How McDonald’s Plans to Make Happy Meals Healthier

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Eric Risberg / AP

McDonald’s is hoping to make Happy Meals happier — at least, for nutritionists and health-conscious parents. The fast-food chain’s executives announced that they will keep the toys but ditch extra calories in their kids’ menu items starting in September. The restaurant will not only cut french-fry portions in half for Happy Meal-ers but also include sliced apple “dippers” in those meals. Currently, the apple dippers are an optional substitute for french fries.

Parents, consumer-advocacy groups and even some city councils have criticized McDonald’s kids’ menu and marketing strategy, which targets young children. Last November, the San Francisco city council voted to ban toys from kids’ meals that didn’t meet strict nutritional standards for fat, salt and sugar content because the prizes made it difficult for parents to steer their children toward healthier menu choices. New York City considered a similar ban earlier this year.

Feeling the pressure, McDonald’s decided to drop the caramel sauce from its apples, add apples to every package and reduce its Happy Meal french-fry offering from 2.4 oz. to 1.1 oz. That means an overall calorie reduction of about 20%, for a total of less than 600 calories.

But a meal in the ballpark of 600 calories is still too high for many small children, who experts say should be taking in anywhere from 1,200 to just over 2,000 calories a day until they’re 13. And while including fresh fruit in the Happy Meal is a step in the right direction, some public-health experts and nutritionists are concerned that McDonald’s will use this as an occasion for “health washing”: rebranding its kids’ menu offering as “healthy” when it is merely less unhealthy.

There’s also the fact that the restaurant continues to market junk food to children — even if it offers slightly healthier alternatives in a few instances. “McDonald’s deserves credit for not only taking these steps but for acknowledging its role in today’s epidemic of diet-related disease in so doing,” said Kelle Louaillier, executive director of Corporate Accountability International, in a statement. “It’s a good first step. However, the corporation has yet to address the central issue: its aggressive brand marketing to kids. And so long as burgers, fries and soda offerings to kids, alongside toys, remain central to that brand, health professionals will continue to call for the marketing to stop.”

For their part, McDonald’s executives said this was just the first in a series of changes that have been in the works for more than two years — far longer than any of the legislation challenging their Happy Meals. Additional changes may bring other healthy fare to the restaurant. “We are going to be casting our gaze more closely on portion management as well as how we can introduce more food groups such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains,” Cindy Goody, McDonald’s senior director of nutrition, said during a webcast.

For example, Goody and her team vowed to cut sodium by 15% across the menu by 2015, with additional cuts to added sugar, saturated fat and overall calories by 2020.

While the changes are a long time coming for many health officials, at least youngsters — and their parents — will start to have more choices when it comes to eating at McDonald’s. The changes to the Happy Meal will be in place in all U.S. locations by March 2012.

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