Healthier Happy Meals Help Kids Cut Calories, Study Shows

Released: 12/20/2013 9:55 AM EST
Source Newsroom: Cornell University
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Citations Obesity Journal

Media Note: A copy of the research paper is available at,

Newswise — ITHACA, N.Y. – Children can eat a favorite fast-food meal and still cut calories, according to a recent Cornell University study of a popular fast-food meal.

In 2012, McDonald’s made changes to its Happy Meal to improve the nutritional quality of the popular children’s meal. In a recent study, 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 percent 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.

Despite that 104-calorie reduction, children did not compensate by choosing a more caloric entrée.

“This proved that small changes in the automatic – or default – foods offered or promoted in children’s meals can reduce calorie intake and improve the overall nutrition of the meal as long as there is still an indulgence,” Hanks said.

Purchases of regular soda also decreased by 11 percent, while 22 percent more children chose white or chocolate milk – a more satiating beverage with a better nutrient profile.

“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,” Wansink said. “These are great changes that parents can even do at home.”

The study was published online this month in Obesity Journal and was partially funded by a grant from the McDonald’s Corporation.

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