A study published in the Obesity Journal shows that children can eat a favorite fast-food meal and still cut calories. In 2012, McDonald’s made changes to its Happy Meal to improve the nutritional quality of the children’s meal. Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab researchers Brian Wansink and Andrew Hanks analyzed more than 230,0000 transactions from 30 representative McDonald’s restaurants to document whether the change led to more healthful meal selections.
Historically, the Happy Meal has included one of three entrée options, a side item, and a beverage. By April 2012, all U.S. restaurants made several changes to the Happy Meal, including serving a “kid fry” that had 56% fewer calories than the previous Happy Meal fries. The change also added a packet of apples to each Happy Meal. All together, the children’s meals now contain an average of 104 fewer calories.
The researchers found that the children did not compensate for the 104-calorie reduction by choosing a higher caloric entrée. Purchases of regular soda also decreased by 11%, while 22% more children chose white or chocolate milk.
“In addition to better nutrition, offering a small French fry portion and making apple slices part of the meal positively reinforces healthy behaviors and helps children consider fruit as a standard side item for lunch or dinner,” said Wansink.