NEW ORLEANS — The restaurant industry is responding to increasing consumer interest in healthier food options for children.

Restaurants increasing healthy children’s offeringsChefs are seeing more demand for fresh fruits and vegetables, according to researchers and restaurant operators in an Oct. 18 session about the changing landscape of today’s restaurant customers at the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit 2013 expo.

While restaurants expand healthier menu items, the industry knows there’s more room for improvement, said Joan Rector McGlockton, president of industry affairs for the National Restaurant Association, Washington, D.C.

“Restaurant companies are responding with innovative business models and menu concepts,” she said. “With a greater focus on health and sustainability, the menus of large and small restaurants are changing to include more plant-based dishes where fruits and vegetables are more prominently displayed. Healthy, sustainable restaurants are among some of the biggest business launches and we’re seeing a wave of businesses investing in such markets.”

Cheryl Dolven, director of health and wellness for Darden Restaurants Inc., Orlando, Fla., described how the operator of Olive Gardens, Longhorn Steakhouses, Red Lobsters and Bahama Breezes improved children’s menus.

Fruits or vegetables are the default side, she said.

At Red Lobster, all children’s meals are served with fresh orange wedges or broccoli, while at Olive Garden, children can choose broccoli, grapes or garlic mashed potatoes, Dolven said.

“People have to opt-in for french fries and soda rather than opt-out, which is a powerful thing,” she said. “Honestly, changing the menu is the easy part. The hard part will have the family choosing the broccoli and oranges instead of fries. We took fries off the Olive Garden menu but heard from moms. There’s a real lesson there. Adding choices is a good thing but taking away choices when people are paying money sometimes proves to be a less successful thing.”

Kara Cressey, manager of food and beverage and health awareness strategy for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Lake Buena Vista, Fla., said 50% of the kids meals Disney offers at its resorts meet the nutritional guidelines.

“Our goal is to have fruits and vegetables at arms’ length,” she said. “We see a much higher take rate of healthy items. Restaurants that have a much wider variety of offerings tend to see higher healthy entre take rates than a location that’s only offering one item. It’s interesting learning and something we’re working through to see if there’s something healthy that can go up against the hamburger.”