In 2011, McDonald’s made a change to its Happy Meals that didn’t seem like much of a change to me. The company took away half of the French fries in the meal and replaced them with apple slices that were half the size of the apple slices offered before. Instead of apple slices being an optional substitution for French fries, meals automatically came with both. It didn’t seem like a better option to me. It seemed like a step backward.
In the years since, McDonald's and other fast-food restaurants have continued to tweak kids' meal in an effort to make them healthier. Even with those tweaks, a 2013 study found that less than 1 percent of kids' fast-food meals were actually healthy. The most recent changes have been in the beverage offerings. USA Today reports that Burger King has quietly dropped soda as the drink listed on the menu with a kids’ meal. The meals will not be marketed with soda, either.
Instead, the menu will offer fat-free milk, 100-percent apple juice and low-fat chocolate milk as the drink options with a kids’ meal. Parents can still choose to order soda for their children if they want. Both McDonald’s and Wendy’s have recently made similar changes.
I don’t have a problem with this change at all, but I do wonder about something: How many parents look at the menu for their kids at a fast-food restaurant? The choices are usually the same – a hamburger, a cheeseburger, or chicken nuggets with fries, fruit and a drink.
Let’s say a parent asks for a kids’ meal with a hamburger and a cola. Will the person taking the order say, “the meal comes with milk or juice” or will she just ring up a cola? What if the parent doesn’t specify a drink at all? Will the order taker say, “Would you like milk or juice with that?” Or, will she just ask, “What kind of drink would you like?”
To find out, I called the Burger King closest to me. I explained who I was and asked my question to a manager. I was told he couldn’t answer my question and that I should call corporate. I didn’t call corporate because I didn't want to know what corporate says the order takers are supposed to say; I wanted to know what the order takers actually say.
Here’s my point, and it’s one I’ve been making since I started writing about kids and fast food: In the end, the parents or caregivers are the ones responsible for what kids order at a fast-food restaurant, or at any restaurant. It’s good that these establishments are taking steps in a positive direction with these meals, but it’s up the adults in charge of the kids to ensure that healthier choices are ordered.
My boys are teenagers now and buying fast food from a Burger King or McDonald's is an extremely rare occasion for our family. Perhaps parents are more savvy than I was eight or so years ago when kids’ meals were a regular part of my boys’ diets. Maybe most of today’s parents automatically go for the milk or juice and fruit choices with the meals instead of the soda and fries.
For parents who aren’t already choosing the milk or juice with these meals, I don’t think a quiet change to what’s listed on the menu is going to make much of a difference. Even if they notice the change, soda is still an option. There’s only so much Burger King or any fast-food restaurant can do about that, short of taking soda completely off the menu. Parents have the final say.
Related on MNN:
- Can you guess the calories in these fast-food choices?
- Obesity linked to kids' knowledge of food brands
- 10 foods to teach kids to make on their own