McDonald’s: Making Kids Happier and Healthier?

As kids, most of us grew up knowing what a Happy Meal was, and more importantly grew up knowing how to annoy our parents enough to make them buy one. It not only had yummy fries, chicken nuggets, and soda, but also a tiny toy that came along with it! By 2022, however, the Happy Meals we grew up with may never be the same.

The fast food giant McDonald’s is no stranger to changing their menu in order to feature healthier options. Back in 2004, McDonald’s introduced apple slices to the Happy Meal. In 2016, McDonald’s U.S. removed the artificial preservatives out of Chicken McNuggets. Additionally, cheeseburgers and chocolate milk are no longer on the Happy Meal menu. Instead, these items are only served if a customer asks for them.

For years, McDonald’s has been a target for causing child obesity. In response, McDonald’s has made a new commitment to offer balanced meals as a result of growing consumer demand for healthier food. By the end of 2022, the fast food chain wants to ensure that at least 50% of the kids meal options listed on the menus meet the Global Happy Meal nutrition criteria, whereas:

  • Meals are 600 calories or less
  • No more than 10% of calories are from saturated fat
  • No more than 650 mg are from sodium
  • No more than 10% calories are from added sugar

So far, so good right? In fact, for the first time, more than half the Happy Meals sold in the U.S. are being sold without soft drinks (note: A study published in Obesity demonstrated that Americans are drinking fewer soft drinks than they were a few years ago). Transnational markets have also taken initiative to create healthier options. In one of the company’s statement (here), McDonald’s Italy introduced a new grilled chicken sandwich as one of its Happy Meal options. Meanwhile, McDonald’s Australia is “exploring new vegetable and lean protein options and McDonald’s France is looking at new vegetable offerings”.

Despite multiple efforts to achieve an improved and healthier option for kids, there is still some backlash about McDonald’s commitment. Corporate Accountability’s national campaign organizer Alexa Kaczmarski claimed that “This [change] is more of the same […] Not listing a cheeseburger on a menu and sending chocolate milk back to the lab is a far cry from the change people are demanding” (AdAge) and she may be right. While McDonald’s is looking to meet the Global Happy Meal nutrition criteria by shrinking the size of fries that come with the meal as well as by reformulating the chocolate milk recipe to reduce the sugar content–is this enough? Are these changes going to change the way kids are eating? Are they really healthier options or just small tweaks? Do they promote healthy eating habits?

Julia Braun, a registered dietitian nutritionist at McDonald’s, logically responded the possibility of introducing a veggie burger to the U.S. menu (currently available in France). She says that, “(this initiative) needs to be led by the customer,”. If McDonald’s truly wants to see a change in people’s diets, especially children’s, this reality is something they should take to heart. If McDonald’s is going to introduce heart-healthier meals with no external support or marketing, this change will not be a well supported one.

There is a long way to go for fast food chain restaurants to become truly healthy, but the potential to gradually improve diets with commitments such as McDonald’s is there and we, as consumers, need to recognize it and take action. As consumers of fast food, if we continue to neglect the unhealthy options being marketed to our kids, then there will be no significant change to their eating habits. Rather, we need to make fast food giants recognize our increasing demand for nutritious options that are genuinely healthy.

So, what are you going to do next?

To read more about McDonald’s Commitment to Families, click here.

Contributing author: Jasmine Tran, a blog writer for Food, Equity, Entrepreneurship and Development (FEED). FEED is the first food and business consulting group eck out the newest and first-ever food and business-consulting group, and focuses on creating a socially responsible food system by consulting with local startups on addressing issues of food justice and equity in the food system.

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