My kids are grown now, but when they were little we did go to McDonald’s on occasion, and I did buy them Happy Meals sometimes. Often the toy in the box was as much or more of a motivation for buying the meal than the actual food. I also found that many other mothers had a similar attitude when it came to their kids and McDonalds Happy Meals.
I am happy to say that my decision to do this has not ruined their lives. They are both well within a healthy weight and have been their whole lives.
When I heard San Francisco is looking to ban Happy Meal toys it brought on mixed feelings. I get the motivation behind it. Child obesity statistics have ballooned, not only in the U.S, but across the world, and luring kids and parents into an unhealthy meal choice via a toy certainly does have an element of “bait and switch,” but here are things that used to make taking my kids to McDonald’s a happy time for my family.
1. Happy Meals were something to share, not have all to yourself. I have two kids and when we went to McDonald’s they almost always split the Happy Meal. The toy stayed in it’s package until we got home. For the most part my kids, and many other kids I observed while at McDonalds put the actual food pretty low of their list of priorities while having lunch or dinner at McDonalds. Their preference was either to play with their Happy Meal toy, or go into the Playland area. This is why half a Happy Meal was plenty for a child. I saw many parents dump trays of uneaten food in the garbage. Kids like the idea of a Happy Meal more than the meal itself — today, my 18 and 19 year olds are not big fast food fans, aside from Subway.
2. The lure of a Happy Meal provides a respite for parents and other caregivers, and exercise for kids. Again, I return to Playland. Yes — you need to watch your kids while they swim around the plastic balls, and don’t let them in if they are too big or small. But especially in the winter when it’s too cold to play in the park, an indoor Playland is a great option to have.
Today, McDonald’s has made an effort to offer more healthy options, although the standard fattening fare remains in the spotlight, and much of it graces the Dollar Menu. This reminds me of a few things that were on my wishlist as a young mom seeking refuge in the Golden Arches.
1. Why can’t I just buy the toy without the food? A two cheeseburger or nine piece Extra Value Meal is plenty of food for the three of us. The kids can steal a couple nuggets, a few fries, and a couple sips of my soda — they certainly don’t need a whole glass to themselves. We can even get a salad if we want.
2. If you must pair the toy with the food, why can’t it be paired with better food? Like I said, I understand the logic behind the proposed toy ban. If the toy is cool, the food that goes with the toy must be cool too. It’s basic Pavlovian theory, and we don’t want to condition our kids to think fast food burgers and deep fried processed chicken are “cool.” But a yogurt parfait, and a mini grilled chicken salad might be something worthy of that toy. While there are more healthy options than when I took my kids to McDonald’s fifteen years ago, the big push and advertising dollars still go to the food with the most fat and calories and lowest nutition.
3. This one goes beyond McDonald’s and across the whole restaurant industry. Why should I have to be a child to order a smaller meal? Why can’t these meals just be called “sensible portions” and be available to anyone? But in most cases these options a restricted to children and older adults. Yes, you can share a meal with a friend, or box up half of it for later — but it would be so much easier to just order the amount of food you want without facing stigma or an argument. This also goes for the nine year old who feels insulted by having to order off the kids menu.
Banning toys that bring joy to kids and parents, if only for a little while, is not the answer to reducing the childhood obesity– not to mention adult obesity. What we need is not more restriction, but more choice, and better representation of the choices that are good for us– or at least not as bad. For a while, people will continue to choose what they always have. But just as the fast food and restaurant industies had the power to contribute to our wider waistlines, with clever marketing they have the same power to reduce the damage. The question is, are they up to the challenge?
San Francisco Bans Happy Meals