Small Changes to Happy Meals can Help Cut Calorie Consumption
Parents can encourage child to eat healthy by offering healthy foods along with small portions of indulgent foods
Restaurant managers can encourage healthy eating by making small changes in the automatic foods offered in children’s meals, while still including small portions of indulgent foods
Allowing small portions of unhealthy foods in meals helps to avoid overeating
Tools & Resources
Feel free to download and use any of the graphics, illustrations, videos, and resources on this page for educational purposes. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
What would happen if a fast-food restaurant reduces the calories in a children’s meal by 104 calories, mainly by decreasing the portion size of French fries? Would children compensate by choosing a more calorie dense entrée or beverage? Researchers at Cornell University, Dr. Brian Wansink and Dr. Andrew Hanks, analyzed transaction data from 30 representative McDonald’s restaurants to answer that question.
Prior to 2012, the Happy Meal® was served with one of three entrée options (chicken nuggets, cheeseburger, hamburger), a side item (apples or small size French fry), and a beverage (fountain beverage, white milk, chocolate milk, apple juice). By April 2012, all restaurants in this chain served a smaller size “kid fry” and a packet of apples with each CMB. They found that this change in default side offerings (fewer fries and added apple slices) resulted in 98 of the total 104-calorie decrease in the CMB.
With such a large decrease in calories, would children compensate by choosing a more calorie dense entrée or beverage? Wansink and Hanks found that 99% of children ordered the same entrée, and orders of chicken nuggets (the lowest calorie entrée) remained flat at nearly 62% of all orders. Yet, nearly 11% fewer children took caloric soda as a beverage and 22% more chose white or chocolate milk–a more satiating beverage. This increase was partially due to small changes in advertising for milk. The chocolate milk served in 2012 was of the fat-free variety compared to the 1% variety served previously and it also contained 40 fewer calories. Overall, the substitutions in beverage purchases resulted in 6 fewer calories served with the average CMB.
Small changes in the automatic—or default—foods offered or promoted in children’s meals can reduce calorie intake and improve the overall nutrition from selected foods as long as there is still an indulgence. Importantly, balancing a meal with smaller portions of favored foods might avoid reactance and overeating. Just as managers have done this in restaurants, parents can do this at home.
For instance, giving a child a piece of fruit and a smaller amount of potato chips with his or her sandwich may be healthier than providing no indulgence at all.
• Download paper from the SSRN (the Social Science Research Network)
Wansink, Brian, and Andrew S. Hanks (2014). Calorie reductions and within‐meal calorie compensation in children's meal combos. Obesity, 22(3), 630-632. doi: 10.1002/oby.20668
Other Interesting Articles on Compensation
Dijksterhuis, A. (2004). Think Different: The Merits of Unconscious Thought in Preference Development and Decision Making. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 586-598.
Dijksterhuis, A., Bos, M. W., Nordgren, L. F., & Van Baaren, R. B. (2006). On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect. Science, 311, 1005-1007.
Fillingim, R. B., Roth, D. L., & Haley, W. E. (1989). The effects of distraction on the perception of exercise-induced symptoms. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 33, 241-248.
Fishbach, A., & Dhar, R. (2005). Goals as Excuses or Guides: The Liberating Effect of Perceived Goal Progress on Choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 32, 370-377.
Karageorghis, C. I., & Terry, P. C. (1997). The psychophysical effects of music in sport and exercise: A review. Journal of Sport Behavior, 20, 54.
Khan, U., & Dhar, R. (2006). Licensing Effect in Consumer Choice. Journal of Marketing Research, 43, 259-266.
King, N. A. (1999). What processes are involved in the appetite response to moderate increases in exercise-induced energy expenditure? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 58, 107-113.
King, N. A., Snell, L., Smith, R. D., & Blundell, J. E. (1996). Effects of short-term exercise on appetite responses in unrestrained females. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 50, 663-667.
Kivetz, R., & Zheng, Y. (2006). Determinants of justification and self-control. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 135, 572-587.
Lerouge, D. (2009). Evaluating the Benefits of Distraction on Product Evaluations: The Mind-Set Effect. Journal of Consumer Research, 36, 367-379.
Lichtman, S.W., Pisarska, K., Berman, E.R., Pestone, M., Dowling, H., Offenbacher, E., Weisel, H., Heshka, S., Matthews, D.E., & Heymsfield, S.B. (1992). Discreptency between self-reported and actual caloric intake and exercise in obese subjects. New England Journal of Medicine, 327 (27), 1893-1898.
Martins, C., Morgan, L. M., Bloom, S. R., & Robertson, M. D. (2007). Effects of exercise on gut peptides, energy intake and appetite. Journal of Endocrinology, 193, 251-258.
Nowlis, S. M., & Shiv, B. (2005). The Influence of Consumer Distractions on the Effectiveness of Food-Sampling Programs. Journal of Marketing Research (JMR), 42 (2), 157-168.
Okada, E.M. (2005). Justification Effects on Consumer Choice of Hedonic and Utilitarian Goods. Journal of Marketing Research (JMR), 42, 43-53.
Learn more . . .