WASHINGTON — Encouraged by Michelle Obama's campaign to reduce childhood obesity, the company that owns Olive Garden, Red Lobster and four other popular restaurant chains is pledging to cut the calories and sodium in its meals and overhaul its children's fare.
Darden Restaurants Inc. was unveiling the changes Thursday with the first lady on hand to lend support.
The company will pledge to reduce the calories and sodium in all its meals by 10 percent over five years and by 20 percent over 10 years. For children, French fries and sugar-sweetened beverages will become the exception and not the rule.
All children's meals will automatically come with a side of fruit or vegetables and eight ounces of 1 percent milk unless an adult requests a substitute Drew Madsen, president and chief operating officer of Orlando, Fla.-based Darden, said.
"We think it's the most comprehensive health and wellness commitment in the industry," he said.
Darden's restaurants serve more than 400 million meals annually at more than 1,900 locations nationwide. Its four other restaurant chains are LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52. The Capital Grille and Seasons 52 do not have children's menus.
Darden'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 have become 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 she wants to help today's youngsters become adults at a healthy weight by eating better and getting more exercise.
In a speech a year ago to the National Restaurant Association, 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 serving low-fat milk and healthy sides like apple slices or carrots and making 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.
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 healthy children's meals as the fourth-hottest restaurant trend, behind locally grown and sustainable foods.
The government 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's participation in Thursday's announcement, scheduled for an Olive Garden restaurant in the Washington suburb of Hyattsville, Md., will be her latest appearance with retailers and others in support of her anti-obesity efforts.
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.