Lately, the U.S. restaurant industry has been making a lot of changes to their menus in an effort to help fight childhood obesity. As the situation unfolds, prepared food departments should watch and see how children and their parents respond.
In July, the National Restaurant Association announced the launch of its Kids LiveWell program, in partnership with HealthyDining.com. Inaugural support included 19 chains representing 15,000 restaurant locations, all committing to offer more healthy menu options for children “with a particular focus on increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and low-fat dairy, and limiting unhealthy fats, sugars and sodium,” according to NRA.
These commitments have already resulted in new options such as Friendly’s “Chicken in the Garden” salad, or the grilled chicken sandwich with a side of fruit on the kids menu at Chili’s.
And, just a couple of weeks ago, Darden Restaurants, the parent company of 1,900 Red Lobster, Olive Garden and other casual dining establishments, said that carbonated soft drinks and fries will be replaced with low-fat milk and sides of fruits and vegetables on all of the company’s children’s menus by July 2012. In addition, the company said it plans to cut calories and sodium across all of its menu items by 10% during the next 5 years, and 20% during the next decade.
It is too early to tell how diners will react. McDonald’s has been tweaking its healthier happy meal formula for years, but the company found that when apple slices were offered as an optional substitute for fries, only a small percentage of customers actually ordered them for their kids. So, last month the QSR giant began rolling out a revamped line of happy meals featuring a half portion of fries and a side of fruits or vegetables that will be automatically included in all the meals.
First Lady Michelle Obama and her “Let’s Move!” campaign have helped spark these initiatives, and during a press conference held last month to announce the new commitments at Darden, she stated the obvious. Healthy options for kids are a good step, but restaurants will not continue offering them if diners do not order them.