McDonald's is again tinkering with the Happy Meal to make it healthier for kids, announcing plans to dump the cheeseburger version and cut the number of fries in a portion later this year. Bottled water will become the featured kids' drink, and chocolate milk made with less sugar will be added to the lineup. Soon, all of the Happy Meal combinations served in the U.S. will have no more than 600 calories, with lower fat, sugar and sodium content, the company promised.
Healthy changes are welcome from the fast-food outlet that feeds millions of Americans, especially as they may inspire competitors to do the same. But let's not delude ourselves. Happy Meals may be more nutritious than kids' meals at most other chain and fast-food restaurants, but that's a low bar.
In fact, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, 97% of kids meals at the top 50 chains don't meet basic nutritional standards. At most of the top chains, sugary sodas are still an option, despite the fact that these drinks offers lots of calories and little nutrition. Many nutrition experts see a link between soda and high obesity rates among children and adults.
Prompting kids to make better drink choices should be easy. McDonald's removed soda as a standard Happy Meal offering in 2013, making it available only by request. Since then the percentage of Happy Meals sold with soda dropped significantly, and there has been no consumer backlash. A few other chains, Burger King and Jack in the Box among them, have followed suit. That's good for kids, assuming they aren't switching to juice, which can be just as sugary as sweetened soda. Where McDonald is going next — setting water as the featured drink for kids' meals — is ideal.
Without whole grains, fruits and green vegetables as defaults, however, even healthier Happy Meals shouldn't be a regular part of anyone's diet. But they are. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, on any given day about one-third of American children eat fast food, and on average kids derive 12% of their calories from fast-food outlets. Sadly, the calorie numbers are slowly heading in the wrong direction.
McDonald's deserves a lot of credit for leading the effort to improve the foods kids eat at fast-food restaurants. But no one should lose sight of the fact that healthiest choice of all is to eat less fast food.