During its existence, McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) has had a challenging relationship with consumers when it comes to offering healthier food choices. The chain has struggled with salads, higher-quality burgers, and getting consumers to try healthier menu additions.

Where it has succeeded is in creating subtle shifts in behavior. McDonald's may not be the go-to place for a salad, but more of its customers are opting for side dishes that are better for you than french fries. And more kids (or more likely their parents) have decided against having a soda with their Happy Meal, according to new research from Keybridge, a public policy economic consulting firm.

A McDonald's locaiton

McDonald's no longer lists soda as a choice for Happy Meals on its menu boards. Image source: McDonald's.

What is McDonald's doing?

In 2013 the fast-food chain partnered with the non-profit Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Together the two companies created five lifestyle goals for McDonald's to reach by 2020. Those commitments included:

  • Offering value meal customers options instead of french fries, including yogurt, side salads, and fruit; and
  • Only promoting water, milk, and juice as drink choices with the company's Happy Meal kids meals.
  • Add a new Happy Meal fruit, vegetable, low-fat dairy or water option and promote excitement for these alternatives on the packaging for the kids' meals.
  • Dedicate one panel of Happy Meal boxes or bags to offer "a fun nutrition or children's well-being message four times annually;" and
  • Include that type of message in all of its ads aimed at kids.

McDonald's has met these goals in the U.S., according to the study. Making these changes has impacted consumer behavior.

On the Happy Meal side, 52% of customers opted for the non-soda options in 2018, up from 37% in 2013, according to a report from Nation's Restaurant News (NRN). Julie Braun, McDonald's Head of Global Nutrition, described this strategy as being "out of sight, out of mind" in an interview with NRN.

Basically, that means that while you can still get a soda with a Happy Meal, fewer people order it because it's not listed as a choice. That likely also makes it easier for parents, who don't have to say no -- at least to young kids who don't know that a soft drink is an option.

Offering alternatives to fries has been a major success as well. That may be because adult customers may understand that McDonald's is an indulgence, so they take every reasonable chance to be a little bit healthier.

"We've seen a significant shift in customer ordering patterns," Braun said.

What does this mean?

In the U.S., McDonald's has already met its 2020 lifestyle goals, according to Keybridge. It has done that partly by embracing what it is rather than continuing to try to become something it isn't.

Customers aren't coming to the restaurant chain for health food. If they want that, they can go elsewhere. But that doesn't mean that the company's audience won't make healthier choices when given the option. Eating Chicken McNuggets or a Big Mac is still an indulgence. If that choice can be tempered by swapping out a side of fries for a fruit or a yogurt, that's a choice many people seem willing to make.

This isn't about making McDonald's a healthy eating choice. It's an effort to make the chain a healthier option for people eating there anyway.

These kinds of efforts show that it's possible to embrace a middle ground. McDonald's will probably never be the eatery of choice for the kale and tofu crowd. But for its customer base, it can offer healthier choices, and those will be embraced.