Did Happy Meals just get healthier? McDonald’s certainly wants us to think so. The company has announced that its restaurants will be offering more “balanced meals” with “simplified ingredients.” That’s code for cutting back on salt, sugar, artificial colours and preservatives.
Sounds pretty good, right? Healthier Happy Meals should please should parents and kids alike. But before we get too excited, let’s take a closer look at what McDonald’s is doing to make these improvements.
What are the changes to McDonald’s Happy Meals?
McDonald’s developed its own nutrition criteria to cap the amount of fat, sugar, calories and salt that Happy Meals should contain. Then, it assessed current Happy Meals against the criteria and found that only 28 percent make the cut.
To make Happy Meals healthier, McDonald’s says its restaurants in the United States will:
- Remove cheeseburgers as an entrée choice because they are too high in saturated fat. We know a lot of kids won’t like this change! But while cheeseburgers won’t be listed on the official Happy Meal menu, they’ll still be available to purchase—kinda like the hidden Starbucks menu.
- Reduce the quantity of fries that accompany the Chicken McNugget Happy Meal. So, to make sure this meal doesn’t exceed sodium and fat limits, the company will simply be cutting the amount of food they serve your child. Win? I don’t see how. You pay the same, get less food and your child may still be hungry. Hmmm.
- Reduce sugar by changing their beverage options and featuring water. McDonald’s will serve apple juice that has 50 percent less sugar (no magic here—it’s just watered down), and the company is removing chocolate milk from the Happy Meal option, but, like the cheeseburger, it’ll still be available.
What about McDonald’s Canada?
The roll-out is global in scope, but each region gets to decide how it will adjust its menu to meet the new nutrition guidelines. What’s the plan for McDonald’s Canada? “We haven’t made the specific decisions related to cheeseburgers and chocolate milk as they have in the U.S.,” says spokesperson Kristin Hunter. She adds that the company has already taken positive steps to improve Happy Meals, such as by including yogurt and offering the option of apple slices. “We will take a good hard look at the menu as we work to meet these targets,” she says. “It’s important to us to accomplish this in a reasonable way that our guests feel good about.”
Is this actually good news?
Here’s the thing: Reducing sodium, sugar and calories is great—less sugar or salt in a kid’s diet can improve their overall health. But McDonalds is still ultra-processed fast food. As a dietitian (and mom of two), I worry that parents will see headlines announcing that Happy Meals are healthier and think these small changes miraculously turn Happy Meals into nutritious, balanced dinner options. That’s not the case. Canadian kids get 57 percent of daily calories from ultra-processed foods like Happy Meals, and that’s too much. Taking out some salt and fat doesn’t turn these meals into health food.
Bottom line: If your kids enjoy fast food meals once in a while (which is how they are meant to be eaten), then changes to Happy Meals won’t have much of an impact. The few-times-a-month treat may be a tad healthier, but the overall diet matters more than each individual meal.
If your kids eat Happy Meals a few times a week, the changes will have more of an impact on their nutritional status, since they will be getting less sodium and saturated fat, which is good. But, Happy Meals still won’t help your child get more fibre in their diet or learn to enjoy vegetables. Ultra-processed meals don’t provide the nourishment that their growing bodies’ crave—only nutritious food can do that.