No more endless breadsticks?

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Bending to the whims of Michelle Obama, Darden Restaurants — the company that owns the Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse and other restaurant concepts — announced Thursday that it will cut the “calorie footprint” and sodium levels in its meals and create new kids’ menus to comply with the first lady’s public health objectives.

With Michelle Obama, Darden unveiled its plans for all 19,000 of its restaurants in 49 states at an Olive Garden restaurant in Hyattsville, Md., in front of a prominent sign advertising the first lady’s “Let’s Move!” campaign.

The company pledged to reduce the overall calories and sodium in its meals by 10 percent over the next five years, and by 20 percent over 10 years.

“Much like a carbon footprint, we are looking at our calorie footprint as a measurement of total impact,” said Clarence Otis, Darden’s CEO. “That means we will reduce the number of calories across our entire portfolio of brands by reformulizing, resizing, removing certain items, and introducing new, calorie conscious, flavorful options.”

By July 2012 Darden also will ensure that the default side dish for children is a fruit or vegetable, and one-percent milk will be the default drink with free refills. Carbonated drinks will not be displayed anywhere. And Darden says it will not market its food to children under 12.

Mrs. Obama appeared at the Olive Garden to cheer Darden’s decision and explain that parents often don’t realize how unhealthy some food is — especially food they and their children  consume in restaurants.

“I’m here today because this is a breakthrough moment in the restaurant industry,” said Obama. “Darden is doing what no restaurant company has done before: They’re not just making their kids’ menus healthier so that parents have more choices and more control. They’re committing to make changes across the full menu at every single one of their restaurants. Darden is working to make the healthy choice the easy choice, and they’re making it the delicious and fun choice too.”

According to the White House, one of every two dollars spent on food is spent in restaurants, and one-third of all the calories consumed in America are eaten at restaurants.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that such children’s menu pledges have become a trend McDonald’s, Burger King, Chili’s, IHOP, Friendly’s and many other chains that have replaced traditional children’s side dishes with healthier options.

Darden-owned restaurants serve more than 400 million meals annually.

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