McDonald's Aims to Make Happier Meals: Cheeseburgers Optional

Paul Ausick

Fast-food giant McDonald’s Corp. (NYSE: MCD) announced Thursday morning that it plans to improve its kids’ Happy Meal menu across 120 markets to offer more balanced meals, simplify ingredients, continue to provide nutrition information on Happy Meals, “reinforce responsible marketing to children” and use “innovative marketing” to increase the sale of Happy Meals that contain recommended food groups.

That’s a tall order, and the company’s goals appear to be relatively modest to begin with. McDonald’s said that by the end of 2022, at least 50% of Happy Meals in each market will meet McDonald’s new “Global Happy Meal Nutrition Criteria of less than or equal to 600 calories with 10% of calories coming from saturated fat.” The company also set maximum sodium level of 650 milligrams and a calories from added sugar percentage of 10%.

The company said that 28% of Happy Meal combinations offered in 20 major markets meet these new criteria. In the U.S. market, 100% of Happy Meal combinations will contain 600 or fewer calories and 100% of those combinations will comply with the company’s new nutrition criteria for added sugar and saturated fat while 78% will comply with the new sodium criterion.

A Google search turned up a nutrition information sheet on Happy Meals dated June 30, 2011. The sheet provides information on 24 menu variations for Happy Meals, of which five (21%) were listed as containing 600 or more total calories. Of the five, four included a cheeseburger. A fitness calculator we consulted put the calorie count for a Happy Meal with cheeseburger, fries and a diet Coke at 539.

Here’s how McDonald’s met its new standards:

  • Listing only the following entrée choices: Hamburger, 4-piece and 6-piece Chicken McNuggets. The Cheeseburger will only be available at a customer’s request.
  • Replacing the small French fries with kids-sized fries in the 6-piece Chicken McNugget meal, which decreases the calories and sodium in the fries serving by half.
  • Reformulating chocolate milk to reduce the amount of added sugar. During this period, chocolate milk will no longer be listed on the Happy Meal menu, but will be available at a customer’s request.
  • Later this year, bottled water will be added as a featured beverage choice on Happy Meal menu boards.
  • In December 2017, McDonald’s USA completed the transition to Honest Kids Appley Ever After organic juice drink, which has 45 less calories and half the total sugar than the prior 100 percent apple juice served in the U.S.

The changes apply only to Happy Meals listed on the store’s menu boards. Customers presumably still will be able to order items — like the cheeseburger mentioned in the list — that are not posted on the boards.