WASHINGTON - 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.
National Restaurant Association's Kids Live Well initiative: http://www.restaurant.org/foodhealthyliving/kidslivewell
Find Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MCJalonick