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Objective

What happens if a fast-food restaurant chain lowers the calories in a children's meal bundle (CMB), mainly by reducing the portion size of French fries? This study examines how such changes may influence within-meal selections. Specifically, do lower-calorie changes lead to within-meal calorie compensation?

Methods

Item-level anonymous transaction data were collected for thirty chain-owned representative US restaurants during June, July, and August of 2011 (pre-changes) and 2012 (post-changes) with a focus on transaction records that included a CMB. Mixed-effects, repeated measures estimation techniques were used for the analysis. Outcome measures were the percentage and caloric profile of specific entrée items, side items, and beverages purchased in all children selecting meals.

Results

The new CMB resulted in selected children's meals that had an average of 18.8% fewer calories (P < 0.001). Additionally, a greater percentage of meals had milk (P < 0.001) compared to the prior year.

Conclusion

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.