by Marion Nestle
Sep 16 2011

Michele Obama gets Darden’s to promise healthier meals

Yesterday, Michele Obama announced  that as part of her Let’s Move! initiative Darden’s, the restaurant chain that owns Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze, and Seasons 52, would be making its meals a bit healthier.

As I explain below, I have a personal interest in this announcement.

According to the White House press release, the Darden’s commitment includes:

Kids’ Menus – changes starting now and to be fully implemented by July 2012.  Darden’s will:

  • Add a fruit or vegetable as the default side for every kids’ menu item at those restaurants offering a default side on the children’s menu: Bahama Breeze, LongHorn Steakhouse and Red Lobster.
  • Make 1% milk the default beverage.
  • Make milk prominently promoted on the menu and available with free refills.
  • Illustrate healthy choices for meals and drinks on menus.
  • Display healthier menu options more prominently, when possible.
  • Not display carbonated beverages on children’s menus.
  • Improve the nutritional content of one or more children’s menu items to provide equal or less than 600 calories, 30% of total calories from fat, 10% of total calories from saturated fat, and 600 mg of sodium.

Calories/Sodium Footprint Reduction – changes to be implemented by 2016 and 2021

  • By 2016, reduce calories by 10% and over a ten-year period by 20%.
  • By 2016, reduce sodium by 10% and over a ten-year period by 20%.

My personal interest: In 2005, I was invited to Amelia Island, Florida, to give a talk to the CEO’s of popular restaurant chains, among them Clarence Otis, Jr., the CEO of Darden’s.  I was specifically asked to discuss what restaurant chains could do to lessen the impact of childhood obesity.

In my talk, I told the group that they could help alleviate childhood obesity by:

  • Making healthy kids’ meals the default.  Parents could still order junk food, but the default meal should be healthy.
  • Providing a price incentive for choosing smaller portions.
  • Stopping any funding of the Center for Consumer Freedom and hiding behind its tactics.

The reaction?  The CEOs went ballistic: “you are trying to put us out of business!”

No, I simply hoped they would consider making it easier for customers to make healthier choices.

Seven years later, Mrs. Obama has put these chains on notice that they are part of the problem of childhood obesity and must change their practices.  Darden’s has admitted that it bears some responsibility for contributing to childhood obesity and is making some grudging changes.  Others are likely to follow.

It’s a step.  Now let’s make sure they follow through.   

For more details, see the AP story.   For many more details, see what Obamafoodorama has to say (I’m quoted).

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  • A bad business model to begin with is what is putting them out of business.

  • parents need to know what is healthy and then feed their children that stuff. do not rely on restaurants to make healthy choices for our kids. take some friggin’ responsibility for your family and their health.

  • How absurd! None of these changes will do anything to actually make kids healthier. They’ll simply make parents feel better about taking their kids to eat at a place where the food is cooked in rancid oils. In fact, I bet these chains are happy about this. Seed oils are way cheaper than saturated fats anyway.

  • foodie

    Down to 600 mg of sodium!?! For kids’ meals!!! Wow. Wow. Wow. That sounds like so much. I think this is a great move. Good for them!

  • Double good! Why are the wives so much more effective than the presidents? We should have elected Michelle.

    That said, better to prepare meals at home with your children talking and teaching them why this is so much better than restaurants.

  • Anthro

    Yes, it’s better to eat at home, but the fact is that so many people do not. Let’s hope that Mrs. Obama’s plans include some public education (and policy suggestions) that will contribute to turning this state of family life around. Younger mothers have already grown up in a fast food culture with TV pushing this lifestyle at them all their lives. Without a big dose of other influences, the deed is done for the majority. Parents who grew up at MacDonald’s, et al, can hardly be expected to “know what’s good for their children” or how to provide it if they do. Even if they know that they and their kids should “eat more vegetables”, that is not what they see or what is easily affordable.

