In Search of…Sunday: Nothing Happy about Happy Meals

When I was little, I thought that eating at McDonalds was a real treat.  When my Happy Meal was handed over by my Mom or Dad, I’d inhale the smell of french fries and carefully open the box.  I’d lay out and gaze at everything as though I were unpacking a picnic basket: hamburger: check.  Fries: check.  Drink: check.  Toy: double check.

Fast food places didn’t have the bad rap that they do now.  Within the last few years, restaurants have taken on new names that I’m sure don’t make the shareholders very happy.  Hey kids, who wants to go to Burger Sling for lunch?  No?  How about Pondegrossa?  Mmm……Pizza Butt, anyone? 

Health food blogs and forums all over the web are abuzz over the recent news regarding the big McDonald’s Happy Meal Maybe you’ve heard the news:  Beginning December 11, 2011, McDonalds restaurants in San Francisco will no longer be allowed to put toys into their Happy Meals unless they meet specific requirements:

  1. each meal must contain 600 calories or less
  2. It is required to have 1/2 cup of vegetables
  3. breakfasts must contain 1/2 cup of fruit
  4. there will be a multigrain requirement
  5. the entire meal cannot exceed 640 mg. of sodium

Spokespeople from McDonalds claimed that parents did not ask for nor do they want this regulation.  Some professionals say there are lots of reasons for childhood obesity and that regulating fast food will not solve the problem.  Others argue that McDonalds has the right to use whatever marketing tool they choose, just like any other company.

Is this the cause of childhood obesity?

Those who were in support of it said that places like McDonalds pander to children by enticing them with toys from the latest movies and the hottest characters.  With childhood obesity clearly on the rise, health professionals argue that reducing the consumption of unhealthy foods could save billions of dollars to the health care system. 

One thing is clear, though.  Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last 30 years according to the Center for Disease Control.  But who’s fault is it?  The parents?  The restaurants?   

I’m very curious as to what you all think about this action.  Does the government have the right to play a role in what your children should or shouldn’t eat? Are they simply stepping in on a situation that has taken on epidemic proportions or should restaurants be given the right to serve what they want to those who want it?

20 thoughts on “In Search of…Sunday: Nothing Happy about Happy Meals

  1. FatAngryBlog

    I think that fast food restaurants DO have a responsibility as well as the parents. Children are extremely impressionable and influenced by marketing and advertising.

    And many parents are over-worked, underpaid and just exhausted. And, speaking from experience, sometimes (though not all the time) it can be easier to give your child the treat/reward they are asking for.

    However; a lot of parents do that ALL THE TIME.

    And with all things in life, other than happiness, moderation tends to be the key.

    I think it's great that they are doing that although I think that a child's Happy Meal should be 300 calories or less – 600 still seems excessive to my way of thinking.

    As well, childhood obesity is affected by the mere fact that crimes against children or more prevelant than they were when I was growing up. Our children are kept indoors more for their own protection and therefore, they get less exercise.

    And because the aforementioned over-worked parents are tired, it's easier to stay inside and have quality time with their kids over a meal, or a movie or reading a book together than it is to take 1 or more kids outdoors.

    Even still more so in winter where it is well into darkness by the time many parents are coming home.

    So there's my $1.50 (since I was kind of verbose).
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    1. Ellen Post author

      Thank you for weighing in on this one. I don't have children so it's very interesting to hear what parents have to say about this. You always make very good points.

      Reply
  2. Michele

    I could write a really long response on this topic, but I'll keep it rather short.

    Government regulation of toys in meals and nutritional requirements of those meals is not infringing on parenting rights in my eyes. It's mandating corporate responsibility.

    If you want your kids to have a toy and copious amounts of fat, sodium, preservatives, and the like, order them what you like and buy a cheap toy at Dollar Tree.

    Clearly, restaurants can serve what they like. This is about creating incentives for children who do not have the cognitive skills required to make informed decisions about their health. The children rely on the parents to make this decision, and kids cry for the meal with the toys. Many parents give in to the child's pleas for the meal with the toy just to preserve peace in the moment. So if McDonald's is mandated to provide healthy meals with toys rather than exceedingly unhealthy meals with toys, parents should be grateful. This could mean the kids will STILL want the meal with the toy… and a healthier one in the process.
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    1. Ellen Post author

      Thanks for responding to this topic, Michele. I think most people feel the same way you do in that we could spend all day on this one. You make very good points.

      Reply
  3. Myndie

    Unless McD's is owned by Uncle Same, they need to STAY OUT of their lives. Government should NOT have the say in what people/companies sell. This annoys me to no end.

    Is there a problem? Yes, but is it the end of the world? NO.

    No one is forcing the parents to drive to McDonald's and no one is shoving food down anyone's throat.

    People need to take responsibility for their OWN actions, not the government.

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  4. Kelly

    I agree with Myndie. It's not the government's fault that people or kids are fat. It's their own fault, or their parents' fault. Little kids don't know any better, adults should know better. No one's holding a gun to their heads and forcing them to get horrible food.
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    1. Ellen Post author

      Thanks for contributing to this discussion, Kelly. This is a very heated topic, in part because I think people wonder, where is it going to stop? What else will the government decide is good for us?

      Reply
  5. Mary

    I agree that people should be making their own decisions responsibly, but at the same time, for so many people, it's a matter of cost. The economy isn't great, and in a lot of places, an entire Happy Meal costs less than one organic zucchini – that's a serious problem. There are also issues like food deserts – several of low-income neighborhoods in Chicago have this problem. They don't have access to "real" food – they just don't have local grocery stores, and the small markets will carry prepackaged stuff over fruit and veg because it's more profitable. So this small step is not an ideal solution, but a means that might help some kids.

