Healthy Kids' Meals In Restaurants

Our Research Portfolio

In our efforts to improve the nutritional quality of children’s menu options, we embarked on a portfolio of research to lay the groundwork for change. Our research has informed our thinking and strategic direction, helped establish our credibility, and provided the foundation to develop a business case to demonstrate that healthy menu changes can be good for children and good for business.

Specifically, we’ve researched the immediate and longer-term effect of healthy kids’ menu changes on ordering patterns, individual orders, and revenue at a regional restaurant; assessed the availability of and kids’ attitudes toward healthier side dishes; reviewed the current landscape surrounding menu labeling; and examined the availability of healthier kids’ meals at leading quick- and full-service restaurants. In addition, we have gathered expert guidance for industry on children’s menu portion sizes and assessed parents’, children’s, and restaurant executives’ perspectives to identify strategies for the promotion of healthier eating that resonate across these audiences.

More recently, we have studied individual children’s responses to healthy menu changes to understand the role that consumer demand and acceptance play in the success of healthy defaults; examined the feasibility of plate waste methodology in a restaurant setting; surveyed parents on their awareness of children’s calorie needs in restaurants, and pilot-tested strategies designed to increase demand for healthier kids’ meals for feasibility and sustainability in future interventions.

Our research contributes to the growing evidence base around both the supply of and demand for healthier meals for children. Through this work, we are identifying and bringing attention to what is currently working, and building a case for change in other areas.

Our study of changes to orders, price, and revenue after the Silver Diner restaurant chain introduced a healthier kids’ menu found that the changes led to healthier ordering patterns without removing choice or reducing revenue, suggesting that restaurants can still be competitive while improving child nutrition.

Our follow-up study found that children’s ordering patterns at Silver Diner remained healthier two years after the new menu was introduced -- and in some cases, continued to improve.

Our assessment of the availability of, and children’s attitudes toward, healthier side dishes at restaurants found that while few restaurants currently offer fruit and vegetable side dishes by default, most children were neutral or positive about receiving these sides instead of French fries with kids' meals.

Our review of current research and debates surrounding menu labeling concluded that the evidence regarding menu labeling is mixed; labels may reduce the number of calories of food purchased in some settings, but have little effect in other settings.

We examined the availability of healthier children’s meals at leading quick- and full-serve restaurants. We compared the calorie, fat, saturated fat, and sodium content of available children’s meal combinations in these restaurants with national dietary recommendations. Results show that children’s meal combinations with 600 calories or fewer are available at leading restaurant chains, but many meals fail to meet current national recommendations for fat, saturated fat, and sodium.

This paper provided expert guidance on appropriate portion sizes for children’s menu items. Restaurants and consumers can use this information to guide menu development and ordering decisions.

Our pilot study in restaurants assessed parents', children's, and restaurant executives' perspectives on children's meals. These findings can inform efforts to promote healthier eating that are acceptable to parents, children, and restaurant personnel.

Our study of individual children's responses to healthy menu changes found that the majority of children accepted the new healthier menu. However, some children made modifications to their meals that made them less healthy, such as substituting french fries for vegetables, or soda for milk. These findings speak to the value of healthy defaults, but also remind us of the key role that consumer demand and acceptance play in their success.

Our pilot and feasibility study demonstrated that plate waste methodology can be successfully executed in a restaurant setting. These findings laid the groundwork for a larger study assessing children’s ordering and consumption in restaurants (results forthcoming) and demonstrated a methodological advancement toward more accurately assessing consumption in restaurants.

Our national survey found that most parents are unaware of how many calories children should eat in restaurants. Furthermore, among the parents who were accurate in reporting how many calories children should eat, most were not confident in their knowledge. These results highlight the need for communication efforts in public health that go beyond the numbers in helping parents make informed choices in restaurants.

Our pilot and feasibility study tested four strategies for increasing demand for healthier kids’ meals at quick-service and full-service restaurants.

This study built upon our previous assessment of the availability of, and children’s attitudes toward, healthier side dishes at restaurants. This time, we also looked at kids’ perspectives on healthier alternatives to soda and parents’ awareness of child receptivity to healthier menu options. We found that child acceptance of fruit and vegetable sides instead of French fries remained high, that they were receptive to milk, water, or flavored water instead of soda, and that parent awareness aligns with these perspectives.

Healthy Kids' Meals: Good for Kids, Good for Business

See what happened when a restaurant chain made healthy changes to its kids' menu:


Silver Diner research infographic

Additional Resources