The Kids Meal Diet: How to Cut Costs, Calories — and Acid Reflux?

Joseph Serwach

Why some adults prefer child-sized portions: Everything in moderation? When less means more Image by Fortepan via Wikimedia Commons.

Americans love spicy food, and finally, my doctor told me I had to cut out (or minimize) basically all the food I loved. Doctor’s orders: Small portions.

“No wonder Americans can get so nasty,” I thought. “A lot of our food and drinks are chock full of acid.”

The doctor said I could have one cup of coffee (but no more). Alcohol, soda pop, and tea were also on the “bad” list, along with just about every spicy, fried, meaty meal I adore. So I shifted to soup, salads, and blander fare.

Within 40 days, I lost nearly 20 pounds eating “safe stuff.” Doctors don’t like too much weight loss (or too much of anything). “Everything in moderation,” they say, a little of this, a little of that. So we started experimenting…

How we stumbled onto the Kids Meal diet…

While traveling, my bride suggested we stop at McDonald’s, where she got a fish sandwich meal. I knew I couldn’t have my standard Big Mac (too much now), so I imagined trying Chicken McNuggets for the first time in decades…

“No, too many messy sauces, and we’re driving,” I thought. So I got a cheap 300 calorie cheeseburger, agreed to try a few of my bride’s fries, and my digestive system was fine. It was fried foods — but in more moderation.

On the long cross-country journey home through Ohio, an inner voice whispered, “Steak and Shake.”

I looked at a Steak and Shake as we passed and thought, “They have amazing milkshakes. Maybe one of those would be OK?”

When we found another Steak and Shake (not difficult in Ohio), my bride suggested we make this our early dinner. I was only going to have a milkshake. As we pulled up to the drive-thru, I looked at the unfamiliar menu.

I winced, looking at all the large meaty burgers on the menu. My inner “gut feeling” rejected them. Too much for me, I thought.

Don’t they have a simple little basic burger? That’s when I saw the kid's menu. I found myself ordering a milkshake for both of us and asked:

“Can we also have two kids’ steakburgers?”

The good-guy fast-food worker concluded this meant “two kids meals,” so we wound up with two kids steakburgers, two kids fries, and two kid’s sized milkshakes for a total of…. $11.63. For two meals.

Wow! Cheapest meal of the trip, and it turned out to be (shockingly) the perfect amount of food for both of us. Suddenly, my head was spinning at the possibilities:

  • A healthier, less acidy amount of food (without eating soup and salad every day).
  • Fewer calories with less chance of heartburn.
  • A huge deal on the price.

The only down-side? The adult straws seemed pretty tall for the tiny kid cups, and I was half-worried about the fast-food people looking in our car and saying, “Wait a minute. You’re older people. Silly rabbit! Kids meals are for kids.”

Kids meals were invented in 1973 by Burger Chef and were perfected by McDonald’s in 1978 with the Happy Meal, but I’d never actually eaten a kids meal before (I always felt a little too old for that). Until now.

Kids Meal diet backed by culture, history — and science?

Today, Americans eat (on average) four times as much cheese as we did in 1970. Portion size has grown rapidly for everything else: from 2,160 calories per day in 1970 to 2,673 daily calories per person in 2010.

“‘Kid food’ started as something separate and different from normal food,’’ author Bee Wilson argues. “Now it is close to being the new normal for all age groups. The danger is that when adults have childish tastes too, it becomes very difficult for anyone to break the cycle and learn the pleasures of real food.”

Bigger is better? Even the plates themselves are larger than they were 50 years ago. The American dinner plate has increased 22 percent over the last half-century, from 9.62 inches to 11.75 inches.

A restaurant burger's average size has doubled over 20 years from 300 calories to more than 600 calories, while french fries have tripled from 210 calories to 610 calories. An average drink has jumped from 85 calories of soda pop to 250 calories.

Supersize me? At McDonald’s, the portion numbers exploded. Back in 1955, the only sized McDonald’s french fry option was 2.4 ounces.

Nearly all restaurants have expanded their plate and meal sizes, too, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which estimates the average restaurant meal is now more than four times larger than it was in the 1950s.

Not surprisingly, obesity rates soared to new records. The average American man weighed 166.2 pounds in the 1960s, but today, the “average man” weighs 197 pounds — a jump of more than 30 pounds. The average woman’s weight has climbed from 140 pounds to 166 pounds.

Research in the journal BMC Public Health found Americans are now the world’s third-heaviest people. Only the Pacific island nations of Tonga and Micronesia had heavier populations on average.

My father planted the “downsizing diet idea” in my mind months ago when he mentioned he loves the Burger King spicy fish sandwich, but he orders his favorite sandwich and “I throw out the bun.”

When the USDA studied restaurant portion sizes, researchers found an average restaurant meal or snack was 134 more calories than if people ate the same food at home.

“They’re way too big,” Dr. Deborah Cohen told NPR. “The average meal should be 700 calories or less for adults and 600 or less for children. Restaurants can afford to serve too much because food is relatively cheap. Most people do eat too much if they’re served more than they need. That is human nature.”

This brings us back to the Kids Meal Diet:

If you need (or want) to eat smaller portions, it’s worth remembering that today’s “kid’s size” is closer to what all ages ate years ago. That means a meal with fewer calories, fewer acids, and spending less money.

My only questions: if they give me toys, what will I do with them? And if smaller portion sizes mean you’re a little more hungry and weight a little less, maybe that’s OK?

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