HEALTH

Restaurants to offer healthier children's menu options

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The companies 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.

(Photo: TBD Staff)

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 under 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 dish on the kids' menu. 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.

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.

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.

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