McDonald's Cuts Cheeseburgers, Shrinks Fries on Happy Meals

  • The fast-food chain is pushing for healthier kids meals at all restaurants.

    McDonald's
    McDonald's wants to improve the health benefits of its Happy Meals everywhere.

    The Happy Meal as America knows it won’t be around much longer. As part of “accelerated changes” to its legendary kids menu offering, McDonald’s is removing cheeseburgers and shrinking its fries at all U.S. restaurants.

    By June, McDonald’s said 100 percent of Happy Meal combinations offered on Happy Meal menu boards will be 600 calories or fewer, and 100 percent of those offerings will be compliant with the new nutrition criteria for added sugar, saturated fat, and 78 percent compliant with the new sodium criteria.

    McDonald’s last made changes of this scale in 2013 as part of its commitment with Alliance for Healthier Generation. The company developed a comprehensive plan for 20 major markets “to increase customers' access to fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and water.” The brand removed soda from the Happy Meal section of its menu boards, a move it said resulted in a 14 percentage point increase in the number of Happy Meals ordered that include water, milk or juice instead. 

    “From day one, Healthier Generation knew our work with McDonald's could influence broad scale improvements to meal options for kids everywhere," said Dr. Howell Wechsler, chief executive officer of alliance for a Healthier Generation, in a statement. "Today's announcement represents meaningful progress to impact kids' calories, saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar in Happy Meal bundles as offered on menu boards—and to promote more water. This sets a high bar, and we hope other industry leaders will follow suit."

    McDonald’s new Happy Meal menu boards will list only the following entrée choices: Hamburger, 4-piece, and 6-piece Chicken McNuggets. Guests can still special order cheeseburgers if they want; it just won’t be on the board.

    McDonald’s is also replacing the small French fries with kids-sized fries in the 6-piece Chicken McNugget meal, which decreases the calories and sodium in the fries serving by half, McDonald’s said.

    The chain is reformulating chocolate milk as well to reduce the amount of added sugar. As this process unfolds, McDonald’s will remove chocolate milk from the Happy Meal menu. Again, though, it will be available at a customer’s request.

    Later in 2018, McDonald’s will add bottled water as a featured beverage choice. Earlier, in December, the brand completed the transition to Honest Kids Appley Ever After organic juice, which features 45 less calories and half the total sugar of the prior product.

    Overall, McDonald’s said the menu updates will produce average reductions of 20 percent in calories, 50 percent in added sugars, 13 percent in saturated fat and/or 17 percent in sodium, depending on the customer’s specific meal selection.

    “These reductions reflect the average nutrition data of U.S. Happy Meal offerings on the menu last year compared to those planned for later this year. Already, several of the Happy Meal combinations available on U.S. menu boards today meet the new nutrition criteria and will not be changing,” McDonald’s said.

    McDonald’s is expecting a health benefit similar to the 2013 commitment. Back then, the company said, customers chose water, milk or juice as their beverage choice in 38 percent of Happy Meals. Four years later, that number is 52 percent. In the same period, McDonald’s said Happy Meals that include soda and other beverages decreased from 62 to 48 percent. And, for the first time, more than half of Happy Meals ordered in the U.S. have included water, milk or juice.

    "As a nutritionist and a mom, this is a pivotal moment as we unveil new, ambitious goals in collaboration with Healthier Generation that we hope will positively impact families around the world," said Julia Braun, MPH, registered dietitian and head of global nutrition at McDonald's, in a statement. "Our efforts have led to big changes and real progress and as part of our continued food journey, we're committed to making it easier for families to choose balanced options that will make measurable differences."

    The announcement was part of McDonald’s expanded commitment to families revealed Thursday. The chain aims to improve access to reading and wants to help keep families together through Ronald McDonald House Charities, in addition to the Happy Meal upgrades.

    By 2022, McDonald's will make improvements to the Happy Meal menu across 120 markets. The timeframe also includes five new “Global Happy Meal Goals,” which are, as outlined by McDonald’s:

    1. Offer Balanced Meals

    Using rigorous nutrition criteria grounded in science and nutrition policy, by the end of 2022, at least 50 percent or more of the Happy Meals listed on menus (restaurant menu boards, primary ordering screen of kiosks and owned mobile ordering applications) in each market will meet McDonald's new Global Happy Meal Nutrition Criteria of less than or equal to 600 calories; 10 percent of calories from saturated fat; 650 mg sodium; and 10 percent of calories from added sugar.

    Currently, 28 percent of Happy Meal combinations offered on menu boards in 20 major markets meet these new nutrition criteria. To reach the goal of 50 percent or more, markets will add new menu offerings, reformulate or remove menu offerings from the Happy Meal section of the menu board. For example, last month McDonald's Italy introduced a new Happy Meal entrée called the "Junior Chicken," a lean protein sandwich (grilled chicken).  McDonald's Australia is currently exploring new vegetable and lean protein options and McDonald's France is looking at new vegetable offerings.

    2. Simplify Ingredients

    As consumers' tastes and preferences continue to evolve, markets will prioritize Happy Meals and simplify ingredients by removing artificial flavors, added colors from artificial sources, and reducing artificial preservatives where feasible. In 2016, McDonald's USA removed artificial preservatives from Chicken McNuggets, which also have no artificial flavors and colors, and the Chicken McNuggets from McDonald's France and Canada have no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.

    3. Be Transparent with Happy Meal Nutrition Information

    The company has made a continuous effort to meet consumers' desire for easy access to nutrition information for menu items it serves with a goal of ensuring that nutrition information for Happy Meals is available and accessible through all McDonald's owned websites and mobile apps used for ordering where they exist.

    4. Market Responsibly

    Under the new goals, all Happy Meal bundles advertised to children will meet McDonald's new global nutrition criteria, and will continue to meet any existing local/regional advertising pledges with respect to marketing to children.

    5. Leverage innovative marketing to help increase purchase of foods and beverages that contain recommended food groups in Happy Meals

    “We recognize the opportunity that we have to support families as one of the most visited restaurants in the world, and remain committed to elevating our food, celebrating the joy of reading, and helping those in need through Ronald McDonald House Charities," said Steve Easterbrook, McDonald's president and CEO, in a statement. "Given our scale and reach, we hope these actions will bring more choices to consumers and uniquely benefit millions of families, which are important steps as we build a better McDonald's."