Darden Restaurants Inc., one of the foodservice industry’s largest full-service operators, said Thursday it will cut the amount of calories and sodium in its menu items and provide greater choice and variety in its kids’ meals.
The Orlando, Fla.-based parent of Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and other chains drew praise from First Lady Michelle Obama, who joined Darden chief executive Clarence Otis at a news conference today at an Olive Garden in Hyattsville, Md. Darden worked with the first lady’s “Let’s Move!” campaign and the Partnership for a Healthier America to develop its health and wellness commitment.
“We pride ourselves on making good food better, and on finding new ways to nourish and delight everyone we serve,” Drew Madsen, Darden president and chief operating officer, said. “Today we are taking a new step forward by creating a comprehensive health and wellness commitment, while preserving our commitment to offer our guests the delicious food they have come to know and love. The first lady continues to lead the growing national efforts to make healthy food options more available and accessible, and we’re pleased to collaborate with her and the Partnership for a Healthier America on this commitment.”
Across its portfolio of restaurant brands — which also includes The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52 — Darden aims to reduce calories across all its menu offerings by 10 percent over five years and 20 percent over 10 years. The company said it would reformulate, re-size or remove certain items, while introducing more calorie-conscious choices.
Darden also will work to reduce sodium in its foods by 10 percent over five years and 20 percent over 10 years. It said it would take a “transition-over-time” approach with its suppliers that would align with national nutrition policy while still allowing for changes in consumer tastes.
Hear Michelle Obama's comments on Darden's pledge; story continues on page 2
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The company also plans to rework its kids’ menus to provide more healthful choices that would appeal to both children and their parents. Specific nutrition standards will be established, fruits or vegetables will become the default side dish for kids’ meals, and an 8-ounce serving of 1-percent milk with free refills will become the default beverage.
“This is a great opportunity for Darden to strengthen our relationships with our guests,” Otis said. “Our commitment recognizes that they deserve greater choice and variety, and by putting our guests’ desires first, we’re putting our best foot forward as a company.”
At the news conference, Obama said Darden’s efforts would let parents teach their children about healthful eating by example.
“If we’re going to solve the problem of childhood obesity, we have to show our kids what to do with our actions and habits that we want them to learn,” Obama said. “Darden is giving us all that opportunity. They’re not doing this just as CEOs concerned about the bottom line; they’re doing it as parents and grandparents who care about our kids and our country.”
She added that restaurant companies without Darden’s massive scale, and even independent operators, could join Darden in the move to cut calories and sodium. Small steps like offering water and skim milk as kids’ meal beverages and letting customers order baked versions of fried menu items “can really add up,” she said.
Obama also called on parents to keep demanding more healthful options for their kids from restaurants, and she stressed that parents ought to take advantage of those menu items.
“Restaurants can only keep making these business sacrifices if people buy them,” Obama said. “So parents, we need to put our money where our mouth is. Then we will solve this challenge and give our kids the healthy futures they deserve.”
Darden Restaurants owns and operates more than 1,900 restaurants and generates more than $7.5 billion in annual sales.