The McDonald's Happy Meal has long been vilified by parents, health proponents, and anyone else who cringes at the thought of a child associating toys with high calorie, fat-filled meals. Now the fast food chain is giving in to its critics with a new, slimmed down Happy Meal that contains an average of 20% fewer calories and less fat--but keeps the toy. We spoke to Cindy Goody, senior director of nutrition for McDonald's USA, about whether these changes are meaningful, or just window dressing for a still unhealthy option for kids.
The biggest change to the new Happy Meal, which will be introduced in September, is the smaller container of fries (a 100-calorie portion) and the automatic inclusion of apples, sans the caramel dipping sauce that usually comes with the menu item. Goody says McDonald's made the changes "based on in-depth research we did with parents, caregivers, as well as with children. What we learned time and time again is that fruits are a win. We also learned through research that people love our world-famous french fries, but we want to be mindful of portion management."
But while fruit may be a "win" in McDonald's research, not many consumers have opted for apples in their Happy Meals in the past, even though the fruit has been offered since 2004. Goody says that 88% of customers were aware of the choice, but only 11% of Happy Meal purchases today include the apple option. Customers theoretically want the apples, but they aren't going to give up french fries to get them. Hence the pared-down french fry and apple combo.
And what of the accusations that apples added to a Happy Meal with soda actually increases the sugar content  compared to today's Happy Meal formulation? "In terms of sugar, it depends on the bundle," says Goody. "What we want to be focused on here is calories--there's a 20% reduction in calories and there's no sugar added to the apples."
Whereas a current Happy Meal with chicken nuggets contains 520 calories and 26 grams of fat, the new version will contain 410 calories and 19 grams of fat. Customers will still have the same choice of entree (burgers, chicken nuggets, etc.) and drink (everything from soda to chocolate milk).
McDonald's isn't the only fast food chain to announce healthier children's meal options this summer. Earlier this month, the National Restaurant Association announced  that 15,000 restaurant locations across the U.S., including Denny's, IHOP, and Burger King, will offer low-calorie, fruit and vegetable-packed options for kids.
But Goody says that the McDonald's program is different--it isn't just about bringing healthier options to kids, but about offering more nutritious options and "being more mindful of portion management" across the board. To that end, McDonald's plans to slash sodium by 15% in its meals by 2015. The company is also planning reductions in sugar, saturated fat, and calories across its menu by 2020.
McDonald's will probably never be healthier than a home-cooked meal--or even the fare at your local cafe--but the fact remains: the chain serves 27 million customers every day, and those customers deserve healthier options, however incremental they may be. Goody says that their plan is to make small changes, because customers will simply go elsewhere if McDonald's suddenly revamps its menu.
"Parallel to [these changes] is maintaining the taste, the quality, and wholesome nutrition, because without those three, we know that customers are not going to feel good about this," says Goody. "Incremental changes in whatever habit you're trying to change makes for big impacts."