Are You Happy about the New Happy Meal?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Last summer McDonald's was in the news regarding concerns over toys served with Happy Meals. Earlier this year McDonald's was back in the news with concerns over a new commercial campaign. McDonald's has also recently made renovations to their look and has added foods intended to be healthier such as oatmeal and fruit smoothies.
Last week McDonald's hit the news again when the President of McDonald's USA, Jan Fields, introduced plans on Good Morning America for a new Happy Meal. The traditional Happy Meal of a hamburger, fries, and a soda has been tempting or satisfying children (depending on how you look at it) for the past thirty years. Relatively unchanged, the standard meal provides about 570 calories and 20 grams of fat. The new Happy Meal will reduce that total by about 100 calories and 6 grams of fat. Some see the changes as a positive response to concerns over childhood obesity. Others see it as the typical business of marketing.  Perhaps it is a little of both but it certainly can't hurt especially in light of the new Kids Live Well campaign. So is the new meal worth all the hype? Your answer to that may depend on whether you are "glass half-full" or "glass half-empty" type of person.

Glass Half-Full View
  • Adding healthier food options and specialty coffees to their menus allows McDonald's to keep up with growing trends.

  • While the standard meal has been around for a long time so has low-fat milk. Apple slices were added to the list of options starting in 2004.

  • Since McDonald's research found that 88 percent of customers were aware of healthier options, only 11 percent of Happy Meal purchases took advantage of them. Because McDonald's support healthier meals, it makes total sense that they would want to make a change in their standard Happy Meal offering.  

Starting in September and spreading to more than 14,000 McDonald's locations nationwide by early 2012, the new improved Happy Meal will include:
  • A new smaller 1.1-ounce portion, down from the current 2.4 ounces of fries
  •  A bag of apple slices equal to a half serving of fruit. For those that do not wish to have fries at all, two bags of apple slices without fries is also an option and this would equal a complete fruit serving. To help reduce the sugar content of the meal, McDonald's will be phasing out the caramel dipping sauce as well.
  • Patrons can also choose between a hamburger, cheeseburger or Chicken McNuggets as well as fat-free chocolate milk, 1 percent low-fat white milk or soda.
  • In addition to the changes over the coming year, they outlined long-term goals as well. They aim to reduce sodium by 15 percent across all national menu food choices by 2015. By 2020, McDonald's hopes to reduce added sugars, saturated fat, and calories through varied portion sizes, reformulations, and innovations.
Glass Half-Empty View
  • McDonald's has routinely offered healthier alternatives such as milk or juice instead of soda, sliced apples instead of fries and 100 percent white meat chicken nuggets instead of a hamburger so this change isn't offering anything new.

  • The new meal only saves 100 calories and a measly 6 grams of fat.

  • Dr. Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, feels this is only a tiny step in the right direction. According to her comments to CBS News, what she really wants to see is a default Happy Meal so parents don't have to worry about anything that is in it. Removing soda completely in favor of milk as a default would be a bigger step according to her. However, the Allergy & Asthma Foundation of America reports that milk is one of the most common food allergens in children. Because of this, allowing parents to choose milk for their child instead of assuming it is safe for all children is the safer approach even though it does require parents to be involved decision makers for their child instead of the fast food restaurant.

  • Other critics of the new Happy Meal changes share displeasure with such a small fruit serving size that is only half of a fruit serving. They believe the fries should be left out all together in favor of a complete fruit serving as the standard. That way children are getting what they need and fries would only be served to those parents that ask for them.

  • While McDonald's is reducing their calories by 20 percent, sodium by 15 percent and saturated fat by 20 percent on average, skeptics wonder why McDonald's refused to join 19 other fast food chains several weeks ago with the Kids Live Well campaign. Did they refrain from joining because their happy meal already was less than the recommended 600 calories or because they only wanted to serve half a fruit serving in their standard meal? Regardless of the reason, McDonald's has gone their own way and many feel they could do much more to make their children's meal as healthy as possible.
My Bottom Line
Recent concerns over child-focused commercials lose me. When I think back to the previous campaigns, they were intentionally child focused and no one apologized for or questioned it. Why would they target children? Because marketers know that selling a kids meal means you are also sure to sell an adult meal or two as well. McDonald's has surely written the book on fast food marketing, I mean, who my age can't sing the Big Mac song. Has McDonald's Happy Meal contributed to the childhood obesity epidemic over the last thirty years? They most likely have and many other chains have certainly followed right along causing all fast food chains to contribute to the problem.  The way I see it, the problem isn't because of the meal that is offered as much as it is about the frequency in which that meal is enjoyed.
Dietitians say that any food can be incorporated into a healthy diet as long as it is in moderation. Enjoying a standard Happy Meal once a month or once a day makes a big difference to the health of the child consuming it. However, the choice for the Happy Meal selection and frequency resides with the parent, grandparent or guardian and not the child. Offering the apples with the fries may get a few more children a fruit with their meal. However, we may also see a huge increase in food waste because kids won't eat away from home what they are not used to eating at home.
I agree that offering a standard meal that doesn't include any fried foods, a full serving of a fruit and a serving of milk would be the healthiest meal possible. For those families that routinely include fruit and milk with their meals at home and want to do it when they eat away from home, families can make those choices. However, many families don't regularly include milk with their meals anymore. We have been hearing that many families don't regularly have fresh fruits and vegetables with their meals so it make sense that McDonald's has decided to take it slower approach in transitioning their children's meal. I see the small steps McDonald's is taking as positive. They may help families take small steps to new lifestyle choices when eating at home as well.
I hope next year at this time McDonald's is announcing a new improved Happy Meal that takes another step towards the "perfect" meal many believe is necessary. With any luck along the way, families will also begin including milk with their meals again at home and making fruits and vegetables a part of every meal. These positive lifestyle changes will be necessary day in and day out, if we are to beat the childhood obesity problem faced today.
How do you see the new changes to the Happy Meal? Do you have a glass half-full or glass-half empty perspective of the new meal? What else is missing?