New kids' menu.

Photographer: Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images

One Way Restaurants Can Fight Child Obesity

Peter R. Orszag is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a vice chairman of investment banking at Lazard. He was President Barack Obama’s director of the Office of Management and Budget from 2009 to 2010 and the director of the Congressional Budget Office from 2007 to 2008.
Read More.
a | A

Until my older children tired of the ritual, I would take them to the Silver Diner in Rockville, Maryland, every Saturday morning. A few years ago, we noticed a drastic change in the menu, with more emphasis on healthy food. A new analysis of that change published in Health Affairs backs up our family's experience and suggests that it had substantial effects on the food children ordered.

In the study, items on the children's menu were considered healthy if they met the “Kids Livewell” criteria. Before the menu change, 3 percent of all entrees ordered from the kids' menu were healthy ones, and French fries accounted for 57 percent of side dishes. (My children, truth be told, were doing nothing to improve these depressing statistics.)

In April 2012, the Silver Diner introduced more healthy options and highlighted them on the menu. Kids could still choose fries and other traditional options, but the menu was now designed to encourage healthier ones.

The result? Forty-six percent of orders were for healthy entrees, and French fries dropped to 22 percent of bundled side dishes. These changes have persisted through the most recent assessment, covering late 2014 and early 2015.  In addition, revenue rose at the Silver Diner somewhat faster than at other leading family dining chains. (The analysis was funded in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, where I serve on the board. The Silver Diner did not provide any financial support.)

While this may not definitively prove the power of changing the menu -- after all, children weren't randomly given old or new menus -- it is highly suggestive. And given that childhood obesity rates in the U.S. remain stuck at 17 percent, this matters.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has pledged an additional $500 million to tackle childhood obesity. But money alone isn’t sufficient. No magic silver bullet exists to reduce childhood obesity. Instead, progress will have to come from the accumulation of many small changes, like the Silver Diner’s new menu. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Peter R. Orszag at porszag3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net