HYATTSVILLE, MD. (AP) - Michelle Obama said Thursday that a pledge by the Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants and their 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 10 percent by 2016, and 20 percent over a decade. Among promised changes for children: no more french fries. A fruit or vegetable side will become standard with kids' meals. One percent milk also will be served, including free refills, unless an alternative drink is ordered.
"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 Hyattsville, Md., 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 a nationwide effort to reduce U.S. childhood obesity rates.
The kids' menu changes have begun and are to be in place by 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.
The children's menu will also include at least one 600-calorie or less option with reduced fat and sodium.
"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 partnership 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.
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 problem.
"Eating out is such a huge problem in Americans' diets," she 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 diners tend to stick with the default choice.
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 with Darden Restaurants was her latest appearance with retailers and other private-sector players 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.
Darlene Superville can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/dsupervilleap