HYATTSVILLE — — First Lady Michelle Obama applauded the parent company of Olive Garden and Red Lobster Thursday for pledging to cut calories and sodium at its restaurants over the next 10 years.
Speaking at the Olive Garden, a restaurant known for its all-you-can eat pastas and breadsticks, Obama called the move by Darden Restaurants, the world's largest full-service restaurant company, an industry "breakthrough" and a key step in her campaign against childhood obesity.
"What's good for kids and families can also be good for business," she said. "We want parents to feel confident that enjoying a meal at a restaurant doesn't mean sacrificing their children's health."
The company pledged to reduce calories and sodium at all of its restaurants by 10 percent over five years — and 20 percent over 10 years. It will do it by recalibrating dishes, adjusting portions, introducing new menu items and cutting others.
On children's menus, there will be at least one healthy option with fewer than 600 calories — and fewer than 30 percent of those calories coming from fat. Also, fruits and vegetables will become the default side dishes.
But fattening favorites on the menu, like Olive Garden's 1,220-calorie fettuccine Alfredo aren't going anywhere. At least for now.
Darden also owns LongHorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, Seasons 52 and the Capital Grille.
Darden's senior vice president for government and community affairs, Bob McAdam, said the company is making the changes, banking that customers will be demanding healthier options in coming years.
"We already have high demand for healthy options," he said. "We're continuing what we believe our guests will want in the future."
During Obama's announcement, area kids sampled one of the Olive Garden's new children's entrees — bowls of spaghetti topped with tomato sauce that weigh in at 360 calories and 7 grams of fat. They looped noodles around their forks and ate happily, without any prodding.
Obama moved from table to table, chatting with the kids and asking them about their favorite vegetables and the sports they might be playing in school.
Leila Lucas of Leesburg, Va., who's 8, revealed, somewhat conspiratorially, to the first lady that her school sells cookies and ice cream. "Cookies and ice cream are great," Obama told her. "Just don't overdo it."
Alaysin Smothers, who's 5 and from Centreville, told the first lady how she likes her broccoli with cheese. Her dad, Wilson Smothers, who recently dropped 50 pounds, said with a family of six, he can't afford to eat out much, but appreciates the effort Olive Garden is making to serve healthier food.
Since starting his weight loss plan after realizing with horror that he'd hit 275 pounds, Smothers turns down fried food and sodas and encourages his children to do the same. He called getting a hug from the first lady "the most exciting thing that ever happened to me."
Since kicking off the Let's Move campaign nearly two years ago, Obama has pushed restaurants to introduce healthier options. Earlier this year Walmart, inspired by her message, promised to cut salt, fat and sugar from thousands of its products and to lower prices on healthy items.
"It's not about telling people what to do," Obama said. "It's about parents taking responsibility for what their kids eat and it's about companies like Darden helping parents meet that responsibility."