Not too long ago, the Happy Meal was in crisis mode. The packaged children’s meal at McDonald’s was feeling the heat for marketing unhealthy food to kids and fueling the obesity epidemic. The Center for Science in the Public Interest called the company “insidious” in 2010. Four years earlier, Disney ended a 10-year deal to market its characters and movies on Happy Meal toys and packaging. Some demanded that Ronald McDonald be retired. When the city of San Francisco banned toys from being given away in children’s meals that didn’t meet California’s nutritional standards, McDonald’s got around it by charging 10 cents a toy.
Things are a bit different today. According to a CNN report, McDonald’s appears to be turning around the image of the Happy Meal. Disney is back on board after being away more than a decade. Happy Meals carried “Incredibles 2” toys in June and will do the same for “Wreck-it-Ralph 2” this fall.
“Disney’s got a great portfolio of brands and characters that would be a good fit for a restaurant targeting families,” says Morningstar analyst RJ Hottovy. McDonald’s is also teaming up with the company behind Rubik’s Cube to give away mini-versions of the toy in the children’s meals.
So how did the Happy Meal shed its bad reputation? McDonald’s made a public commitment to overhaul their nutritional content in 2012. French fry portion sizes shrank and fruit was added. Cheeseburgers are now only available in Happy Meals by request and the amount of sugar was reduced in the chocolate milk.
Earlier this year, McDonald’s announced it was renewing a five-year relationship with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to produce more responsible Happy Meals. By the end of 2022, Happy Meals will not only have better ingredients, fewer calories and more responsible marketing, but also use fewer artificial additives.
While health advocates still say the food at McDonald’s is far from ideal, children are more concerned with taste than nutrition — and that may be enough for parents looking for a low-cost, no-fuss meal. “Kids like to eat with their hands,” says Julie Hennessy, a marketing professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. “They tend to hate new tastes … kids don’t wish there were more options.”