| LOS ANGELES
LOS ANGELES Nineteen U.S. restaurant chains, including Burger King and DineEquity's IHOP, are backing an industry effort to serve and promote healthier meals for children.
The announcement on Wednesday from the National Restaurant Association (NRA) comes as public health officials and consumer advocates pressure restaurants to reduce calories in, and improve the nutritional value of, meals for children -- nearly one in three of whom are either obese or overweight.
The 19 chains collectively operate some 15,000 restaurants that will participate in the trade group's "Kids LiveWell" initiative, NRA said.
McDonald's Corp, the world's largest hamburger chain, is not among the 19.
Other participating brands include Au Bon Pain, Brinker International's Chili's Grill & Bar, Cracker Barrel, Denny's, El Pollo Loco, Outback Steakhouse OSI and Sizzler.
The NRA said the voluntary program would focus on increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and low-fat dairy, while limiting unhealthy fats, sugars and sodium.
Participants agreed to offer a children's meal -- comprising an entree, a side and a drink -- with 600 calories or less that meets the above criteria.
They also promised to offer at least one other individual item with 200 calories or less.
"This is a great start to help empower consumers -- kids and parents especially -- with more healthier choices at restaurants," Robert Post, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, said in a statement.
"It's a good baby-step forward, but they have a lot more work to do," said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer group that advocates healthier restaurant food for children.
"Kids' meals aren't the occasional indulgence that they once were. They are a regular part of children's diets," said Wootan, who hopes restaurant menus will one day offer a greater number of appealing healthy choices for youngsters.
As part of the effort, Burger King this month is removing French fries and soda as the default for its kids' meals. Under the new system, diners will have to make a choice between those options or sliced apples, fat-free milk or juice before the order can be completed, a Burger King spokeswoman said.
Wootan called Burger King's move the most significant piece of Wednesday's announcement.
"There's a huge body of literature showing that people stick with the default. We could leave the default to chance or try to make it better," Wootan said, noting that restaurants at Walt Disney Co's theme parks have shown that parents are more likely to choose healthier kids' meal add-ons such as fruit and low-fat milk when those are the default option.
Some chains, including IHOP, already have lowered calorie counts on select menu items for children.
The "Kids LiveWell" initiative comes amid grass-roots efforts to force restaurants in the same direction.
For example, San Francisco and nearby Santa Clara County have passed laws that would curb free toy giveaways with unhealthy restaurant meals for children.
The restaurant industry has fought such efforts by backing laws that restrict local lawmakers' ability to regulate restaurant marketing and other activities.
The CSPI last year sued McDonald's to stop the chain from using Happy Meal toys to lure children into its restaurants. And last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics -- a group of pediatricians -- called for a ban on junk food ads aimed at children.
McDonald's is not among the original participants in the "Kids LiveWell" initiative. Neither is sandwich chain Subway, which Wootan said offers the industry's healthiest kids' meals.
A McDonald's spokeswoman said the company "will evaluate participation in this program in the future."
Subway was not immediately available for a comment.
(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein, editing by Matthew Lewis, John Wallace and Phil Berlowitz)
(Corrects Burger King menu choices in paragraph 11)