By Lisa Baertlein
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - 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 U.S. 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, it said.
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 fruit 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 promise 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 will make sliced apples and fat-free milk or juice the default choices for its kids' meals. French fries and soda will remain on the menu but customers will have to request them.
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 they 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 Corp to stop the world's largest hamburger chain from using Happy Meal toys to lure children into its restaurants. And last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics -- a group of U.S. 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, but neither is sandwich chain Subway -- which Wootan said offers the industry's healthiest kids' meals.
Representatives from McDonald's and Subway were not immediately available for a comment.
(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein, editing by Matthew Lewis)