by Marion Nestle
Jul 27 2011

Let’s talk about McDonald’s Happy Meals changes

McDonald’s sent out a press release yesterday to announce “healthier” changes to its Happy Meals.

Healthier?  Not quite.  The company is announcing a “Commitment to Offer Improved Nutrition Choices” [my emphasis].

The comprehensive plan aims to help customers — especially families and children — make nutrition-minded choices whether visiting McDonald’s or eating elsewhere.

Menu changes underway include the addition of more nutritionally-balanced choices that meet McDonald’s reputation for great taste and affordability, along with an increased focus on providing nutrition information that enable customers and employees to make simple, informed menu decisions.

McDonald’s says that by the end of this year it will automatically include produce or a low-fat dairy option in every Happy Meal.  It will:

  • Automatically include both produce (apple slices, a quarter cup or half serving)
  • Automatically include a new smaller size French fries (1.1 ounces)
  • Automatically reduce the sodium by 15% or more

I emphasize “automatically” because it means the default. If you order a Happy Meal, that’s what you get.   Research shows that most people stick with the default. If the default is a healthy meal, kids have a better chance of getting one.

Everything else is your choice:

  • Hamburger, Cheeseburger or Chicken McNuggets.
  • “Beverage, including new fat-free chocolate milk and 1% low fat white milk”

The press release says: “McDonald’s will automatically include produce or a low-fat dairy option in every Happy Meal.”

Doesn’t that sound like the Happy Meal will come with low-fat milk?

Wrong.

The meal comes with a choice of a soda or low-fat chocolate or white milk.  Soda remains an option.  And the meal still comes with a toy.

So all the fuss—and McDonald’s has gotten huge press over this—is about 3 or 4 small slices of apples, one ounce less of French fries, and less sodium.

The New York Times’ summary:

These may be steps in the right direction, but I’d call them tiny baby steps.

So what’s going on here? Much of this is about responding to Michelle Obama’s call for action on childhood obesity.

But according to the Wall Street Journal, business matters may also be at stake. Happy Meals account for less than 10% of McDonald’s U.S. sales, but sales have been declining since 2003 for a funny reason: “gadgets for children have become more sophisticated and the toys less desirable.”  Of course the only reason kids want Happy Meals is for the toys.

But kids have to eat.  Instead of Happy Meals, parents have been

ordering adult-size items off the ‘dollar menu’ and splitting them between two children rather than buying two kids’ meals.

Kids’ meal orders at fast-food restaurants have declined 15% since 2006 to just under a billion, while dollar-menu items ordered by or for kids have increased 29% in the last five years.

The Wall Street Journal quotes a restaurant consultant who comments that

Making [apples] a forced decision is a pretty unusual thing for a restaurant to do…If they can get to a place where parents associate them with healthy offerings in a world of increasing fast casual options that are perceived as healthier, that will be good for them.

But will it? McDonald’s tested healthier meals with disappointing results.  So this has to be about McDonald’s trying to appear to do something to promote kids’ health. In reality, it can’t. McDonald’s is a business and its business interests come first.

If McDonald’s were serious, it could offer a truly healthier Happy Meal as the default and back it up with marketing dollars.  When the company does that, I’ll cheer.  Until then, as I told the Times, “I’m not impressed.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

[...] Marion Nestle [...]

[...] (unlike McDonald’s recently « improved » Happy Meal where parents must opt-in for milk over soda), while promising to further reduce the sodium in its kids meals and to offer [...]

[...] theme parks (unlike McDonald’s recently “improved” Happy Meal where parents must opt-in for milk over soda), while promising to further reduce the sodium in its kids meals and to offer [...]

[...] have done a great job of explaining why nutritionally, this move is little more than PR (see Marion Nestle and Andy Bellatti), missing from the analysis so far is this: what McDonald’s really wants is [...]

[...]  to ensure they continue to call the shots when it comes to children’s nutrition policy by making misleading promises. Really, McDonald’s is just your neighborhood restaurant serving locally-sourced, healthy, [...]

  • Eric Correll
  • December 7, 2012
  • 12:40 pm

I know this is a very old topic, but I would like to state that this is a small change for a reason. If McDonald’s were to just go and change their entire menu in order to make it “healthier,” the quality (as in the taste and possibly the sizes of their products) may change. Big changes such as this are what drives loyal customers away, like when coke decided to change its recipe for a little while. Baby steps is the correct choice in this situation, because they want to see reactions and results so they know what to do next. I don’t really like McDonald’s products, but their marketing effort here is quite admirable.

[...] Marion Nestle was prompted by the McDonald’s announcement to comment on the press release. She disparages their claims of increased healthfulness as a puny change. She says, “These may be steps in the right direction, but I’d call them tiny baby steps. So what’s going on here? Much of this is about responding to Michelle Obama’s call for action on childhood obesity.” [...]

[...] have done a great job of explaining why nutritionally, this move is little more than PR (see Marion Nestle and Andy Bellatti), missing from the analysis so far is this: what McDonald’s really wants is [...]

[...] in 2011, McDonald’s claimed to be offering a healthier Happy Meal but nutrition experts Marion Nestle and Andy Bellatti raised serious questions. Then earlier this year, McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson [...]

[...] in 2011, McDonald’s claimed to be offering a healthier Happy Meal but nutrition experts Marion Nestle and Andy Bellatti raised serious questions. Then earlier this year, McDonald’s CEO Don [...]

[…] Marion Nestle's take on the recent announcement makes sense.  […]

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