FOOD REVIEW: Making eating fun for children

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School has just broken up and everyone needs a treat. But when you are looking for somewhere to eat out with children what comes top of your list?

Is it top quality nosh, reasonable prices or anywhere the little ones won’t constantly complain about being bored?

On a cold Saturday afternoon – and we have had more than enough of those recently – it might just be somewhere you can relax and catch up with friends.

This is often easier said than done. So for once I turned the selection process upside down.

We arranged to meet friends at the Play Arena on Little London Road where I knew the children would be more than happy. We were going to have lunch too but our expectations weren’t too high.

The Play Arena describes itself as Sheffield’s largest and most innovative play centre. It certainly is big.

Once we had paid the entry charge - £5.95 for everyone aged between one and 12 - it was clear there was lots to keep the youngsters busy.

There is a special area for under ones and a toddler area boasting an enormous twirling octopus – and that is before you get into the main play area.

With the children all occupied, it gave the grown-ups chance to peruse the menu.

Immediately it was clear there were going to be a few surprises.

You order your food at the counter and the homemade cakes looks delicious – nothing pre-made and tasting like cardboard here.

There are lots of options on the children’s menu, as you might expect, but also lots of nice stuff for adults too.

I opted for warm goat’s cheese salad (£4.95), which at less than a fiver was the cheapest nice salad dish I’ve seen anywhere.

Wondering if it was too good to be true and imaging a teeny tiny portion, I also asked for a side dish of roasted Mediterranean veg (£1.75).

The kids went for good old sausage, mash and peas (£3.50) and margarita pizza (£4.50).

The only moan I would have is that there is no menu for toddlers so I ordered Jaden cheesy pasta (£2.95), knowing he would only eat a bit of a portion designed for children much older than one. Although it was quite busy and the vast majority of the tables were taken, our food arrived fairly quickly.

The challenge then was tracking down the older kids among the maze of padded play.

Most of the tables at Play Arena are fairly small and my salad, far from being a measly helping, was big and in an even bigger bowl.

It was really delicious. The salad veg was fresh, the goats cheese grilled to perfection and the dressing very tasty. What a great surprise. The roast veg were just as good and fantastic value - a combination of aubergines, courgettes, peppers and onions tasting just like you were in a restaurant rather than a children’s attraction.

The sausage and mash disappeared quickly and the only quip was that there were lumps in the potato. Well, that shows it was made from real potatoes and not out of packet I retorted in that ‘annoying mother’ way.

The pizzas are big and thankfully also not out of a packet. It was a hit although, personally, I would have tried some of the more interesting toppings on offer, rather than the ever faithful cheese and tomato.

That was it. The children were off. They completely forgot to mention pudding in their rush to get back to playing.

Now that in itself is a complete luxury, as any parent will tell you.

So me and my friend treated ourself to a delicious cappuccino (£2 for a medium) and some rather amazingly uninterrupted gossip. How refreshing. I have to be honest - the food, drink and play is good at Play Arena. But at times there are so many children running around it can be a bit too much when you are eating.

However, isn’t that part of what I was looking for? Somewhere the youngsters can enjoy themselves and nobody minds too much?

The children did eventually come back and ask for dessert. The lemon sponge (£2.10) and chocolate cake all tasted as delicious as they looked. And for 50p the baby had a breadstick with one end dipped in chocolate and hundreds and thousands.

Sounds weird but a great idea if you want a treat for littles ones that isn’t too unhealthy.

My favourite bit of this lunch experience? Watching the baby go down the rollerslide.

The older kids highlight? The air-cannon shooting range. Kept them busy for ages.

And all our tummies agreed that the food was a definite winner. You can’t ask for more than that then.