For many children eating at McDonald's in the future, the Happy Meal they get may not make them quite as happy as it once did.
McDonald's has announced the company will reduce the serving of fries in Happy Meals to a half order, adding a half order of apples or other nutritional choices instead.
For company public relations, and for parents who want their children to eat more nutritious meals but lack the foresight and backbone to get that done, the Happy Meal change is a winning proposition.
The change, to begin in early 2012, results in a 20 percent reduction in calories, fat and sodium in the Happy Meal.
Childhood obesity is a major, growing problem in the United States and fast food, high in sodium, sugar, saturated fats and calories is often targeted as a leading culprit.
But there's also a more compelling plot to this McDonald's story, involving the children and the parents. For starters, McDonald's says it is making the change because customers desire such a move.
Yet apples are currently available as a choice for those who order Happy Meals. Already, a full order of apples can be substituted for a full order of fries with the popular child's meal that comes with a toy.
But despite that option, only 11 percent of McDonald's customers make that choice.
Thus, we can only assume that an underlying problem with childhood obesity in the United States is not so much the food offerings but systematic weakness among parents and other caregivers. Healthier choices are already available, but the people ordering Happy Meals are giving in to the desires of children -- the 89 percent who think happiness comes with a full order or fries.
It's clear that children want fries, with higher fat and sodium content instead of apples. Since it's not standard fare, but only a choice, parents and others ordering for children aren't able to make the best decision for children. Because of that weakness, McDonald's must reduce the order of fries to a half order -- giving parents and others who order for children leverage to say "that's just the way it is."
And that solution is better than nothing.
But I think we place too much blame for our obesity problem on fast food restaurants. As America gets bigger and bigger, more and more fingers point blame at the industry. Yet we don't seem bothered that drugstores -- drugstores -- sell dangerous cigarettes, or that parents and other caregivers no longer seem to have the sense or backbone to make the proper choice for children.
It's no secret that fast food is not the most nutritious, and it can be dangerous even if consumed on a regular basis. It's also no secret that the lower-priced food in a busy world is frequently the only option for many children. Good for McDonald's for making the change -- it's better than nothing.
Yet blame should be cast where blame properly belongs. Children need stronger hands guiding them through the ordering process. Or stronger hands guiding them away from fast food in general.
Children may get happier with a meal that comes with a full order of fries and a toy, but truth be told, they'd be better off being pushed to avoid the Happy Meal altogether. That would be the most nutritious choice, reducing fat and calories by far more than 20 percent, whether children like it or not.