Want fries with that McDonald’s combo? Only if they’re downsized

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Last weekend we stopped at a McDonald’s on our way to a family weekend up north. It was late, our kids had (finally) fallen asleep and so we hit the drive-thru.

Before having kids, I was adamantly anti-drive-thru — my feeling was (and largely remains) that if you want fast food you should at least leave the car to get it. Unnecessary idling is bad for the environment; it also wastes fuel and money. The short walk doesn’t do much to offset the calories I ingest, but often makes me think twice about whether I actually want to stop.

That preconception goes right out the window when I have a sleeping kid in the car. Sometimes quiet is more precious than morals.

I was tired from the frenzy of packing and wanted salty, hot french fries with my fajita combo. Watching the Supersize Me bonus feature where Morgan Spurlock lets McDonald’s fries rot for more than a month has left me with no illusions about the consequences of eating food that doesn’t decompose on its own:

But the craving had me by the throat and I caved.

By default, McDonald’s combos come with medium french fries. For those unfamiliar with the restaurant chain’s excellent nutritional tracking site, medium fries contain 360 calories, 17 grams of fat and 270 mg of sodium. Small fries contain 220 calories, 11 grams of fat and 170 mg of sodium — a difference that is significant if you are generally health conscious or following a diet.

I find a small serving satisfies my occasional craving for fries without totally blowing my post-baby diet out of the water. So I asked for small fries with my combo.

Drive-thru person: (Pause) You want small fries?

Me: Yes

Drive-thru person: Are you sure? I have to charge you the full price.

Me: Why?

Drive-thru person: (Pause) That’s the price for a combo.

Me: But I only want a small fries.

Drive-thru person: Sorry.

Taking the medium size and dumping the excess amount was too much of a temptation for my will power. Besides, I hate wasting food. So I paid the full price for the medium fries I wasn’t going to eat, inhaled my small fries and got on with my weekend.

But it rankled.

Healthy Alternatives? Hmm

Helping customers to make healthier choices is a huge trend in the fast food industry. Over the last decade, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and their various competitors have diversified their menus from the non-stop burgers I remember in my teens to include wraps and salads.

They’re not always cheaper calorie alternatives (particularly if you go heavy on the salad dressing), but at least you have options if you want to avoid deep-fried food and eat a few more vegetables. You can even get apple slices instead of fries to go with your child’s Happy Meal, which is a huge shift from when I was a kid.

The nutrition marketing has even spilled over into advertising, such as this TV commercial where a young, slender woman contemplates a salad while going to get lunch with an equally skinny friend:

Nutrition websites are also a big trend. My favourites include those with built-in counters, such as Panera Bread, Dairy Queen and Swiss Chalet.

The availability of these tools and the quality of their construction often plays a role in where I decide to eat. I imagine that preference may also hold for individuals on stricter diets than mine for health reasons, such as people with high cholesterol or those who are managing Type II diabetes through their food intake.

Put Your Pricing Where Your Marketing Is

But all of this effort to promote healthier living is undermined if the chain isn’t willing to carry the trend into their bottom line.

So I ask you, McDonalds’ Canada — if super-sizing my fries costs something like $.50 more than the default option, why won’t you charge me less for downsizing my fries and eating a smaller, healthier serving?