Can McDonald’s make parents happier to feed their kids Happy Meals?
That’s the aim of a set of new global menu goals for child customers, announced Thursday, to reduce calories, fat, sodium and added sugar from the ultimate fast food kid magnet.
By 2022, 50 per cent or more of the Happy Meal bundle offerings shown on menus will meet the criteria of fewer than or equal to 600 calories; less than or equal to 10 per cent of calories from saturated fat; fewer than or equal to 650 milligrams of sodium; and less than or equal to 10 per cent of calories from added sugar.
Currently, the made-for-kids meal boxes range from 300 to nearly 800 calories across North America.
McDonald’s global director of nutrition Julia Braun said in an interview that the move is aimed at the fast food giant being more transparent with their menu items.
“It’s really all about offering more balanced choices and using fewer ingredients,” she said.
“This will be our North Star in nutrition,” said Braun, adding it’s their first time establishing specific goals for one of their top selling meal combos.
Though the Happy Meal remains a top seller, she said the burger behemoth will be watching to see if parents are embracing the changes through increased sales of healthier kids meal options.
The new targets are being established in the company’s 120 markets around the world including the 1,400 restaurants in Canada, where the federal government is planning to usher in a nationwide ban on food and drink marketing aimed at children.
“As a family business, we’re aware of what the government is doing” so the company is paying close attention, said Nicola Pitman, director of menu management at McDonald's Canada.
Starting in June, McDonald's in the U.S. will lead the charge, making all Happy Meals compliant with the new targets. Global markets including Canada will only be required to make 50 per cent of them healthier by 2022, although Canada is already a few steps ahead, offering bottled water and excluding cheeseburgers from the Happy Meal options that are available now only on request.
The U.S. already offers an organic apple juice with fewer calories and reduced sugar, and is about to offer chocolate milk with less added sugar, while Canada hasn't announced plans to introduce those drinks as of yet.
Kenneth Wong, marketing professor at the Smith’s School of Business at Queen’s University, said it’s not a coincidence that McDonald’s is sprucing up the Happy Meal image now.
“I think the big issue here is what it says about the climate facing marketers as they reach out to kids. Children have been found to be unable to discriminate fact from puffery and embellishment in food,” he said.
“So what McDonald’s is doing is actually quite smart. As long as they can keep it a freedom of choice issue and cannot be found to be hiding info that would result in a bad choice, they are safe,” he said.
Wong noted it’s all part of a larger trend to eat more healthily. The fast food industry is often blamed for bad eating habits for both parents and children, which are linked in health studies to obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other health issues.
With tweaks made over the years aimed at parents, the Happy Meal offerings have been veering toward the healthy side, including the addition of apple slices in 2004 and yogurt in 2012. McDonald’s Canada went a step further in 2017 by making McNuggets – a top seller in Happy Meals – preservative-free as well as lower in calories and sodium.
Even the toys recently got some competition, with McDonald’s Canada now offering children’s books as a parent-pleasing option to those enticing and heavily marketed playthings. Last year, the company distributed more than 3 million books to kids across Canada in the program.
Wong noted the anti-obesity lobby will not be happy until kid-friendly meals are taken off menus entirely, “but most parents believe Happy Meals are a treat or bribe, and believe that as long as consumption is limited to special occasions, their child is not at risk.”