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Happy Meal change: Apple slices in every Happy Meal

Happy Meal change: McDonald's on Tuesday said that it would add apple slices and reduce the portion of French fries in its children's meal boxes this fall, effectively taking away consumers' current choice between either having apples with caramel dip or fries as a Happy Meal side.

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Adding a half portion of apples and fries is more likely to change customers' eating habits than simply offering apples as an alternative, said Jonathan Marek, a senior vice president at Applied Predictive Technologies. It could drive sales, he said.

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"The key is, will this get parents to go to McDonald's one more time each month than they would have otherwise?" said Marek, whose company helps restaurants forecast whether new programs will drive sales. He was not involved in the McDonald's program.

This isn't the first time the world's largest burger chain has tried to paint itself as an emissary of nutrition.

In the '80s, it created a fitness program for middle school children featuring gymnast Mary Lou Retton. A decade ago, McDonald's used its mascot, RonaldMcDonald, to encourage parents to get their children immunized and to tell kids to drink milk. In 2003, it added salad entrees to the menu. And in 2004,McDonald's christened Ronald a "balanced, active lifestyles ambassador."

More recently, McDonald's has worked to paint itself as a healthy, hip place to eat, offering wireless access in restaurants and introducing smoothies, salads, yogurt parfait and oatmeal. Other fast-food companies are now scrambling to replicate McDonald's offerings.

"We've been in the nutrition game for over 30 years in providing nutrition information to our customers," said Goody, the McDonald's spokeswoman. "Now what we're doing is we're adding more food groups and ... creating nutritional awareness."

In part because of its ability to change with consumer tastes, McDonald's has posted robust financial results during the recession in and its aftermath.

In 2010, McDonald's accounted for 9 percent of U.S. restaurant sales, according to Technomic. Last year, its U.S. revenue rose 4.4 percent, while U.S. revenue fell at Burger King, Wendy's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Arby's, Sonic and Jack in the Box, Technomic said.

McDonald's ability to adjust to customers' demands has helped bring already-loyal customers through the doors more often, but they're also attracting "people who hadn't traditionally visited us in the past," said McDonald's spokeswoman Danya Proud.

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