Olive Garden, Red Lobster to make their menus healthier. Will eating out still be a treat?

First Lady Michelle Obama speaks during a Let's Move! event in Hyattsville, Maryland, on Thursday, September 16. Darden Restaurants Inc Chairman and CEO Clarence Otis (seated, at left) announced that his comapny's restaurant chains, including popular family favorites like Red Lobster and The Olive Garden, would be cutting calorie counts and sodium levels, and revamping their children's menus to offer healthier choices.. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Aligning itself with Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign, the White-House backed initiative to end childhood obesity, Darden Restaurants Inc.-the company behind The Olive Garden and other family-friendly restaurant chains-has promised to cut calories and sodium from their menu items and to revamp their children's menus to offer more healthy choices.

"This is not about telling people what to do. It's about parents taking responsibility for what their kids eat, and it's about companies like Darden helping parents meet that responsibility by providing healthy options," First lady Michelle Obama said during Thursday's announcement. "Folks will still have plenty of wonderful splurging options."

The push isn't about revamping menus entirely: The new default items won't completely replace the things kids know and love, like french fries and soda, but the kids' meals will come with the healthier options unless parents specifically order the fat- or sugar-laden stuff. "We don't plan on giving up the items that we know people love, so there are favorites on every one of our menus. And we expect to continue to offer them," Bob McAdam, Senior Vice President, Government & Community Affairs for Darden, said in a press conference call on Thursday.

"We are adding defaults to some healthier items, including fruits and vegetables, featuring milk as the beverage that is… prominently displayed on our menus, and in general making it easier for parents to make healthier choices about the foods that they choose for their children when they're in our restaurants," McAdam said.

"I believe that the changes that Darden will make could impact the health and well-being of an entire generation of young people," she said during the Let's Move! event on Thursday, at which the restaurant company announced its plans. Darden owns 1,900 restaurants-including Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52-in 49 states. Combined, the Darden restaurants serve more than 400 million meals each year.

The problem is that parents assume the items offered on a kids' menu are healthy ones. "They assume that the food will be just as nutritious as food that they prepare for their kids at home," the first lady said. But "research has shown that meals kids eat at restaurants have nearly twice the calories as meals they have at home. And for some options on kids' menus, they have more than 1,000 calories." According to the USDA, children between the ages of 4 and 8 need 1,400 to 1,600 calories per day, total.

"It used to be the case where people went to restaurants only for special occasions," the first lady said on Thursday. Now, though, with working parents juggling hectic schedules, going out to eat is a convenient option. "Parents need a break once in a while, or they want a special treat, and they rely on restaurants to provide a good-quality, tasty meal at a reasonable price," Obama said. "And, most importantly, no one has to do the dishes afterwards. That's really why we go out to restaurants."

But will the push for healthy menu items take the fun out of eating out?

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