The proposals, announced yesterday, will see the Department of Health and Social Care consult on introducing “clear, consistent” labelling of dishes.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt told the BBC that independent businesses could be exempt, but all large restaurant chains would need to list calories.
Trade body UKHospitality has warned the policy will place a “significant" financial burden on restaurants, and hamper the creativity of smaller operators.
Brands including The Real Greek and JD Wetherspoon already publish calorie counts on menus, but most national chains only list nutritional information on their websites.
The issue of calorie labelling has long been contentious in the UK. A similar scheme has already been introduced in chain restaurants in the USA, but the prospect has received a lukewarm reception this side of the pond.
In 2010 brands including KFC, Burger King and Pizza Hut trialled putting calorie information on menus as part of a Food Standards Agency campaign, but the majority decided not to extend the scheme.
“[Mandatory calorie labelling] would impose a serious additional cost for many businesses facing tightening margins, increased operating costs and wider economic instability,” says Kate Nicholls, CEO of UKHospitality.
“It would hamper venues endeavours to incorporate seasonal ingredients and ‘specials’ to attract custom, as well as restricting smaller restaurants’ ability to innovate, particularly when tackling food waste.
“Furthermore, calorie labelling would largely fall outside of the government’s targeting of obesity among lower income children, as obesity in that demographic is less likely to be caused by dining in restaurants.”
The government says the move will help parents “make an informed choice about what their families are eating”.