How many years does it take to set down a salt shaker? For the Olive Garden (read Jonathan Gold's review here) and Red Lobster restaurants and their four sister chains (LongHorn Steakhouse, the Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52), about 10 years. According to the Associated Press, Darden Restaurants Inc. has pledged to cut calories and sodium in its meals by 20 percent over a decade. We could all be living on the moon and eating nothing but freeze-dried algae by then, but that's okay.
Still, First Lady Michelle Obama is lauding the restaurant group for its plans to serve healthier meals and to overhaul its kids menus. Default sides for children's meals will become vegetables or fruit and the default beverage will be low-fat milk, with free refills! Apparently it's less complicated to swap out French fries for apple slices. The kids menu changes will go into effect by next July (sorry, kids). Obama called it a "breakthrough moment in the restaurant industry."
To make these changes, Darden, which owns and operates more than 1,900 restaurants that generate more than $7.5 billion in annual sales, will "look closely at reformulating, resizing and removing certain items, and introducing new calorie-conscious, flavorful choices," according to a company press release. The company claims this "transition-over-time" approach is necessary to allow "for the evolution of consumer taste preferences." That sounds suspiciously like "get them used to yucky food."
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"With this new commitment, Darden is doing what no restaurant company has done before," said the first lady, who joined executives of Orlando, Florida-based Darden for the announcement at an Olive Garden restaurant in suburban Maryland, just outside of D.C., on September 15. Obama has made whipping fat kids into shape her cause célèbre, what she calls her Let's Move! campaign.
"I believe the changes that Darden will make could impact the health and well-being of an entire generation of young people," Obama went on.
Or make them very, very sad.
Follow Samantha Bonar at www.twitter.com/samanthabonar.