The fight for healthier McDonald's Happy Meals: A timeline

After years of pressure to trim the fat from its popular kids' meals, McDonald's opts for a leaner form of happiness

The Happy Meal is getting another nutritional overhaul. McDonald's announced Tuesday that it's tweaking its popular kids' meal, pledging to shrink the french fries portion, include apple slices alongside every toy, and scrap the popular caramel dipping sauce. But this isn't the first time the nation's largest fast food chain has caved to pressure to make its kids meals more healthful. Here's a look back at the over-30-year evolution of the much-contended Happy Meal:

McDonald's rolls out its first Happy Meal, a circus-wagon-inspired design, according to Kayla Webley at TIME, that came with a choice of hamburger or cheeseburger, fries, cookies, and a soft drink. The kicker, of course, was the toy — either a "McDoodler" stencil, "McWrist" wallet, ID bracelet, puzzle lock, spinning top, or McDonaldland character eraser. According to ABC News, the first Happy Meal contained 600 calories.

First themed Happy Meal released, the Star Trek Meal

Chicken McNuggets added as an alternative to the burger in Happy Meals

First Disney Happy Meal is introduced, a marketing coup that allows the fast food giant to co-opt famous, kid-bewitching characters like Mickey Mouse, Cinderella, Simba, and Nemo.

April 1997
McDonald's begins handing out Teenie Beanie Babies as the Happy Meal toy at the height of the national craze for the stuffed animals. More than 100 million of the Beanie Babies meals were sold, says John Berman at ABC News.

September 2002
The parents of two obese teenagers file a lawsuit against McDonald's blaming the fast food chain's unhealthy meals for their kids' weight gain and ensuing health problems. An attorney for the girls, who ate at the Golden Arches several times a week, says that the chain's enticing playgrounds and hypnotically desirable Happy Meal toys leave children unable to make responsible decisions about nutrition.

September 2003
With the guidance of Oprah Winfrey's fitness guru, Bob Greene, McDonald's begins market-testing a healthy adult Happy Meal. The "Go Active" meal forgoes the burger and toy for a salad, exercise booklet, and pedometer. It's time for adults to take "personal responsibility" for the food they eat, Green said, as quoted by USA Today.

June 2004
McDonald's introduces healthier Happy Meal choices, including low-fat milk or apple juice instead of soda, and apple dippers with low-fat caramel dip. The alternative meal's calorie count is only 375.

McDonald's begins using Chicken McNuggets and apple slices in all Happy Meal advertising. "It hasn't advertised Happy Meals with burgers and fries since," says Emily Bryson York at The Chicago Tribune.

May 2007
The company begins using characters from the popular film Shrek the Third to advertise and promote its healthier nuggets, apples, and milk Happy Meals. The "pot-bellied" ogre also promoted physical activity through online games on the McDonald's web site, says Ace Showbiz.

December 2007
In a controversial promotion, McDonald's arranges for free Happy Meal coupons to be printed on the report cards of students who earned good grades. "Childhood obesity is a major public problem," says Susan Linn of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, as quoted by ABC News. "Here's McDonald's, bypassing parents, targeting children directly, with a message that doing well in school deserves a Happy Meal."

August 2008
Though McDonald's continues to advertise its 375-calorie, chicken-and-apples Happy Meal, a study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest reveals that 93 percent of the Happy Meals sold at McDonald's exceed the recommended 430-calorie limit of a child's meal.

October 21, 2010
As part of an experiment titled "The Happy Meal Project," a Manhattan artist leaves a Happy Meal consisting of a burger and fries sitting out unrefrigerated to see how long it would take to decay. Six months later, "the seemingly indestructible fast food" is without a hint of mold, says The Daily Mail.

November 2, 2010
San Francisco's board of supervisors votes to ban Happy Meals from being served in the city unless they comply with a rigid set of guidelines. All meals served with a toy must come with fruits and vegetables, and the entire meal — including drink — must contain fewer than 600 calories.

December 17, 2010
A California mother and the Center for Science in the Public Interest sue McDonald's to convince the chain to stop using toys to market its Happy Meals. The lawsuit claims that the fast food chain is engaged in a "highly sophisticated scheme to use the bait of toys to exploit children's developmental immaturity and subvert parental authority," says the Associated Press.

May 19, 2011
A company called Corporate Accountability International takes out full-page ads in several U.S. newspapers. The ads feature an open letter arguing that Ronald McDonald and Happy Meals should be banned from McDonald's altogether because they contribute to childhood obesity. "Marketing can no longer be ignored as a significant part of the problem," the letter states.

July 26, 2011
McDonald's announces that, starting in September, it will make its Happy Meals healthier by cutting the french fry portion in half and automatically adding a serving of apples to each meal — without sugary dipping sauce. First Lady Michelle Obama, who is leading a nationwide effort against childhood obesity, praises the fast food chain's decision.

Sources: ABC News (2), Ace Showbiz, Associated Press (2), Chicago Tribune, Daily Mail, Fox News, HappyMealToys.biz, LA Times, Reuters, Seattle Times, Telegraph, TIME, USA Today


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