Many chain restaurants planning to make kids menus healthier

WASHINGTON (AP) - Parents seeking healthier restaurant meals for their kids can start to look beyond chicken nuggets and
macaroni-and-cheese.
At least 19 restaurant chains - including Burger King, Chili's,
IHOP and Friendly's - said Wednesday that they will include
healthier options on their children's menus. At least 15,000
restaurant locations will focus on increasing servings of fruits
and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy. The
items will have less fats, sugars and sodium.
Less healthy foods like burgers and fries will still be on the
menu, but the restaurants say they will do more to promote
healthier options. Chili's, for example, will highlight a chicken
sandwich with a side of pineapple or mandarin oranges on their
kids' menu. Burger King has recently reformulated children's
chicken nuggets so they include less sodium, and employees taking
orders will ask if customers want healthier apple fries instead of
just the standard "fries with that?"
The effort is part of a new National Restaurant Association
initiative to give kids more healthy options at restaurants and to
make it easier for parents to find those options. Some of the items
are already on menus, but restaurants will advertise them more
prominently and flag the healthier menu items to make ordering
easier.
To be part of the program, restaurants must include at least one
kids' menu item that is 600 calories or less and meets other
nutritional requirements. A side dish worth less than 200 calories
must also be included.
"This could provide a great push toward healthier offerings at
restaurants," said Robert Post, the Agriculture Department
official in charge of developing the department's dietary
guidelines, which came out earlier this year. Those urged Americans
to eat less salt.
"We hope this is a trend toward new items and voluntary
reformulations," Post said.
Chain restaurants large and small signing up for the initiative
are Au Bon Pain, Bonefish Grill, Burger King, Burgerville,
Carrabba's Italian Grill, Chevys, Chili's, Corner Bakery Cafe,
Cracker Barrel, Denny's, El Pollo Loco, Friendly's, IHOP, Joe's
Crab Shack, Outback Steakhouse, Silver Diner, Sizzler, T-Bones
Great American Eatery and zpizza.
Joe Taylor of Chili's said the company has responded to consumer demands for healthier foods. While diners looking for a healthier meal used to have to ask for substitutions, they now have more options.
"We've seen our guests customize their meals to a greater
degree when they are looking to hold the mayo or add the
broccoli," Taylor said.
Patrick Lenow of IHOP said the restaurant will add two new
children's menu items because of the effort, including pancakes
with fruit and scrambled eggs with fruit. The company had already
limited everything on their children's menu to fewer than 600
calories and made fruit a default side, instead of fries - a change
that has dramatically increased fruit consumption at the
restaurants, Lenow said.
Several restaurant chains haven't committed yet to joining the
effort. Maggiano's, owned with Chili's by Brinker International, is
not part of the program. Neither is McDonald's, the world's largest
burger chain.
Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurant
Association, said the group is hoping to add additional restaurants
to the effort in coming months.
First lady Michelle Obama last year attended a National
Restaurant Association meeting in Washington and pleaded with them to take a little butter or cream out of their dishes, use low-fat
milk and provide apple slices or carrots as a default side. She
said Americans eat a third of their meals in restaurants, which
have long been seen by many as the worst offenders in terms of
nutrition.
Many restaurant companies are starting to reformulate menu items and add new healthier sections to their menus, however, as
consumers have shown a heightened interest in nutrition.
John Dillon of Denny's said the company recently took photos of
French fries off their menus.
"Where before we may have been concerned about not having
French fries pictured on our menu, we're now finding that has
actually helped our business," he said.
Nutrition advocate Margo Wootan of the advocacy group Center for
Science in the Public Interest says the effort is a good first
step, but that restaurants need to do even more.
"It's not enough to have one healthy option in a minefield of
high calories, high fat and high salt," she said.
She says the best ways for restaurants to make a difference is
to make a healthy side dish a default, as IHOP has with fruit, and
to suggest healthier options to diners at the order point, as
Burger King has with its apple fries.
The federal government will also soon require restaurants to
post calories on their menus. FDA guidelines will require chain
restaurants with 20 or more locations, along with bakeries, grocery
stores, convenience stores and coffee chains, to clearly post the
calories.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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