Calorie Reductions and Within‐Meal Calorie Compensation in Children's Meal Combos
Presently, childhood obesity remains a serious national issue, exacerbated by the fact that many children do not consume sufficient amounts of fruits and vegetables. Previously implemented tactics such as restricting a child’s access to calorie dense foods have led to resistance and reactance. In this study, we explored the less heavy-handed approach of adding a default healthy side and downsizing the unhealthy side within the children’s meal at a national fast food restaurant. More specifically, we examined the effect this had on within-meal calorie compensation and total calorie composition of the meal, ultimately aiming to answer the question, will introducing healthier, low-calorie default foods influence what else is selected during that meal?
Historically, the McDonalds’ Happy Meal®, commonly referred to as a children’s meal bundle or CMB, consisted of the choice of (1) one entree (hamburger, cheeseburger, or chicken nuggets), (2) one side item (small size French fry or 2.4 oz. package of apple slices with low fat caramel dip), and (3) one beverage (a soft drink, 100% apple juice, 1% low fat chocolate or 1% low fat white milk).
By April 2012, all US McDonalds restaurants had made three changes to the CMB:
- The small size fry was replaced with an even smaller “kid size” portion
- A 1.2 package of apple slices was included by default, increasing the exposure to fruit, and the caramel dip was discontinued
- Advertising in restaurant and TV promotions included a half pint milk jug containing 1% white or fat-free chocolate milk, while previous promotions only featured the 1% white milk
Overall, the side items (apples and French fries) served in the average 4-item meal purchased in 2012 had 98 fewer calories accounting for 94% of the 104 calorie decrease for the entire meal.
To evaluate the changes, daily anonymous transactions were recorded in June, July, and August of 2011 (pre-changes) and 2012 (post-changes) from 30 representative company-owned restaurants. Although, CMB buyers could have chosen a more satiating or caloric entrée, such as a hamburger (250 calories) or cheeseburger (300 calories) instead of chicken nuggets (190 calories) to compensate for the changes in portion size and number of calories, 61% of the customers still selected the chicken nuggets. In terms of drinks, purchases of regular caloric soda decreased while chocolate milk purchases increased from 16.5% to 20.3%. Whether this increase in chocolate milk purchases was due to the new promotions or within-meal calorie compensation is not known yet. The 1% white milk, also featured in recent advertising, increased from 5.3% to 6.5%.
These findings demonstrate that minor changes in default offerings can significantly influence behavior, as long as there is still an indulgence. Restricting options, such as eliminating French fries altogether, could spark resistance and reactance, such as within-meal calorie compensation that leads to greater calorie intake. In contrast, offering a 56% smaller sized French fry portion and making apple slices a default part of children’s meals positively reinforces healthy behaviors and potentially avoids the reactance evident in more restrictive changes. Implications for this research may extend well beyond fast food restaurants and warrant further investigation in other settings. For example, parents can leverage these insights to encourage healthier behaviors at home and avoid reactance and overeating.