By Lisa Baertlein
(Reuters) - Olive Garden and Red Lobster parent Darden Restaurants Inc said on Thursday it would reduce calories and sodium in its meals for children, amid growing calls for healthier and more nutritious restaurant fare.
Darden, one of the top performing U.S. restaurant operators, also said it planned to reduce sodium and calories across all its restaurant meals.
The restaurant industry is under pressure from public health officials and consumer advocates to cut the calories and improve the nutritional value of meals for U.S. children -- with nearly one-in-three either obese or overweight.
The children's meal announcement covers Darden's Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse and Bahama Breeze restaurants. Those four brands will each offer at least one kids' meal option that weighs in at less than 600 calories.
Darden's other brands are high-end steakhouse Capital Grille and Seasons 52, the latter having no dish with more than 475 calories.
"I hope that parents will take full advantage of these kinds of new options," First Lady Michelle Obama said at the company's media event in near Washington, D.C.
"Parents, we literally have to put our money where our mouths are ... We have to give (restaurants) the incentive to do the right thing," said Obama, who has made tackling childhood obesity her signature issue.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group that advocates for healthier and safer food, issued a statement supporting Darden's change and urged other restaurant operators to do the same.
"Other restaurants should follow Darden's lead and clean up their menus to make it easier for adults and children to choose healthy options," CSPI said in a statement.
Companies ranging from McDonald's Corp, Burger King Corp, Cracker Barrel, Denny's and DineEquity already have announced plans to slim down some menu options for children.
While many restaurants are vowing to offer healthier food, they also say they will continue to sell and promote indulgent dishes that are high in calories, fat, sugar or salt.
CSPI regularly alerts consumers to some of the U.S. restaurant industry's most unhealthy dishes. CSPI's "food porn" reports have dinged many restaurant chains, including Darden's Olive Garden brand, which is known for its popular "never ending pasta bowl" offer.
(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein; Editing by Tim Dobbyn, Bernard Orr)