Social authoritarian cultures like San Francisco want to ban things and limit choice but when it comes to healthier kids, it doesn't require creating higher prices, more taxes or political fundamentalism regarding Happy Meals, it can just mean a few less french fries. That saves McDonald's a little money and kids won't notice the difference.

Cornell marketing professor Dr. Brian Wansink and Dr. Andrew Hanks, also of Cornell, analyzed transaction data from 30 representative McDonald's restaurants and found that calories are unimportant to kids when eating. They're obviously important when it comes to obesity so the solution seems obvious.

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 of 2012, the restaurants in th chain served a smaller size "kid fry" and a packet of apples and those alone resulted in a 98 calorie decrease in meals.

Ironically, this YouTube video on how to decrease calories in McDonald's meals has a commercial for Jack In The Box combo meals that runs before the content. Credit: Cornell.

Did kids feel cheated by being stuck with apples and fewer fries? 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.

Interestingly, the chocolate milk served in 2012 was of the fat-free variety compared to the 1% milk variety served previously. It also contained 40 fewer calories. Overall, the substitutions in beverage purchases resulted in 6 fewer calories.

Kids still like them, even if they are 100 fewer calories. Credit: Cornell Food and Brand Lab.

Small changes in the automatic default choices 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 the perception of an indulgence - like the toy, the thing that San Francisco believes causes obesity. Smaller portions of favored foods might avoid reactance and overeating, which applies at home also. 

Citation: Wansink, B.,&Hanks , A. 'Calorie reductions and within-meal calorie compensation in children's meal combos', upcoming in Obesity.