A new study from Cornell University shows that small changes to children’s meals offered at McDonald’s restaurants lowered the overall calorie level while preserving that essential sense of indulgence.

In work seeking answers to today’s childhood obesity crisis, investigators found that a children’s meal might attain “balance” by reducing portions of side dishes that accompany hamburgers or cheeseburgers such as French fries or apple pie. Such balance might discourage overeating among children dining at McDonald’s or other fast food outlets on a regular basis. The study was partially funded by McDonald’s.

Andrew Hanks and his colleagues studied the effects of menu changes last year to McDonald’s happy meals marketed to children. "We were curious to know how diners might have changed what they were ordering in order to make up for the reduction of calories," he told Reuters last week. "That was the component we were really interested in because there's evidence of compensation when your calories decrease.”

Yet, they found that kids didn’t compensate with other meal and side offering choices while at the store, though investigators acknowledge they have no idea whether children simply compensated for lost calories later at home. While dining at the store, children ordering the newly adjusted happy meals chose chicken nuggets as a side 61 percent of the time, similar to previous levels.

Hank and his colleagues also said they didn’t know what to make of a slight rise in chocolate milk orders, since the offering was relatively new. While orders for white milk rose from 5 percent of all children’s orders to 6.5 percent, sales of regular soft drinks dropped from 58 percent to 52 percent.

Among adjustments to the menu last year, McDonald’s began offering apple slices as a side order with reduced portions of French fries coming with Happy Meals. Although the restaurant chain still offered the same four entree choices for the meal — four chicken nuggets, a hamburger, or a cheeseburger — the total calorie cost fell by 98 calories, according to the researchers.

For the study, they gained access to transaction records from 30 stores in the United States, analyzing more than 232,000 transactions that included the price of a Happy Meal during the months of June, July, and August in 2011 and 2012.

Cindy Goody, a senior executive from McDonald’s, told Reuters the menu change has been a success. "In March 2012, we began automatically including apple slices in McDonald's Happy Meals. Since then, we have introduced more than 770 million packages/bags of apples slices as a part of Happy Meals.” As a result, McDonald’s has lowered the number of calories in the average Happy Meal by 20 percent, she added.

By focusing on the “small potatoes,” researchers and marketers hope to curb an obesity crisis that presently affects 17 percent of the nation’s children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Source: Wansink B, Hanks AS., Calorie Reductions And Within-Meal Calorie Compensation In Children’s Meal Combos. Obesity. 2013.