When the Default Isn't Fries and Soda

05/11/2015 01:01 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2016

What would kids eat if salads and strawberries replaced French fries on the menu?

Most of them would order the salad and strawberries, finds a new study. When the default side was French fries 57 percent of kids' meal orders contained them. When it wasn't, only 22 percent of the kids insisted on getting the fries. The default is -- by definition -- the easy, non-choice, and when that default is healthier most kids go with it without complaint.

The study, led by Stephanie Anzman-Frasca, and published in the journal Obesity examined about 350,000 meals ordered before and after a kids' menu change at the Silver Diner chain. The menu change took place in 2012, and offered more meals that met nutrition standards set by the National Restaurant Association's Kids LiveWell program. The automatic default after the change was a healthier side, such as mixed veggies, salad or strawberries. Soda and fries were no longer on the kids' menu but could be requested as a free substitution.

Before the changes healthier sides were ordered by only 26 percent of kids. After the changes, 70 percent of the kids had fruits or veggie sides.

And the chain didn't lose customers or money. It actually grew.

A new norm

Other chains are taking similar steps: Burger King, McDonalds and Wendy's kids' meals are dropping the soda from the basic bundle and making them optional, and offering sides other than fries as a choice.

These are very small steps that might shave just a few calories, and healthier restaurant meals -- especially fast-food restaurant meals -- still fall terribly short. But these steps have the added benefit of shifting the entrenched mindset that fries and soda are a kids' meal staple, and that eating them requires no consideration.

And given how many meals are eaten out of the home these small steps can make a difference.

Mind you, the kids' menu is a rather silly concept that isn't based on any pediatric nutrition need but rather on clever marketing. Kids need smaller portions, but they definitely don't need special, dumbed down food -- when my kids were little they felt really good about getting the grow-up menu, from which they ordered half portions. Most restaurants were happy to accommodate.

Dr. Ayala

This is a crosspost of my blog, Healthy Food & Healthy Living, where you can reach me at