Healthier fast-food a reality

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For fast-food chains, under increasing attack from anti-obesity advocates, offering healthy options for adults can set the table for providing healthy food for kids.

In this scenario, an adult decides to give a fast-food eatery a chance because it has healthy options for grown-ups, then also buys a healthy meal for their kid. The end result for the fast-feeder is the same: reduced pressure from critics because kids are eating healthier there.

Carol Koepke, senior director-U.S. marketing at McDonald's Corp., sees this situation in which an adult comes in for a salad and brings their child along for a healthier Happy Meal.

The Happy Meal, fueled by improved toys and fewer reasons for moms to veto a trip to McDonald's, is on a rebound after a three-year decline.

The Happy Meal has evolved based on research McDonald's conducts on the tastes of kids and their parents. The latest improvement is in its food, rather than its toy, as the chain rolls nationally its all-white-meat Chicken McNuggets, a sliced apple with a caramel dip and a 1% chocolate milk chug.

An executive close to the No. 1 fast-feeder says Happy Meal sales are up significantly, but more because of sales of adult-oriented salads than any kid-oriented food item.

Wendy's International is hoping for the same parent-to-child rub-off. The chain introduced for adults its Garden Sensations salads in 2000, with the newest spinach with chicken variety debuting this month. For the young ones, Wendy's last fall began offering reduced-fat milk in grab-and-go plastic containers with its Kids' Meals. The test also offered a fruit cup as an alternative to french fries. The offerings will roll out shortly; Wendy's also is exploring a mandarin orange dessert option.

While McDonald's sales have gotten bigger as its menu items trim down, in the kids meal business the chain hasn't quite moved beyond the PR realm, says the executive close to the company. "It's still more of a defensive thing" than a profit driver, says the executive, noting that if McDonald's didn't change its menu offerings, "it would lose business," especially to moms who rejected McDonald's before the chain launched its entree salads line.

"By and large, it's still a defensive move," agrees Bob Goldin, VP at restaurant consultancy Technomic.

Besides, says the executive close to McDonald's, while these options may make the parent feel good, the jury is still out on whether kids will agree to eat the healthier food.

contributing: kate macarthur

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