WASHINGTON -- Parents seeking healthier restaurant meals for their kids can start to look beyond chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese.
At least 19 large restaurant chains -- including Burger King, Chili's, IHOP and Friendly's -- plan to announce today that they will include healthier options on their children's menus.
At least 15,000 restaurant locations will focus on increasing servings of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy. The items will have less fats, sugars and sodium.
Less healthy foods such as burgers and fries still will be on the menu, but the restaurants said they will do more to promote healthier options. Chili's, for example, will highlight a chicken sandwich with a side of pineapple or mandarin oranges on their kids' menu.
Burger King has recently reformulated children's chicken nuggets so they include less sodium, and employees taking orders will ask if customers want healthier apple fries instead of standard French fries.
The effort is part of a new National Restaurant Association initiative to give kids more healthy options at restaurants and to make it easier for parents to find those options. Some of the items already are on menus, but restaurants will advertise them more prominently and flag the healthier menu items to make ordering easier.
To be part of the program, restaurants must include at least one kids' menu item that is 600 calories or less and meets other nutritional requirements. A side dish worth less than 200 calories also must be included.
"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, which came out earlier this year. Those urged Americans to eat less salt.
"We hope this is a trend toward new items and voluntary reformulations," Post said.
Joe Taylor of Chili's said the company has responded to consumer demands for healthier food. While diners looking for a healthier meal used to have to ask for substitutions, they now have more options.
"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.
Patrick Lenow of IHOP said the restaurant will add two new children's menu items because of the effort, pancakes with fruit and scrambled eggs with fruit. The company already had limited everything on its children's menu to under 600 calories and made fruit a default side, instead of fries, a change that has dramatically increased fruit consumption at the restaurants, Lenow said.
Several restaurant chains haven't committed yet to joining the effort. Maggiano's, owned with Chili's by Brinker International, is not part of the program. Neither is McDonald's, the world's largest hamburger chain.
Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association, said the group is hoping to add additional restaurants to the effort in coming months.
First lady Michelle Obama last year attended a National Restaurant Association meeting and pleaded with the group 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 dish on the kids' menu.
She said Americans eat a third of their meals in restaurants, which have long been seen as the worst offenders in terms of nutrition.