    Eating at home is much better, of course, but I think statistics show that that battle is already lost. The media culture if far more effective than parents, in most cases, in forming children’s perceptions. My adult children ate almost all of their (cooked from scratch, well balanced) meals at home, but this is not the norm for my grandchildren. Their mothers work away from home and they watch far more television (which is filled with far more commercials and far less Public Service Announcements) than my children.

    These tiny steps by industry may be the beginnings of a general shift back to family eating, but it will take a very long time at the rate they are suggesting and there is much more to it. Hopefully, all the small efforts aimed at food (farmer’s markets, Mrs. Obama, school lunch reforms, food labeling, and others) will begin to turn the tide. Advertising/marketing–especially to children–is the big one and, of course, that will be fought with every resource industry can muster–aided and abetted by their shareholders, of course.

  • Anthro


    Mrs. Obama spells her given name with two ll’s (the way they do in France, where the name originated. I have no idea why some people spell it with only one l–it makes no sense if you speak French).

  • Betty

    Of this restaurant group, we only visit Bahama Breeze and they *do* offer small portions for many of their entrees and have for the past five years we’ve gone there. They also offer some healthier options such as grilled fish or chicken.

  • Lori Coleman

    Maybe it’s a step in the right direction, but milk? We have to uncover the fact that milk isn’t the gem it’s thought to be. How about water? That would be a true step in the right direction. And how about more meat-free meals?

  • There are some symbolically pleasing aspects to this law, but really, I think this amounts to “No News At All.” Assuming this change was driven by politics and not consumers, there’s nothing to stop people from just ordering something else on the menu, or going to a different restaurant entirely.

    The changes also take place over a loooong time. Ultimately I see this as a symbolic gesture to appease certain constituents while possibly giving a handout to a particular special interest. Why target only one company?

    Does reducing the sodium level on the kids menu in one restaurant do ANYTHING to change the status quo? I think this is “meh” news.

  • john

    Free refills on milk!? Yahoo, I can bring all my calves to dinner now.

  • Christopher Kosel

    It is none of the government’s business. These are the same thugs who are raiding the Amish farms because they want to sell raw milk without government interference, and yet you want them to interfere! I want the government out of all of my business. The consumer is king, if we go where there is quality food, the demand will shift the marketplace accordingly.

  • Margeretrc

    The problem with all this is Michelle Obama’s (and the mainstream) ideas–and therefore the restaurant chain’s ideas–of what’s healthy and what the scientific evidence says is healthy, especially for kids, are two different things. Kids aren’t getting fat because they are eating too much natural saturated fat and protein. They are getting fat from eating/drinking too much sugar and starch, which encourages the consumption of too many calories, unlike eating protein and natural fats. Yes, kids need to eat vegetables and fruit (not fruit juice), but they probably won’t–at least the vegetables–unless they taste good and that involves butter or olive oil and salt, none of which is likely to be included. They also need plenty of protein and good fat for their growing brains and bodies, and I don’t mean processed seed oils! The drive to reduce the calories and sat. fat in their foods and switch to 1% milk is not the answer. We really have to end this war on fat and start battling the real culprit in both childhood and adult obesity: sugar. Whether it’s from sugary drinks or grains, sugar is sugar and it is the underlying problem. What we need to do is to educate ourselves so that we can make (scientifically) informed choices for ourselves and our kids, which will, in turn, drive the restaurants to offer truly healthy choices or go out of business. Mrs. Obama would do far better to spend her time educating herself and others on what really is healthy or not than on pressuring restaurant chains to offer “healthy” options that aren’t necessarily so and that their clientele may not want anyway! She could start by watching “Fat Head” by Tom Naughton or reading “Good Calories, Bad Calories” or “Why We Get Fat” by Gary Taubes, “Wheat Belly” by William Davis, M.D., and any number of other books that explain why the mainstream conventional wisdom on which she is basing her decisions is wrong and provide the scientific evidence and references to back it up.

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