McDonald’s Gives In on Happy Meals


Maybe McDonald’s is just feeling generous because its second-quarter net income rose by 15% and the iconic brand has been able to buck the vestiges of recession that have been afflicting so many of its competitors. Or maybe company executives are just tired of being played as villains by food activists.

Whatever the reason or reasons, McDonald’s today laid out details of a new multi-pronged, multi-year commitment to boost nutrition in its menu and, to the extent it can, across American society. Most notably, it includes a major overhaul of the much-maligned Happy Meal in response to concerns about childhood obesity, as well as significant new uses of its influence in various forms of communication about food choices.

The company’s “Commitments to Offer Improved Nutrition Choices” aim to help Americans “make nutrition-minded choices whether visiting McDonald’s or eating elsewhere.”[more]

“McDonald’s will always try to do the right thing, and we knew we can help make a difference in our communities,” stated Jan Fields, president of McDonald’s USA. “The commitments we’re announcing today will guide the future evolution of our menu and marketing.”

The company has been under fire on the kids’ nutrition front, deflecting cries to cease its kids marketing and fire Ronald McDonald as a brand mascot.

Now, its Happy Meal makeover (above) includes automatically putting produce or a low-fat dairy option in every meal, which McDonald’s estimates would mean a 20% reduction in calories of the most popular Happy Meals and a reduction in fat as well. The company also plans to deluge parents and kids with nutritional messaging in its advertising, and fund others’ efforts to do the same.

McDonald’s will begin rolling out the new Happy Meal in September. It will include both apple slices and a new, smaller serving of French fries, and the beverage choice will include a new fat-free chocolate milk as well as 1% low-fat white milk. The company noted in its announcement that it has offered apple slices as an option in Happy Meals since 2004 – and while 88% of customers know about the option, only 11% choose the slices.

So now, McDonald’s seems to be saying it will begin essentially forcing better nutrition on our young customers, since their parents apparently can’t or won’t do it — of course, who buys those Happy Meals in the first place? And will putting apple slices in Happy Meals make kids forgo French fries?

It’s a case of damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t. The chain is taking a huge leap toward the position of child-nutrition advocates who see stronger measures by many constituencies as the only way to get American kids to eat better, even if that means working through and around their parents.

McDonald’s has also released a mobile app (its first) with nutrition information as one of the tabs to aid in these efforts, and will embark on a “listening tour” next month to get feedback from consumers on how to better promote healthier eating.

Today’s announcement won the White Housekeeping Seal of Approval, garnering praise from America’s childhood obesity-fighter, Michelle Obama, who last year lobbied the National Restaurant Association to step up the fight against the nation’s expanding waistline and last week gave her blessing to Walmart and other retailers’ move to bring fresh fruit and produce to underserved areas.

The First Lady responded (in a statement that was published by AP):

“McDonald’s is making continued progress today by providing more fruit and reducing the calories in its Happy Meals. I’ve always said that everyone has a role to play in making America healthier, and these are positive steps toward the goal of solving the problem of childhood obesity. McDonald’s has continued to evolve its menu, and I look forward to hearing about the progress of today’s commitments, as well as efforts in the years to come.”

Of course, not everyone was impressed with the fast food giant’s nutrition initiative, judging by Twitter, with some critics opposed to any kids’ marketing (such as the McDonald’s Smurfs movie tie-in at top):

Tell us: Your thoughts on McDonald’s new nutritional commitment and kids marketing strategy?