A new study from Tufts University suggests that when healthy food items are listed as the standard on a children’s menu, it can lead to healthier eating habits. Children’s meal purchases were monitored at 13 regional locations of the Silver Diner franchise. For the study, kid’s meal menus listed healthy items, such as salad or fruit, as the default instead of less-healthy sides, such as fries.
Out of the mouths of babes
Before the study, the owners of Silver Diner decided in 2012 to add fresher and locally sourced ingredients to their food. They also hoped to add healthier items to their children’s menu, in place of the typical fried and high-calorie foods. Children and their families were invited for a taste test, where they were presented a variety of possible new entrees, such as teriyaki salmon and brown rice.
Salmon, at a diner? For kids?
But the salmon was a big hit, with many of the children exclaiming they loved the dish, and wished it was made at home.
The taste test sparked a wave of new menu changes that eventually made its way to Tufts University. Researchers hoped to study the before and after effects of the menu changes on purchasing patterns. From the old children’s menu, you could choose either one healthy side dish, one unhealthy side, or no side, with a beverage option of either milk, juice, or soda. The menus were then changed to include only healthy sides, and meal options eligible for the National Restaurant Association, Kids Live Well program. This program has specific nutritional requirements and bans fried foods. Parents could still choose to switch to french fries. But researchers hoped that by using a healthy choice as the standard, more would be inclined to stick with it, improving the nutritional value of the meal.** Impressive resultsResearchers analyzed data from 350,000 kids’ meals, as well as a random collection of receipts. Overall meal calories stayed the same for those who refused the new healthy menu options and swapped out healthier sides and entrees. But for those who stuck with the new default healthy side dishes such as strawberries or vegetables, their meals had 60 fewer calories.** The researchers also noted an increase in the purchase of healthy entrees (that rose from 3 percent to 46 percent), as well as an increase in healthy sides (25 percent to 70 percent). French fries with the old menu were ordered 57 percent of the time, but with the new menu, they were ordered only 22 percent of the time.
Even beverage orders for milk and juice increased while orders for soda decreased. And, once the study was over, these healthy ordering patterns continued.
Which means a lot of happy and healthier little guys and gals.
However, there is a catch. Those who have switched to gluten-free or organic diets are very familiar with what that can mean at the checkout. Those who participated in the menu study were no different—they paid more for making healthy decisions. On average, breakfast foods were $0.79 more expensive, and all other items rose in price about $0.19.
But one could argue that even with the increase in prices, the overall outcome was a win-win for both a business and the consumer. The consumers received better nutritional value from their meals, while overall revenue following the healthier food items grew above that of other leading dining chains. Revenue was 11 percent greater than 2010-2011, and up 5 percent compared to years between 2011 and 2013.
Much is still left to be determined, such as the impact of the menu items on total food consumption. However, the research shows that by swapping in healthier sides, you can lower the overall caloric value of a meal and offer more choices, without limiting sales. The researchers suggested that restaurant owners consider the results of the study when they consider their menu options.
Kristina Brooks is a gluten-free digital editor at HealthCentral, with a background in animal biology, ecology, and health science. While studying broadcast journalism, she discovered the great need for health reporters that could translate research to the public. In her work, she hopes to use research to help consumers make smart decisions about their healthcare, and empower patients to stay confident and in charge of their chronic conditions. Kristina works on the HealthySelf newsletter, as well as HealthCentral’s MythWeek.