HYATTSVILLE, Md. (AP) – Michelle Obama said Thursday that a pledge by the Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants and its sister chains to serve healthier meals is a “breakthrough moment” for the industry.
Darden Restaurants Inc. is pledging to cut calories and sodium in its meals by 20 percent over a decade. Among promised changes for children, a fruit or vegetable side and low-fat milk will become standard with kids’ meals unless a substitution is requested.
No more French fries for the little ones unless an adult asks for them.
“With this new commitment, Darden is doing what no restaurant company has done before,” said the first lady, who joined executives of Orlando, Fla.-based Darden for the announcement at an Olive Garden restaurant in Maryland, just outside Washington.
“This is a breakthrough moment in the restaurant industry. I believe the changes that Darden will make could impact the health and well-being of an entire generation of young people,” added Mrs. Obama, who is leading an effort to reduce U.S. childhood obesity rates.
The kids’ menu changes are scheduled to take effect next July at Darden’s 1,900 restaurants in 49 states. Its other brands are LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52. The Capital Grille and Seasons 52 do not have children’s menus.
“We want to ensure that those who dine with us find the choices that they desire,” said Clarence Otis Jr., Darden’s chief executive officer.
The company’s promise is part of a trend by the restaurant industry to serve healthier food.
Since the beginning of the year, McDonald’s, Burger King, Chili’s, IHOP, Friendly’s and more than a dozen other large and small chains have said they will begin replacing the French fries in children’s meals with fruit and removing enticing pictures of less healthy items from their menus.
Diners are becoming more health conscious and are asking for improvements, such as for their meals to be cooked without butter or with less salt or to be prepared any way but fried. Then there’s Mrs. Obama’s campaign to bring down childhood obesity rates.
One in three U.S. children is overweight or obese, putting them at greater risk of developing diabetes, heart disease or other health conditions. Mrs. Obama has said her goal is to help today’s youngsters become adults at a healthy weight by eating better and getting more exercise.
James Gavin, chairman of the board of the Partnership for a Healthier America, said the current generation of children is on track to be the first that will grow up to be sicker and live shorter lives than the generation before it. The organization was created to work with the private sector to help reduce childhood obesity.
In a speech to the National Restaurant Association one year ago this month, the first lady asked members to “actively promote healthy foods and healthy habits to our kids.”
Consumers, she said, spend half their food dollars on meals outside the home and eat one in three meals at a restaurant. She suggested that they begin serving low-fat milk and healthy sides like apple slices or carrots and make French fries available only upon request.
White House domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes said Darden’s announcement amounts to a “full-throated endorsement” of the types of changes Mrs. Obama has asked the nation’s restaurant owners and operators to make.
Margo Wootan, a nutrition advocate at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that revising restaurant food is a critical part of tackling the nation’s obesity problems.
“Eating out is such a huge problem in Americans’ diets,” Wootan said. “As a country we still have this mindset that eating out is a special treat and an indulgence, but people are eating our more regularly.”
Wootan said replacing something like French fries with fruit or vegetables will positively influence what people eat because most tend to stick with the default choice.
In a National Restaurant Association survey of chefs, two-thirds of those working in the kitchens of family dining, fine dining and fast-food restaurants said their customers were ordering healthier items and paying more attention to nutritional content than they did two years ago.
Similarly, chefs ranked healthful children’s meals as the fourth-hottest restaurant trend, behind locally grown and sustainable foods.
The government soon will begin requiring restaurants with 20 or more locations, along with bakeries, grocery stores, convenience stores and coffee chains, to include clear calorie counts on their menus.
Mrs. Obama participation in Thursday’s announcement was her latest appearance with retailers and others in support of her anti-obesity campaign.
In January, she stood with Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest grocer, as it pledged to reformulate thousands of products it sells to make them healthier and to push suppliers to do the same.
This summer, the first lady applauded as Wal-Mart, Walgreens drug stores and several regional grocers committed to help eliminate “food deserts” by opening or expanding in rural and urban areas without easy access to healthy foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables.
Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.