SEATTLE — Parents chose meals for their children with fewer calories when the menus clearly labeled the calories for each item, according to a study at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

Ninety-nine parents of 3-to-6 year olds who sometimes eat in fast-food restaurants with their children were surveyed about their fast-food eating habits. When presented with a sample McDonald’s restaurant menu including current prices and pictures of items, they were asked what they would select for themselves and also for their children. Half of the parents were given menus that showed calorie information for each item.

Parents who were given the calorie information chose 102 fewer calories on average for their children compared with the group who did not have the calorie information. This represents a calorie reduction of about 20% for the children’s items, although there was no difference in the calories between the groups for the items the parents chose for themselves. There was no correlation between how often a family typically eats fast food and the amount of calories selected.

“Even modest calorie adjustments on a regular basis can avert weight gain and lead to better health over time,” said Pooja S. Tandon, lead researcher. “Just an extra 100 calories per day may equate to about 10 lbs of weight gain per year. Our national childhood obesity epidemic has grown right alongside our fast-food consumption. Anything we can do to help families make more positive choices could make a difference. Interestingly, by simply providing parents the caloric information they chose lower calorie items. This is encouraging and suggests parents do want to make wise food decisions for their children, but they need help.”

The research was published on-line Jan. 25 in Pediatrics and supports nutritional menu labeling efforts.