McDonald's Slims Happy Meal, But Will it Work?

  @http://twitter.com/jtalty on July 27 2011 9:23 AM

McDonald's will start adding more fruits and vegetables to its famed Happy Meal after years of criticism from health advocates. The fast food giant will start adding apple slices, carrots, raisins, and oranges, depending on the region, while also cutting down the portion of French fries.

The measure is in part directed at fighting childhood obesity by offering more healthy options on menus and cutting down on calories, but the main question is will it make a difference?

"I do think that parents will take advantage of this new menu," nutritionist Amy Shapiro of RealNutritionNYC said. "Although it will be hard to get children to start wanting to eat the healthier options who are used to eating fries and drinking soda, younger kids and kids in the future can learn from these changes."

McDonald's tested getting rid of the French fries altogether but the backlash was strong. Even though the people will decry the unhealthiness of fast food places like McDonalds, clearly they aren't willing to give it up just yet.

"People come to McDonald's and, first of all, they want the choice and the control to be theirs, but their expectation of a Happy Meal does include a fry," Jan Fields, president of McDonald's USA, told the Los Angeles Times.  "When we did it without fries, there was a huge disappointment factor."

McDonalds follows the lead of Burger King

Earlier in July, Burger King and 15,000 other restaurants announced involvement in the "Kids LiveWell" program with the National Restaurants Association. In order to participate in the voluntary program, restaurants must: offer a children's menu with 600 calories or less, offer at least one option of 200 calories or less, and display the healthy meal options.

Burger King decided to automatically assume that children wanted juice and fruits instead of the usual soda and French fries. The only impact of this measure might be that parents have to waste an extra breath in their order, but it at least forces parents to be more conscious of the healthy options.

At the time of "Kids LiveWell" announcement, McDonalds was noticeably absent and quiet, though eventually decided to abide by some of the program's restrictions. Part of the move seems to be in response to San Francisco and other cities threatening to ban toys with meals if the meal didn't meet certain nutritional requirements.

Childhood obesity a BIG issue in United States

The childhood obesity issue has emerged as one of the primary concerns in the United States. Michelle Obama made it her main focus as First Lady and earlier in July a journal piece suggested taking extremely obese children away from their parents.

According to recent numbers, 12.5 million children suffer from obesity and two million of severe obesity. That 12.5 million represents approximately 17 percent of all children in the United States. When you see those kinds of numbers, it at least somewhat justifies why Mrs. Obama and others have made such a big deal out of this issue.

But in combatting childhood obesity, a lot of the onus has to fall on the parents. McDonald's, Burger King and other restaurants offering healthy choices isn't a bad thing, but in order for it to be effective parents have to make sure their children actually go for the healthy alternative.

Currently only 11 percent of McDonald's customers chose apple slices over French fries.

Will parents be able to stand up to their children and tell them they have to go for the healthy option and not the French fry filled one they desire? The numbers suggest they haven't been successful and Shapiro admits that many parents are likely to take the easy way out.

Marketing Campaign

One other crucial detail is how these companies, particularly the big fast food chains, market the healthy options. Commercials generally tend towards showcasing juicy burgers, delicious French fries, and every other option that tastes great but isn't good for your body.

McDonald's has done a good job in the past of making customers aware of the healthy options though unable to convert them away from the French fries. The company also vows to continue to increase its marketing efforts to highlight some of its menu's nutritional options.

Others, like Burger King, haven't been quite as successful or engaged in showcasing the nutritional side of the menu.

But if measures like these are going to be successful, a lot of it will come down to a well-intentioned marketing campaign.

"I do hope that these chains start advertising the new menus, because a main reason why people do not make the healthier choices is because they do not know these options are even available," Shapiro said.  "Individuals go into these restaurants already familiar with the menus therefore they do not even look at the menu boards, they go in knowing what they want and order out of habit."

 

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