HYATTSVILLE – First lady Michelle Obama came to the Olive Garden Thursday to celebrate the announcement by the national restaurant chain that all its eateries will feature healthier menus.
Darden Restaurants, whose brands include Red Lobster, Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse, has launched an initiative to provide families with healthier options when dining out at a time when studies show they are dining out more.
Obama, who initiated the “Let’s Move” healthy-living campaign since moving to the White House, joined families at the event and said she is “excited” by the concept.
“I don’t just come out, but I’m here because this is a big deal,” she said. “Darden is working to make the healthy choice the easy choice, and they’re making it the delicious and fun choice, too.”
Partnership for a Healthier America will monitor Darden’s progress in its promise to cut calories and sodium by 20 percent in 10 years.
Darden restaurants are also revamping their children’s menus.
By July 2012, fruit or vegetables will replace fries on all children’s menu items. One percent milk will be automatically provided with free refills. All children’s menus will have at least one option containing fewer than 600 calories and less than 30 percent fat.
However, some Darden restaurants have already made changes. Local families joined Obama to sample some of Olive Garden’s healthier options, including its kid-friendly, 360-calorie serving of spaghetti and 1 percent milk.
Shania Smothers, of Centreville, said her family has already made diet changes — changes that led Wilson Smothers Sr. to lose 50 lbs. Now Wilson Sr. is paying it forward — even teaching a cooking class at Head Start in Grasonville.
Obama said she hopes other restaurants across the country will echo Darden’s efforts.
But the restaurant company is not the first in the region to make healthier changes to its menu.
For example, in May 2010, the Silver Diner restaurant chain began shifting its menu to include food that was locally grown and raised, and, at the same time, provide calorie-conscious menu options.
The Silver Diner did not return a call requesting comment.
While many of the families at the event were excited about the menu changes, some people have been skeptical of the campaign’s effectiveness.
Researchers at the University of Michigan who evaluated the goals of the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, an offshoot of the Let’s Move campaign, found that the program focused too heavily on preventing obesity and not enough on treating children who were already overweight.
In the past, Obama’s Let’s Move campaign has often been criticized for denying children indulgences.
But the first lady said there is nothing wrong with occasionally splurging.
“You can have a treat, just not every day,” Obama told the children. “I want you to eat all of your vegetables and listen to your mothers.”