No cheeseburger: McDonald’s revamps Happy Meal with healthier options

McDonald’s Happy Meal is about to get a makeover. On Thursday (Feb. 15), the fast-food chain announced new nutrition standards for its kids’ meals and a series of upcoming menu swaps designed to make options for children healthier.

By June, all of its U.S. Happy Meals will contain less than 600 calories — and most will contain less than 650 milligrams of salt. The chain is shrinking the size of the fries that come with kids’ McChicken Nuggets and reformulating its chocolate milk to make it less sugary.

Bottled water will soon become a default Happy Meal option. Cheeseburgers will drop off entirely. The chain has also promised to continue promoting fresh fruits and vegetables as a Happy Meal side, building on the success of its baby carrots and “Cutie” tangerines.

Taken together, the changes do not transform burgers or chicken nuggets into health foods. But McDonald’s and public health experts who have reviewed the chain’s plans say they have the potential to incrementally improve the diets of millions of children.

One third of U.S. kids eat fast food each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We think McDonald’s is raising the bar,” said Howell Wechsler, the chief executive of the national public health nonprofit Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which advised McDonald’s on the menu changes. “It’s a challenge to other companies in the field to get out there and do what’s right for kids.”

In addition to the calorie and sodium goals, the chain’s new “nutrition criteria” aim to get meals below 10 percent of calories from saturated fat, and 10 percent of calories from added sugar.

McDonald’s says all menu-listed Happy Meals in the U.S. will meet these goals by June, with the exception of the sodium reduction. (Kids can also still special-request items like cheeseburgers and sodas.) In the other 120 countries where McDonald’s operates, the chain hopes to have half its meals compliant by the end of 2022.

To make that happen, the restaurant is introducing new menu options – such as a grilled chicken sandwich for kids, available in Italy – as well as tweaking the recipes and serving sizes of old ones. McDonald’s six-piece Chicken McNugget meal will now come with a 110-calorie serving of fries, instead of the standard, 230-calorie small order.

The chain is also dropping kids’ cheeseburgers, which have an extra 50 calories and 200 milligrams of sodium over regular burgers.

This is the latest in a series of improvements that McDonald’s has made to its childrens’ menu over the past seven years, some of them in partnership with the Alliance, which works with corporations and schools to improve the food environment.

In 2011, McDonald’s announced plans to reduce added sugar and sodium in several of its Happy Meal recipes. It also added apple slices to its Happy Meals and shrunk the serving size of fries to 1.1 ounces.

Two years later, the chain agreed to drop soda as a default option in kids’ meals and to more…

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