    Reply
    1. Ellen Post author

      Excellent points, Mary – you gave some insight on things that I wasn't even aware of. Thanks for bringing this perspective to the discussion; much appreciated!

      Reply
  6. The Fat Mom

    I love how parents blame their kids or McDonald's because of the newest toy that is put in there. Kids can't drive or pay for a Happy Meal. In most circumstances isn't it the parent to blame? I wish McD's would step up without having the government do it for them.

    I don't believe that kids should NEVER eat a Happy Meal. My kids have one a month (if that). I let them get the burger, but order apples instead of fries. Isn't it my job as a parent to teach them a healthy lifestyle? Isn't it ok for a kid to be a kid and have a Happy Meal every once in awhile? It's all about moderation.

    Reply
  7. Shantell

    I am one of those persons that always blame the parents but I think that is because I am not a parent yet. I think everyone has the right to make their own decisions and when it comes to kids it is the responsibility of the parents to make sure that the child is eating properly. I remember when I was a kid I didn't like the happy meals I always only got it for the toy. Also their are some kids that do not eat fruits or vegetables as a result even if those items come in the happy meal there is no guarantee that the child would eat it. I think this new regulation would help adults like me who buy happy meals because we think it has less calories then ordering from the regular menu.
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    Reply
    1. Ellen Post author

      Thanks for commenting on this topic, Shannie. I don't have kids either, and so it's always interesting to hear different perspectives on this kind of thing.

      Reply
  8. Susan@Home Workouts

    Hey Ellen, I totally agree that removing toys from happy meals will definitely help in the war against childhood obesity. The only weak spot is that the fast food restaurant is only half the issue. The kids don't get them there themselves, the kids don't buy the happy meal – it really is the responsibility of the parents, to control what their kid is eating. Perhaps there needs to be a greater educational movement to help educate parents. Second, I'm sure most parents have no time to consistently prepare healthy meals.

    Reply
  9. Tim

    I think a lot of people have made some excellent points. Personally I think it's important that children today get taught better food education in schools especially with the problems we are facing with obesity in the UK. Some of the stories I have heard in Britain are really shocking. Even at my school, I wasn't taught about any food nutrition. Also Mary raised a great point. It's probably more expensive to buy fruit/veg than it is to buy a packet of crisps or a chocolate bar.

    I am not a parent but I'd like to think that I would go out of my way to improve my knowledge on food for the benefit of my child's health. It really upsets me seeing obese children being given junk food by their parents. Obviously the children aren't any wiser but I think parents need to take a lot of responsibility for what their children eat.

    I don't personally blame companies like McDonalds or Burger KIng but I do think they have a resonsibility to raise awareness about the harm it does if people eat too much unhealthy foods. I guess similar to cigarette companies having to have labels on their cigarette packets telling smokers that smoking kills.

    Reply
  10. grownupstudent

    I agree with Mary & Tim– corporations like McDonald's are a big reason why our country heavily subsidizes corn and all the processed foods that come from corn (like most menu items at McDonalds), meanwhile healthy foods are not affordable for many families. I can see why legislating personal choice is a slippery slope; on the other hand, we need consumers (and even local governments) to demand healthier choices because otherwise fast food companies will never change. I just saw the documentary Food Inc. and highly recommend it for a lot of great perspective on this exact topic!
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  11. Karen

    Wow – interesting topic! My gut reaction (no pun intended) is that I don't agree with this mandate. I DO like the idea of restaurants being required to have nutritional information, but after that I think that we need to make our own choices and as parents take on that role for our kids. The parents choose to let the kids watch commercial television which is how they learn about happy meal toys. I just think it is scary to give the government too much power over things like this… where do we draw the line?
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  12. Mayhem Mama

    I am usually the lone voice on this topic.

    I am registered nurse. I worked cardiac care for more years than were good for me. I would get people who come back to my unit over and over and over again. Each time I would give them all the education – the diet, the salt intake, the quit smoking. I would change how I gave them the information – you know, the whole adult learning thing (listen, do, read, etc). Invariably it would come down to them making a personal choice not to follow the education that was given to them. They could tell me exactly why they ended up back in the hospital each time. But they CHOSE to not follow a healthy lifestyle.

    The same thing is true to parents who allow their children to only eat Happy Meals, hot dogs, etc for meals. I don't buy the whole "they don't know" (there are very few people out there that don't have access to a TV where nutrition information is spewed ad nauseum), or that it is "cheaper", or that they don't have time. All of those things are choices that people are making. Are they looking at the good of their children when they put them in so many activities that the only time they have to eat is in the car to the next practice? Are they taking into account the well-being of their child when they chose to take the short route of picking up fast food instead of involving their child in the meal preparation? Crockpots are an awesome, awesome invention for the busy family – cheap yet nutritious meals can be prepared as a family the night before, plugged in as they leave in the morning and be ready when they get home at night.

    Having the government mandate things like caloric limits is basically saying that people are not intelligent enough to make their own choices. It allows people to lay blame somewhere else, except where is squarely belongs – on the person making the choice.

    Personal accountability has been utterly forgotten in society. Having a child is a responsibility.

    Right now, parents are abdicating their responsibility – the school should teach them how to read and write, character development and morals should come from the Sunday School teacher and the public schools, inability to exercise outdoors is blamed on criminals and the police force's inability to protect children, nutritional intake is being force-fed by the government with no thought of actually educating the child on how to make appropriate decisions. Forget about the parental responsibility to read to a child, to talk to a child, to teach the child right from wrong, to go outside with the child or play with the child in the house, or teach the child what real food (fruit, veggies, meat, milk, water) is and where it comes from.

    I was given the ability to think, reason and make decisions by my Creator. I refuse to give those faculties to someone else!

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