Darden restaurants cut calories, but can restaurants do more?

October 24, 2011

Darden Restaurants vows to cut calories by 10% within five years and 20% within 10 years. But what immediate tools can restaurants offer diners to encourage healthier ordering?

Darden Restaurants recently unveiled their plan to support First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign by pledging to cut calories and sodium by 10% across all brands within five years and 20% within 10 years. The First Lady praised Darden saying, “They're not just making their kids’ menus healthier so that parents have more choices and more control; they’re making changes across their full menu at every single one of their restaurants throughout the country. They’re looking at all the food they serve, and they’re asking themselves one simple question:  How can we improve the health of American families?”

Darden Restaurants Inc., the world’s largest full-service restaurant company, owns and operates more than 1,900 restaurants that generate more than $7.5 billion in annual sales. Headquartered in Orlando, Florida, the company's brands include Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52.

The calorie/sodium reduction of 10% in five years and 20% in ten years seems a little too slow moving when you keep in mind that one-third of adults and 17% of children in the U.S. are considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control data. However, it is fair to say that these cuts could have a major impact on menu items if consumers also respond by ordering sensibly. In other words, if a customer orders a cocktail, appetizer, salad/soup, entree and dessert, that 10-20% calorie cut could make little difference. 

We at The Lempert Report want to give Darden a pat on the back for actually taking responsibilty and participating in the war on obesity, while other restaurant chains continue to introduce more and more over indulgent, calorie and fat laden dishes that seem to get way more attention than their "healthier" items. But if Darden and other restaurants want to be real leaders in this movement, we'd ask that they take their efforts a step further by offering tools that offer more immediate assistance in healthier ordering. 

The consumers' problem, even with calories printed on the menu, is figuring out how to order, not to mention resisting tempting dessert and appetizer promo cards at the table and up-selling by their server, while staying within a reasonable caloric intake.

What if restaurants were to put together suggested menu combinations with total calorie information for diners to consider? For example: 

Red Lobster

Option 1
One glass of chardonnay - 147 calories
One Cheddar Bay biscuit - 150 calories
Garden salad with red wine viaigrette dressing - 102 calories
Live Maine Lobster (1 1/4 lbs) - 45 calories
Seasonal Vegetables (with butter) - 143 calories
Key lime pie (split with a friend) - 290 calories
Total calories - 877 calories


Option 2
Iced tea - 0 calories
Starter - pan-seared crab cakes (split with a friend) - 140 calories
Garden salad with red wine viaigrette dressing - 102 calories
Wood-grilled Lobster, Shrimp and Scallops - 500 calories
Total calories - 742

And since we at The Lempert Report have a great appreciation for the benefits of technology, we would even suggest taking this a step further and offering a touch screen computer mounted at the table where diners can put together menu combinations themselves and calculate total calories.