McDonald's Wins First Lady's Approval With Happy Meal Makeover

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New Options, New Marketing

Along with the changes to the Happy Meal menu, McDonald's will also change the way it markets the meal to children, reacting to criticism the chain has faced in pairing kids toys with unhealthy foods in the wake of America's childhood obesity epidemic.

As early as next year, a nutritional message will accompany every piece of McDonalds' advertising, marketing or packaging materials directed at kids.

"One hundred percent of our national ads to children will include a nutritional announcement with it," Fields said of her company's pledge. What we're trying to do also is make children aware of the nutritional importance of their diet."

According to Ad Age magazine, in 2009, the last full year for which data are available, McDonald's spent $69.5 million on advertising for its Happy Meals. In the first half of 2010, it spent $45.6 million alone.

"We only advertise the healthy items in the Happy Meal [to children]," said Fields. "We've been doing that for a number of years."

Critics in both government and the private sector have also challenged the chain on its practice of selling kids' meals that include a toy, connecting it to the rising prevalence of type 2 diabetes and obesity among young children.

San Francisco last year effectively banned Happy Meals by passing a law barring restaurants from offering free toys with meals that have more than certain defined levels of fat, sugar and calories. Santa Clara County, also in California, recently passed a similar law curbing free toy giveaways with unhealthy restaurant meals for children, and New York City is considering a ban as well.

McDonald's has largely kept a low profile during the debate and Fields told "GMA" the new Happy Meal will still include a toy, a tradition the chain holds dear.

"The toy is an important part of the experience," she said. "Kids need to have fun."

Earlier this month, McDonald's declined to join 19 other fast food chains, including Burger King, IHOP and Denny's, and 15,000 restaurants in all in vowing to offer a children's meal - comprising an entree, a side and a drink - with 600 calories or less and limited amounts of saturated fat, sodium and sugars. The "Kids LiveWell" initiative was sponsored by the National Restaurant Association.

"We listen to our customers and continue to provide balanced menu options, including meals for our youngest guests," McDonald's spokeswoman Ashlee Yingling said at the time in explaining the chain's decision to not join.

But today's announcement isn't the first time the chain has, on its own, tried to compromise with critics by making its Happy Meal healthier.

McDonald's revamped its Happy Meal offerings in 2004 by offering 1 percent milk in addition to soda with a meal of hamburger, cheeseburger or chicken nuggets and fries, and offering the option of replacing the fries with sliced apples served with caramel sauce.

In 2006, McDonald's changed its marketing as well by dropping the advertising of the Happy Meal as just including burgers and fries. It has since then just marketed its Happy Meal as including chicken nuggets and the apple slices, called Apple Dippers because of the accompanying caramel sauce.

In the new Happy Meals, the caramel sauce along with the apple is out, making the option just apple slices instead of Apple Dippers.

In addition to the entree choice of a hamburger, cheeseburger or chicken nuggets, which will remain the same, parents can now also choose a new, fat-free chocolate milk option, in addition to the 1 percent milk already offered. Parents must request soda, and that drink option will no longer be advertised.

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