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Largest Restaurant Chain to Makeover Kids Meals by Next Summer

kids meals, dinner menus

The company that owns Red Lobster and other popular sit-down restaurant chains said it will no longer list soda on its kids menus. One of several changes to make kids meals healthier.

Here’s the deal: Americans eat out a lot. One out of every two dollars spent on food is spent at a restaurant. One-third of all calories consumed came from foods and drinks served at a restaurant. Whether we realize it or not, restaurants are a big part of what and how Americans and their kids eat.

And that hasn’t always been such a good thing. Especially for kids.

Kids menus often only featured the worst stereotypes of kids foods: hamburger and fries, hot dog and fries, chicken fingers and fries, or macaroni and cheese — from a box. And this, at a seafood restaurant! Kids restaurant meals also typically come with a drink (code for soda), and free cookie or ice-cream for dessert.

Do that a few times a week, which is average for an American family, and that’s a pretty crappy meal plan for anyone, especially a growing child.

That will change in almost 2,000 restaurants around the country.Giant restaurant conglomerate Darden, working in partnership with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, announced that by next summer the kids’ menus at all Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and Bahama Breeze restaurants would have fewer calories, less sodium and more realistic portion sizes.

Darden is the world’s largest full-service restaurant company with more than 1,900 stores in 49 states.

Here’s a summary of the changes to the kids menus in the works, according to a White House press release:

  • Guarantee a fruit or vegetable will be the default side for every kids’ menu item at those restaurants offering a default side on the children’s menu:  Bahama Breeze, LongHorn Steakhouse and Red Lobster.
  • 1% milk will be the default beverage, provided automatically if no alternate beverage is requested.  Milk will be prominently promoted on the menu and made available with free refills.
  • Food illustrations on the menu will promote the healthy choices for meals and drinks.
  • Healthier menu options will be more prominently displayed when possible.
  • Carbonated beverages will not be displayed on children’s menus.
  • Improve the nutritional content of one or more children’s menu items to provide equal or less than 600 calories, 30% of total calories from fat, 10% of total calories from saturated fat and 600 mg of sodium.

Moreover, the chain has pledged to make its full menu better as well, though they’ve stretched the timeline for that. According to the White House, “the company is working toward a 10 percent reduction of calories and sodium over five years and a 20 percent reduction in calories and sodium over 10 years.”

As it is now, parents get caught in a kind of trap: ordering off the regular menu is more expensive and will likely go to waste. Even if that’s not a problem, convincing a kid to ignore the kids menu can be a battle parent might not want to have, especially while seated at the restaurant. So parents give in again and vow to never return. Or they just give in and hope for the best.

My family eats out less than the American average, but enough that my kids know the ins and outs of the kids menus. Before they could read, I would list off the options, picking the two or three least awful and skipping the chicken fingers, etc. I would ask for substitutions — why, at an otherwise great and authentic Mexican restaurant, are fries and not rice and beans the default side? — whenever I could. And they’ve just grown up with water as the default drink, for both them and their parents. Still, eating out can be a nutritional minefield. That’s fine once in awhile, but for families who really rely on restaurants to get through the week, hopefully other chains — and independent restaurants — will follow suit.

One thing I would love to see all kids menus give up is free desserts. Or at least train the waitstaff to ask first, preferably in a whisper.

What do you think of the changes this company will make by July 2012? Do you eat out frequently? How do you handle kids menus, especially ones loaded with junk? Also? Are you impressed with the First Lady? She made a commitment to do something about kids health and considering she doesn’t have any way to force restaurants and food manufacturers to make changes, she has gotten them to admit their faults and at least publicly admit they’ll try to change at least a little.

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