; pappy white bread, sugary drinks, crisps, chocolate and synthetic jelly.
I decided to pop up to the café to investigate further, and discovered that for kids there were two options; the hot menu consisting of the usual chicken nuggets, fishfingers all with a portion of chips, or the “lunchbox” for which you could choose from a jam, ham or cheese sandwich and a selection of items from the fridge in the corner. On closer inspection this contained several shelves stuffed with chocolate bars, biscuits, crisps and jelly. Only the Babybels and Soreen offered a vague stab at nutrition, but everything was high in salt or sugar and almost completely devoid of any goodness. Nothing was even approaching fresh.
My kids being 4 & 6 I’ve visited a lot of playcentres in my time, and almost all of their children’s lunch menus look like this. Curvemotion in Bury St Edmunds (which comically calls its café a “bistro”) also offers a lunchbox containing a ham, cheese, jam or chocolate spread sandwich, crisps, a cookie, a pot of jelly and a carton of fruit juice, plus the usual fishfingers, chips, spag bol, burger or sausage and mash. Snakes & Ladders in Ipswich was marginally better replacing the cookie and jelly with a yoghurt tube (still high in sugar). Of course you can just opt out, but all play centres operate a strict policy preventing you from bringing your own food in, so if your kids do get peckish the only option is to feed them something from the menu.
After my visit I wrote to my local play centre challenging them about their lunch offerings. Although their response was downright hilarious in some parts (especially when they claimed to have made their menu healthier by removing all day breakfasts and burgers, and offering chunky chips as well as skinny fries) on the whole it was as I expected. They admitted that the content of their lunchbox fridge needed reviewing, but that on the whole they are simply providing visitors with what they want. In the past offering fresh food has resulted in a lot of waste, leading to price hikes for the consumer.
I suspect the reason is two-fold. Highly processed junk food is cheaper and less labour intensive, therefore much more profitable. That much is obvious. More worryingly I think the argument that they are simply catering to market forces is probably also true. I’d love to see a play centre break the mould but I suspect that if one were to offer hummus wraps and crudités alongside the crisps and jelly, the uptake would be fairly pitiful. There’s clearly a much bigger question to be asked here. At a time when there’s never been more information about childhood obesity, tooth decay and the dangers of a high sugar diet, why do we still stubbornly insist on making the wrong food choices for our kids?