ORLANDO, Fla. —Children's meals at Red Lobster, Olive Garden and other chains owned by Orlando-based Darden Restaurants are getting healthier.
The world's largest casual-dining company on Thursday enlisted in Michelle Obama's campaign to help young people lose weight and immediately won the first lady's praise.
"This is a breakthrough moment in the restaurant industry," Michelle Obama said as she joined Darden chief executive officer Clarence Otis at an Olive Garden in Hyattsville, Md., near Washington, D.C. "I'm here because I believe the changes Darden will make could impact the health and well being of an entire generation of young people."
Under the plan, the restaurants with kids' menus will emphasize fruits, vegetables and low-fat milk.
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The changes go beyond what children get to eat. Across all its offerings, Darden plans to cut calories and salt by 10 percent over five years and by 20 percent over a decade through tinkering with recipes, cutting portions, removing some fatty or salt-laden foods and adding healthier fare.
Children's meals will come with sides of fruit or vegetables and 1 percent milk unless an adult requests a substitute. Sodas and fries will not be listed on the menus, but in most cases can be requested.
The children's changes will take place by July 2012, although some have already started. Olive Garden earlier this year dropped french fries and milkshakes from its kids meals, replacing them with grapes and fruit smoothies.
The revisions also will happen at LongHorn Steakhouse and Bahama Breeze. Darden's other chains, Seasons 52 and Capital Grille, do not have menus for kids.
Darden, which serves more than 400 million meals a year, said Michelle Obama's fight against childhood obesity prompted it to act.
"Because of our first lady's leadership, parents are more aware of the need to encourage healthier living and exercise," Otis said at the announcement with the first lady. "At Darden, we want to support that effort."
The first lady began her campaign in the midst of what many consider a U.S. health crisis. Half of Americans are expected to be obese by 2030. One in three American children is already overweight or obese.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group that has often bashed restaurants such as Olive Garden and Red Lobster for their high-calorie fare, applauded the plan.
"I think it's a meaningful step," said Margo Wootan, the center's director of nutrition policy. "There's always more work to do. But... it takes time for Americans to adjust their taste preferences and their attitudes about eating out."
Wootan said children's meal changes are particularly important "because it shapes their thinking about eating out for the rest of their life. If when they're young... they think a restaurant menu always comes with fries and a soda, they're going to eat that way for the rest of their life."
But the fact is, fatty food in huge amounts often sells.
Olive Garden's 1,030-calorie fried lasagna appetizer — deemed "food porn" by the Center for Science in the Public Interest — started out as a limited-time special but was popular enough to become a permanent menu item.
Still, Darden has already made some successful forays into healthier eating. Its Seasons 52 chain, where no item on the menu has more than 475 calories, has performed well and is growing.
Still, as it makes changes, Darden's restaurants won't remove every scale-tipping dish.
"We don't plan on giving up the items we know people love," said Bob McAdam, Darden's senior vice president of government and community affairs. "There are favorites on every one of our menus.... Indulging in those items is a good thing to do from time to time."