McDonald's Happy Meals Get a Healthier Overhaul

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For more than 30 years, the standard McDonald's (MCD) Happy Meals have been exactly the same -- a burger or chicken nuggets, fries and a soda. But no more. In an attempt to help youngsters make healthier food choices, the fast food chain announced big changes Tuesday morning to its kid's-meal-in-a-box.

For starters, each Happy Meal will include a fruit or vegetable. The default option will be a package of apples, but customers will also have the choice of carrots, raisins, pineapple, or oranges, depending on the store location and the growing season. McDonald's toyed with the inclusion of fruit in previous Happy Meals, giving children the option to choose fruit over french fries. But because virtually no kid (or adult) is likely to select a few slices of apple over a packet of fried potatoes, McDonald's has wised up and is now including both, automatically. Another improvement is the switch from "Apple Dippers," where the fruit was accompanied by caramel sauce, to the newer version, which is simply apples, minus any sugary topping.

French fries are getting a makeover too -- or, at least, a trim. Previously, the Happy Meal included 2.4 ounces of fried deliciousness. In the new Happy Meal announced today, that portion has been cut significantly, down to 1.1 ounces. Given the high fat, low nutrient value of fries, this is encouraging. And, for parents who want to cut out the fries altogether, McDonald's will offer the option to double up on the fruit or veggies instead (though parents have to ask for it).

Drinks are also being revamped. Prior to this announcement, a soda was automatically offered with the Happy Meal. Now, sodas will no longer be advertised as part of the deal. Instead, parents will have to specifically request the artificial drinks in lieu of the 1% milk offered with the meal. Additionally, McDonald's is introducing a fat-free chocolate milk for Happy Meals.

According to McDonald's, in total these changes represent, on average, a 20% decrease in calories, a 15% decrease in sodium, and a 20% reduction in saturated fat.

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While these changes are a step in the right direction towards healthier eating habits, the fact remains that McDonald's is not the healthiest of food preparers. Only a few weeks ago, McDonald's declined to join 19 other fast food chains -- including Burger King, International House of Pancakes (DIN) and Denny's (DENN) -- and more than 15,000 restaurants nationwide, in promising to offer a children's meal that includes an entree, a side and a drink, and still comes in under 600 calories. In case you're wondering if that is a difficult goal to achieve, it's not. According to the Food and Drug Administration, the recommended daily calorie intake is 2,000, so eating more than 600 calories in any single meal is a significant chunk of the day's total calories.

The changes will hit restaurants in September, and should be available nationwide by next April. For those watching their wallets as well as their waistlines, the good news is that the price of a Happy Meal will not increase despite these changes. The bad news is that even when it comes to a Happy Meal, you still have that age old problem: You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. As the Los Angeles Times reported, "Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a restaurant industry consultancy in Chicago, said that although McDonald's is clearly trying to strike a balance between nutrition and cravings, 'consumer are going to chose what they want.' And that usually means something fried. 'I think you're going to get a good reaction from kids who like apples,' Tristano said of the new meal. 'But ultimately I think we're going to see a good bit of apples wasted from kids who just refuse to eat them.'"

Loren Berlin is a columnist at DailyFinance.com. She can be reached at loren.berlin@teamaol.com. You can follow her on Twitter @LorenBerlin, and become a fan on Facebook.


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