Happy Meal on a Diet: McDonald’s to Include Fruits in Happy Meals

McDonald’s has been praised by Michelle Obama after announcing it will automatically include a portion of fruit in children’s Happy Meals and reduce servings of French fries.

The company said the changes to Happy Meals will reduce the annual consumption of America's children by 49 billion calories. Photo: Marc Cruz/Flickr

Bowing to pressure from health advocates and parents, McDonald’s is putting the Happy Meal on a diet, the world’s largest hamburger chain announced today. That means adding a serving of fruit or veggies to the meals, and shrinking the portion of French fries.

The changes will take effect in some markets in September and be implemented in all 14,000 McDonald’s restaurants nationwide by April 2012. Depending on season and restaurant location, kids could find apples, carrots, pineapple, mandarin oranges, or raisins alongside their burger or McNuggets, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Caramel sauce will no longer be offered with apple slices, and French fries will contain 1.1 ounces of potatoes, down from 2.4. Though soda will remain an option, parents will have to request it—soft drinks won’t be advertised to children.

“This seems like good leadership in the industry and one that should help the brand maintain its leading position with young families,” said David Palmer, an analyst with UBS.

Parents will have the option of requesting more fruit or, possibly at a later date, vegetables instead of fries. McDonald’s will also offer a fat-free chocolate milk option, along with the option of low-fat milk or the traditional soda. The price is not expected to change.

“People come to McDonald’s and, first of all, they want the choice and the control to be theirs, but their expectation of a Happy Meal does include a fry,” Jan Fields, president of McDonald’s USA, told the Los Angeles Times.

“People tell us they want to feel good about visiting us regularly, about the food options that we serve, and want to visit us even more often.”

Mrs Obama, who as US first lady has campaigned against childhood obesity, said: “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 also pledged to reduce sugars, saturated fats and calories across its menus in the US by 2020. Sodium content will be reduced by 15 percent by 2015.

Cindy Goody, McDonald’s senior director of nutrition, said: “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.”

McDonald’s has been under intense scrutiny for the nutritional quality of its food and its marketing to children. Critics have strongly challenged the chain’s practice of selling kids’ meals that include a toy, connecting it to the nation’s obesity crisis.

Last year, San Francisco and Santa Clara County, Calif. banned toys with meals at fast food restaurants if the meals didn’t meet certain nutritional criteria. Similar legislation has been proposed in New York.

“We know we’re a leader and we know we need to be part of the solution,” McDonald’s spokeswoman Danya Proud said. “But we can’t be looked at as providing the only solution.”

The business strategy for McDonald’s is to make parents feel less guilty about feeding fast food to their children, so they’ll become more frequent customers.

Happy Meals have been sold by McDonald’s for more than 30 years and traditionally include a burger, French fires, drink and toy.

In 2006, McDonald’s began advertising a version of its Happy Meal that included chicken nuggets and the apple slices, marketed as Apple Dippers because of the caramel sauce.

The result is that 88% of McDonald’s customers know about the fruit option with Happy Meals, according to the company. But only 11% of kids meals are ordered with apples instead of fries.

Today’s Happy Meal with chicken nuggets has 520 calories and 26 grams of fat, and the reconstituted version, with 1 percent milk, will total 410 calories and 19 grams of fat, according to the company.

Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a restaurant industry consultancy in Chicago, said that although McDonald’s is clearly trying to strike a balance between nutrition and cravings, “consumer are going to chose what they want.” And that usually means something fried. [Photo via Marc Cruz/Flickr; via NY Times, Chicago Tribune and LA Times]

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