Industry News | October 27, 2011 | QSR Exclusive Brief

Happy Over Healthy

It began in 2005 with Cookie Monster admitting cookies are only a “sometimes food,” and now McDonald’s is taking the reigns in teaching children why nutrition is important.

The burger giant announced plans in July to overhaul its Happy Meal with a reduced fry serving and automatic apple slices, cutting calories by 20 percent. Although several quick serves are rolling out healthier kids’ items, McDonald’s also announced educational programs that will teach kids about the importance of eating healthy.

McDonald’s spokeswoman Danya Proud says that while awareness of the apple slices was at 18 percent, “the purchase rate of Happy Meals with apples was only about 11 percent.”

The Happy Meal announcement came on the heels of the National Restaurant Association unveiling its “Kids LiveWell” initiative to set limits on calories, fat, and sodium in children’s meals. Now many are questioning whether it is the industry’s job to educate kids on portion sizes and calories.

“The service is so convenient for families, there is a responsibility for [quick serves] to offer those healthier options,” says Julie Casey. A mother of two, Casey launched MyKidsPlate.com in 2007 to point parents toward healthy, kid-friendly restaurants in their neighborhoods.

But there is a reason Cookie Monster loves his cookies so much; a Mintel survey suggests consumers prefer flavor to health when dining out, and may overlook nutrition in favor of culinary pleasure.

“Families go out to eat as an indulgent thing,” Casey says. “Even though some consumers have the intent of ordering the healthy option, when they get [to a restaurant], they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m going to treat myself.’ There are definitely two factors at play.”

Kathy Hayden, a foodservice analyst for Mintel, says quick serves and the NRA are only taking “baby steps” with kids’ nutrition. She says there is pressure on the restaurant industry to adapt to the health movement, but that adding a veggie-dip combination or mandarin slices to a meal is not forward thinking. 

“I really don’t see anything new,” she says. “I see very small modifications on existing menus. Somebody needs to say, ‘let’s try something really different.’”

McDonald’s, meanwhile, remains one of the forbearers in teaching kids why health is important. In July, the chain revealed its Champions of Play program for the 2012 Olympics, which includes flying 200 children from around the world to London to play with Olympic athletes, tour Olympic venues, and learn about healthy eating with chefs. Also, starting in 2012, all of McDonald’s advertising geared at children will include messaging about an active lifestyle.

“We have a responsibility to educate parents on the foods we make available, so they can decide what is right for their child,” Proud says.

By Sonya Chudgar