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Should restaurants offer healthier kids’ menus

If a restaurant chain dared to revamp its children’s menu – reducing the calorie count, stripping off the soda pop and offering a salad, mixed vegetables or strawberries as sides instead of french fries – how would kids react? How would parents react? Could the chain still turn a profit?

This is what Stephanie Anzman-Frasca and her colleagues at Tufts University wondered three years ago after the Rockville, Md.-based Silver Diner made such a switch. They worked with the 13-location, traditional sit-down chain on two studies after the switches were made. More sugary and fattening foods went off the kids’ menu but still were made available if requested.

“There’s evidence emerging that children would be open to healthier options and that liking and accepting those options increases with repeated exposure to those options,” said Anzman-Frasca, 31, who in September became an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo.

Q. How did things play out in your research?

Our first paper on this, which was published in the journal Obesity last spring, looked at children’s meal orders before and shortly after these menu changes. … Before the healthy menu changes, about 3 percent of orders came from those healthier kid’s meals. After the new menus, those went up to about 46 percent of entrees. In terms of sides, before the menu changes, we saw that 29 percent of orders had strawberries bundled as a side and after the menu changes, 63 percent did. With french fries, we saw a decrease from 57 percent of bundled sides down to 22 percent.

We wanted to do this new study that just came out in Health Affairs on Nov. 2 because we wanted to see what happened one year after the change and two years after. We did see the healthier changes were substantially sustained.

Q. You also looked at the Silver Diner’s revenue growth during the two study periods. What happened?

We saw that revenue continued to increase throughout these periods. We can’t say that the healthy children’s menu directly increased the revenue growth but we can say that their revenue was not harmed during the periods these healthy changes were put into place.

Q. Will you conduct follow-up research while at UB?

I would definitely be looking for partners in the Buffalo area. I’m at the beginning phases to make those connections. We’ll be looking to work with restaurants and other community partners. (Those interested can email safrasca@buffalo.edu.)

– Scott Scanlon