From fast food to fast casual to fine dining, chain restaurants and local independents are racing to rethink the calories, saturated fat, sodium and overall nutritional content of children's meals.
Dining out can be a minefield for parents. Adult portions are often too big, and too expensive, to effectively feed little ones, and children's menus are routinely nutritional wastelands of chicken fingers, mac-and-cheese and a mountain of French fries.
Pushed by first lady Michelle Obama's healthy eating initiative and continued negative reports on the state of children's weight, restaurants are revamping menus and introducing healthier options. The goal is to help slow the obesity rate of American children, which has tripled in the past three decades.
Earlier this week McDonald's announced its aim to make its Happy Meal healthier. A week ago, Tampa-based OSI, parent company of Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba's, joined 15,000 restaurants nationally in pledging to promote healthier options on children's menus.
Will these new changes mean more viable options for families seeking healthy choices?
At McDonald's, the new Happy Meal is really about eliminating choice. Starting in September, Happy Meals still will contain the much-beloved toy, a choice of burger or Chicken McNuggets and a drink option, but the serving of fries has been cut in half, to 100 calories, and five apple slices have been added as a side. The aim: to cut the calorie count 20 percent, to less than 600 calories.
McDonald's found that 88 percent of its customers were aware of apples as a choice, but chose them only 11 percent of the time, said Cynthia Goody, the company's senior nutritionist. This change forces the youngest consumers to make a healthy choice.
That's a lot of apples.
"In terms of impact on an annualized basis we will serve over one million cups of apples,'' Goody said. "From the farm to the front counter we rely on many suppliers for seven different varieties of apples. We're doing this mindfully so we don't deplete the product for the roadside vendors."
For local McDonald's owner Blake Casper, whose Caspers Company owns and operates 50 McDonald's restaurants in the Tampa Bay area and employs 3,200, the change is welcome.
"We view this as an opportunity to increase visits from more nutrition-minded customers seeking access to convenient, balanced choices that also deliver on taste," he said. "Additionally, the price of the Happy Meal will not change as a result of these new options."
At OSI restaurants, changes already have begun to comply with the launch of the National Restaurant Association's Kids LiveWell initiative. To be part of the program, restaurants must include at least one kids' menu item that is 600 calories or less and meets other requirements. A side dish of less than 200 calories also must be included.
Why 600 calories? According to Goody, it's not a magic number, but rooted in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. "There are specific calorie recommendations for kids," she said. "That number is one third of a child's caloric needs for a day."
Compliant menu items at Outback Steakhouse include grilled chicken and the Joey Sirloin served with steamed broccoli and 100 percent apple juice, said Cammie Spillyards, OSI vice president of culinary innovation. At Carrabba's, items include grilled chicken and whole grain spaghetti pomodoro, both served with seasonal vegetables like spinach or broccoli; at Bonefish Grill, grilled chicken and grilled fish, both with mixed vegetables.
The big question, of course, is whether young diners will choose these new healthful menu items.
According to Alan Lucas, owner of Moon Under Water in St. Petersburg, it's an uphill battle.
"When you break it down, children want specific foods," he said. "Changing that has got to start with the parents. With kids' menu items, parents have to take the lead.
"I don't want to sound negative, but unless parents urge children to make better choices, we won't see real change. You can't expect a restaurant to do a parent's job."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293.