This morning, the National Restaurant Association, in collaboration with Healthy Dining (an online resource to help Americans find dietitian-approved menu options), unveiled Kids LiveWell, a new program to help prevent childhood obesity by increasing the availability of healthy food choices on kids’ menus at restaurants nationwide.“Kids LiveWell empowers parents to confidently make informed decisions about their children’s meals as part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle,” Anita Jones-Mueller, founder of Healthy Dining, said in a statement.MORE: How Does Eating at Restaurants Affect Your Body?Nineteen restaurant companies, with 15,000 locations nationwide, are participating in the program. Each is offering and promoting kids’ menu choices that meet the 2010 U.S.D.A. Dietary Guidelines and gain approval from Healthy Dining’s team of registered dietitians.Each participating restaurant is required to offer at least one children’s meal with 600 calories or less, including two servings of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and/or low-fat dairy, with limited sodium, fats and sugar.Sample menu items include choices like turkey and swiss cheese on a multi-grain baguette with a side of watermelon at Au Bon Pain or grilled chicken with steamed broccoli at Chili’s Bar and Grill. On restaurant menus, LiveWell options will be marked with a red apple logo.MORE: Sneaking In Beauty-Boosting VegetablesThe program comes at a critical time for the health of our nation’s children.Today, more than one-third of children ages 10-17 are overweight or obese. Twelve states now have obesity rates above 30 percent and America spends more than $150 billion per year on obesity-related healthcare.In 2005, a report in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that the current generation of American children might be the first in two centuries to have shorter life expectancies than their parents. The report warned that the rapid rise in childhood obesity could shorten the average child’s lifespan by up to five years.MORE: Obesity Spreads in Social NetworksOffering healthy menu options for kids is currently one of the top restaurant trends, no doubt driven at least in part by First Lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to improve children’s eating habits and increase their physical activity.That effort is especially needed in areas where fast food is a staple of kids’ diets.Millions of Americans now live in “food deserts,” areas where fast food restaurants are prevalent and supermarkets or healthy food choices are difficult to find. A report released Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine shows that fast food consumption is directly related to availability, meaning the more fast food restaurants near your home, the more fast food you’re likely to eat.LiveWell has reached out to fast food chains, which have the potential to have a significant impact on decreasing childhood obesity rates.

However, some of the fast food restaurants’ menu options could go further.

Burger King, for example, offers a kids’ hamburger with sides of fat free milk and sliced apples, which they’ve renamed “apple fries.” The “fries” count as a full serving of fruit but come with caramel sauce and while the meal meets the program’s criteria, adding a whole grain bun and a leaner meat would be easy, nutrition-boosting improvements.

The LiveWell program provides full nutritional data for each menu item on the Healthy Dining website, so be an informed consumer and don’t be fooled into thinking that a side of milk and apples can make a hamburger healthy. Instead, go for options like Silver Diner’s locally farmed bison sliders that boast vegetables, lean protein and wheat rolls all in one meal. Your kids won’t even know it’s not beef!QUIZ: What’s Your Eating Style?