(CBS/AP) So long, french fries - hello, carrot sticks?
Big changes are coming to kids' meal menus, now that 19 restaurant chains have announced their intentions to add healthier options. Chains like Burger King, Chili's, Friendly's, and IHOP plan to include low-sugar, low-sodium options that boast increased servings of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains at over 15,000 restaurants nationwide.
Fear not, fast food lovers. The restaurants don't plan to pull the plug on greasy burgers and fries - but they do plan to make people more aware of healthier options. Chili's, for example, will promote a chicken sandwich with a side of pineapple or mandarin oranges on their kids' menu. Burger King wants its cashiers to ask customers if they want "healthier apple fries" instead of their standard, "would you like fries with that?" routine. The fast-food chain also reformulated children's chicken nuggets to include less sodium.
The effort is part of a new National Restaurant Association initiative to not only give kids healthier options at restaurants but to make it easier for parents to find them. Some of the items are already on menus, but restaurants will advertise them more prominently and mark the healthier ones to make ordering easier.
To qualify for the program, restaurants must include at least one kids menu item that is 600 calories or less and meets other nutritional requirements, with a side dish worth less than 200 calories.
"This could provide a great push toward healthier offerings at restaurants," said Robert Post, the Agriculture Department official in charge of developing the department's dietary guidelines."We hope this is a trend toward new items and voluntary reformulations."
What chain restaurants plan to change their ways? 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.
Joe Taylor of Chili's said consumers have demanded healthier foods, and will have more options instead of just asking a waiter to swap greasy sides for steamed veggies.
"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.
IHOP will add two new children's menu items because of the effort, including pancakes with fruit and scrambled eggs with fruit. The pancake-chain had already limited everything on their children's menu to fewer than 600 calories and made fruit a default side, instead of fries - a change that has dramatically increased fruit consumption at the restaurants, according to its spokesman Patrick Lenow.
One notable absence in the new initiative is McDonald's, the world's largest burger chain.
But Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association, said the group is hoping to lure additional restaurants in coming months.
First lady Michelle Obama last year attended a National Restaurant Association meeting in Washington and pleaded with its members 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. Ms. Obama 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.
And many restaurant chains are reformulating their menus as consumers have shown a heightened interest in nutrition. Denny's recently removed photos of French fries from 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," spokesman John Dillion said.
But some nutrition advocates, like Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the effort is a good first step, but not enough.
"It's not enough to have one healthy option in a minefield of high calories, high fat and high salt."