LOS ANGELES - Citing concerns about the rising rate of childhood obesity, 19 restaurant chains totaling more than 15,000 units, including Burger King, Denny€™s and El Pollo Loco, have agreed to participate in the National Restaurant Association€™s Kids Live Well initiative, pledging to offer more healthful food options for kids, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Burger King, for instance, will stop automatically including French fries and soda in kids€™ meals beginning this month €" though the items will still be available. The company€™s employees will ask parents if they prefer options such as milk or sliced apples before assembling the meals.
"We're asking the customers to specify what they want," said Craig Prusher, the chain's vice president of government relations.
As part of the Kids Live Well campaign, participating restaurants must promise to offer at least one kid€™s meal with fewer than 600 calories, no soft drinks, and at least two items from the following food groups: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins or low-fat dairy. They must also offer a side dish with fewer than 200 calories that derives less than 35% of its calories from sugar.
"Restaurants can be part of the solution to ensuring a healthier generation and providing consumer choice in dining options," said Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association, which developed the program. "We look forward to announcing additional restaurants and meal options in the coming months."
"This is really a huge first step for the restaurant industry in creating and offering and promoting healthier options," said Anita Jones-Mueller, a nutritionist and restaurant consultant who helped develop the program for the restaurant association. "These are really stringent criteria."
Noticeably absent from the participating restaurants is McDonald€™s, though a spokesperson said the company already provides balanced menu options for kids and adults.
"We listen to our customers and continue to provide balanced menu options, including meals for our youngest guests," said spokeswoman Ashlee Yingling. "We will evaluate participation in this program in the future."
Participating restaurants varied as to how they modified their children€™s meal to join the campaign. Denny€™s, for instance, reformulated a pasta meal to meat the criteria, adding a vegetable side dish.
Meanwhile, the convenience store industry is being proactive about nutrition. A NACS nutrition task force is developing a framework that will help guide convenience retailers as they consider how to bring healthier offers to their stores €" all the while recognizing that it comes down to choice. Retailers must be able to maintain their social license to sell what customers demand €" and not what the government wants customers to buy.
A significant component of the NACS nutrition campaign is the notion of "calories out." Convenience retailers support more youth sports teams than any other industry in the United States, which help children stay active and burn calories.
The NACS nutrition campaign is evolving. Working with retailers, we€™re building case studies and creating a toolkit that will help the industry encourage nutritious food options inside convenience stores.