Kids’ Menu Portion Sizes Greatly Exceed Recommendations

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By: Jessica Bussey

Today, Americans spend more than half of all food dollars outside the home, with one in every three children and 41% of adolescents eating fast food on any given day.1 This high frequency of consumption combined with excessively large portion sizes can have a significant impact on children’s total daily calories. It is, therefore, no coincidence that over the last 30 years, obesity rates have more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents.1

The Institute of Medicine recommends that the average five- to ten-year-old child consume roughly 1800 calories per day2, with a maximum of 600 calories per meal. In consideration of legislation from the Affordable Care Act requiring restaurants to publish the calorie content of their menu items, a recent study analyzed the calories found in children’s menu items served at the top 200 US restaurant chains.3 As part of the study, a panel of 1peanut-butter-jelly-881197_12805 experts in childhood nutrition created recommendations for ideal portion sizes for children’s menu items from various categories, including entrees, side items, desserts, and beverages. They concluded that the maximum caloric content for a single serving of these items should be as follows: 300 calories for main dishes, 150 calories for most side items and desserts, and 110 calories for beverages, with no caloric limit placed on fruits and vegetables without added sauces or other ingredients. The panel also clarified that the only caloric beverage recommended for children was skim or low-fat, unflavored milk. However, the study found the calories in the menu items that were evaluated to be dramatically higher than these recommendations.

On average, the restaurant portions offered to children were 147% larger than the panel’s recommendations.3 Not surprisingly, fried potatoes were the biggest offender, at nearly triple the recommended calories for a single portion. Pizza and ice cream were also served in substantially larger portions, at more than double the ideal calories. The only items that were close to the calories that the panel recommended were vegetables and salads with sauces or dressing. Several specific items were found to be most likely to exceed 600 calories in a single serving − the amount actually recommended for an entire meal by the IOM. These items included pizza, burgers, and macaroni and cheese.

Despite the fact that publishing calorie content of menu items will soon be required, many adults still do not understand or make appropriate decisions based on calorie information, and many parents have insufficient knowledge of proper childhood nutrition and appropriate caloric intake.2 Researchers argue that rather than simply reporting calories, if restaurants were to adjust serving sizes and offer portions that were more aligned with current dietary guidelines, they would be taking significant and impactful steps to address the obesity epidemic, both in children and adults.


  1. “Childhood Obesity Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Accessed January 15, 2017.
  2. Preidt, Robert. “Kids’ restaurant meals need slimming down: Nutritionists.” HealthDay News. Accessed January 14, 2017.
  3. Cohen DA, Lesser LI, et al. Kids’ menu portion sizes: How much should be served?. Nutrition Today. 2016; 51(6): 273-280.

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