Bowing to pressure from health advocates and parents, McDonald's is putting the Happy Meal on a diet.
The company announced Tuesday that it would more than halve the amount of French fries and add fruit to its popular children’s meal in an effort to reduce the overall calorie count by 20 percent.
But McDonald’s appeasement only went so far. A toy will still come with each Happy Meal despite criticism that the trinkets, often with tie-ins to movies like “Toy Story,” foster a powerful connection between children and the often calorie-laden meals.
While Happy Meals account for less than 10 percent of all McDonald’s sales, the signature box and its contents — first introduced in 1979 — have become a favorite target in recent years. Lawmakers and consumers have rallied around breaking that childhood link between toys and fast food, with the efforts increasing as Michelle Obama and national public health officials point to the estimated 17 percent rate of obesity among the nation’s youths.
San Francisco, for example, has banned the inclusion of toys in children’s meals unless certain nutritional requirements are met. A New York City councilman is proposing a similar law.
McDonald’s made it clear that it was changing the composition of Happy Meals in response to parental and consumer pressure. It also pledged to reduce the sodium content in all of its foods by 15 percent, with the exceptions of soda and desserts. It set a deadline of 2015 for limiting salt, and said it would spend the rest of this decade cutting back on sugars, saturated fats and calories and making adjustments to portion sizes.
The new Happy Meals will be introduced in September and rolled out across the company’s 14,000 restaurants by April 2012.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.