Michelle Obama Teams Up with Red Lobster, Olive Garden to Promote Healthy Eating

First lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign gained further traction Thursday when the parent company of Olive Garden and Red Lobster came aboard the “Let’s Move” healthy eating initiative train. The national restaurant chains aim to decrease calories and salt on their menus over the coming decade.

The Darden Restaurant Group is the world’s largest full-service restaurant company. Besides Olive Garden, Red Lobster, it owns other popular dining chains boasting thousands of restaurants. All have agreed to work with non-profit Partnership for a Healthier America to provide more nutritious options on their children’s menus.

It is no secret that Olive Garden is known for its bottomless Italian dishes, and that buttery seafood is synonymous with the Red Lobster brand in popular U.S. food culture. But through the new agreement, chains owned by Darden will offer fruit and vegetable side dishes and give free refills of milk as default options. Picture broccoli instead of fries, and 1 percent milk in lieu of soda.

The changes mandate that the nutritional content of one or more children's menu items provide 600 calories or fewer, with 30% of total calories from fat, 10% of total calories from saturated fat, and 600 mg of sodium.

The Red Lobster kid’s menu is analyzed in the popular “Eat This, Not That” book that compares two similar foods with alarming nutritional differences. For instance, Red Lobster’s kid’s Popcorn Shrimp and Fries dish is 470 calories and 1360 mg of sodium. Its kid's Chicken Fingers and Fries dish is a whopping 899 calories with 2,470 mg of sodium.

Darden has pledged to work toward a ten percent reduction of calories over five years, and a 20 percent reduction of calories over ten years, by "reformulating, resizing and removing certain items, and introducing new calorie-conscious, flavorful choices,” the company stated in a press release.

Darden's other brands are high-end steakhouse Capital Grille and Seasons 52, the latter having no dish with more than 475 calories. In full, they own 1,600 restaurant brands.

Mrs. Obama has been promoting better nutrition and exercise for children. At a Darden press conference Thursday, she called the company's plans "a breakthrough moment in the restaurant industry."

She continued, “With half of all food dollars spent on restaurant meals, and a third of Americans' calories consumed outside of the home, restaurants need to 'step up' and improve the health of their products.”

"I hope that parents will take full advantage of these kinds of new options," the First Lady said, at the company's media event near Washington, D.C.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group that advocates for healthier and safer food, issued a statement supporting Darden's change and urged other restaurant operators to do the same.