By Katherine Brooking, MS, RD, and Julie Upton, MS, RD, CSSD
McDonald’s is trying to make their “Happy Meal” a healthier meal. As you may have heard, the fast food giant just announced plans to remove cheeseburgers and fat-free chocolate milk from its iconic kids’ meals. The move, which will be in place here by June, is part of the company’s new nutrition goals of providing a meal with up to 600 calories, with less than 10 percent of calories from added sugars and saturated fat and up to 650 milligrams sodium.
The company has made several changes to improve the meal’s nutritional profile throughout the years – some of the moves were more impactful than others:
- 2011: Apple slices added to menu
- 2012: Added clementine, switched to fat-free chocolate milk (good for reducing calorie and saturated fat but not added sugar), removed soda from the menu board, and offered a default of either water, milk, or 100% juice with Happy Meals
- 2014: Added Go-Gurt yogurt tubes (provides calcium but with a lot of added sugar)
- 2016: Removed artificial preservatives from McNuggets (important to many parents, but doesn’t impact the nutritional profile of the high-calorie, high-fat nuggets)
- 2017: Switched from Minute Maid 100% juice to Honest Kids Organic Fruit Juice (Reduced the amount of naturally occurring sugars as Honest Kids is 52% juice blended with water rather than 100% juice)
- 2018: Vows to remove fat-free chocolate milk, cheeseburgers, and reduce the size of French fries from the core menu. The meal will now come with 6-piece McNuggets instead (though the cheeseburger will still be available upon request)
Is it Healthy Enough?
The new nutrition criteria set up by the fast food giant are an improvement, but more could be done. For example, a veggie/dip combo could be a great addition. More than 90 percent of American children do not meet their daily vegetable requirement. Also, the 600-calorie limit they’re aiming for is appropriate for active teens, but it’s still excessive for most school-aged children. Still, McDonald’s has taken steps in the right direction. Removing fat-free chocolate milk is a great way to slash added sugars and empty calories from the menu, and removing the cheese from a burger is a significant step to reduce calorie counts and slash saturated fat. Cheese is the leading source of saturated fat in the U.S. diet, due in part to the number of cheeseburgers and pizza we enjoy.
Despite the positive changes to the Happy Meal, it still should be considered an occasional option, not something parents should provide to their kids on a daily, or even weekly, basis. Eating out — whether that’s fast food, fast casual, or fine dining — increases risk for obesity, because restaurant meals are usually higher in calories, saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars compared to what you make at home. Parents should keep this in mind and try to prepare most of their family meals at home, as studies show that having just two meals a week away from home ups risk for overweight and obesity.
Katherine Brooking, MS, RD, and Julie Upton, MS, RD, are registered dietitians and co-founders of Appetite for Health, a nutrition communications firm that provides compelling content to help individuals eat right to live well without falling for fads. Brooking and Upton are well-known authors, journalists, and nationally recognized experts, frequently appearing on news programs including Today, GMA and CNN. For more information on how to navigate the ever-changing world of nutrition, visit them at AppforHealth.com or follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.