I’m the first to admit that the trip to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal has been a not uncommon experience for both of my daughters. I’m very well aware that they are not the most nutritionally sound dinner options, but once in a while the little flimsy cardboard box containing McNuggets, fries, and a toy is just the way to go. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, however, is coming down hard on Happy Meals, taking the fast food giant to task for “predatory marketing practices” by using cheap plastic toys to get kids eating fatty junk.
California’s Santa Clara County has already taken the first step, actually banning toys from the Happy Meal package. This is in the name of combating childhood obesity, a cause that First Lady Michelle Obama has faced head on. As an increase in obesity rates continue, the fast food industry is facing growing pressure.
In New Hampshire, 33 percent of third-graders are overweight or obese, according to a recent state Department of Health and Human Services survey. It’s part of a rising trend of childhood obesity in the state fueled by unhealthy eating habits — including fast food — and a lack of exercise, said Lisa Bujno, bureau chief of DHHS’s Division of Public Health.
She said McDonald’s isn’t all to blame.
“An occasional Happy Meal isn’t going to be a problem,” Bujno said. “It all goes back to what you take in and what you expend for energy … It’s about choices.”
You know, I can’t help but feel that the focus is on the path of least resistance here. It’s a lot easier to point the finger at Mickey D’s or BK for foisting junk food on our children, but I very strongly believe that the bigger emphasis should be on increasing physical activity.
I offer as an example my younger daughter. She is picky to the extreme and adamantly refused to eat anything but pizza, fried chicken tenders, and cheese for the first half of her life. She’s six now and has expanded her repertoire to cookies, chips, macaroni and cheese, and tuna fish sandwiches. Oh, and Happy Meals.
Before you come down on me too hard here, please know that there are veritable tons of fruits, vegetables, protein-heavy snacks, and yogurt around. This child’s older sister would rather have blueberries than chocolate and actually seeks out broccoli. Furthermore, the strictly enforced expectation is that she has to eat a bite of everything at the dinner table. I keep hoping that her dietary horizons will broaden, but it hasn’t happened yet.
The thing is, …
… this kid is skinny. Despite her affinity for chocolate milk and cheese in any manifestation, she’s against all odds downright thin. My conclusion? She never stops moving. Ever. She runs, she jumps, she swims in the ocean, she plays soccer and softball, she hula hoops, she skis, she even bounces around the house when the television is on. In my mind, this seems to prove the point that her activity, pretty much a state of perpetual motion, balances out the French fries, chocolate bars, and extra mayonnaise she puts on her sandwiches.
I do have other concerns—making sure she brushes her teeth well, for example, and helping her realize the significance of a well-balanced diet including protein, produce, and prime rib.
Anyway, exactly how bad is a Happy Meal?
A Happy Meal comprised of a cheeseburger, French fries, and Sprite has 640 calories, 940 milligrams of sodium, and 35 grams of sugar. Those figures are half, three-fourths, and twice the recommended daily amounts, respectively, for children aged 4-8.
McDonald’s disputed the percentages, saying they are based on the diets of the “youngest and most sedentary” children.
All Happy Meals come with the choice of a toy geared for boys or girls.
At the Dover McDonald’s Monday, the boys’ toy was a Marvel superhero, while the girls’ toy was a Littlest Pet Shop animal.
It’s noteworthy that McDonald’s has added choices like juice and apple slices to their kid meals, but this is not enough for some people.
“McDonald’s is deliberately marketing directly to unsuspecting little children by offering appealing toys — usually ones related to popular movies or television shows,” the CPSI wrote in a letter to McDonald’s. “McDonald’s marketing has the effect of conscripting America’s children into an unpaid drone army of word-of-mouth marketers, causing them to nag their parents to bring them to McDonald’s.”
Okay, this letter excerpt sort of drives home what I think is the most salient point. If kids are sitting around watching television shows and movies all the time, I think maybe the people who are allowing that need to take a long look in the mirror before blaming fast food chains.
Children that play outside instead of watching television all the time absorbing McDonald’s ads are a lot less likely to experience side effects like obesity than kids that are physically active and have a Happy Meal once every couple of weeks.
The CPSI is unquestionably right about one thing, though—children are a direct focus of advertising from fast food companies. Why is it that, in 2006, companies like Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the much-maligned McDonald’s spent over $500 on ads catering to kids, with toys included in meals a huge focus?
Companies study child psychology to determine how to best sell their products, according to Josh Lauer, who teaches advertising at the University of New Hampshire.
“Their job is to persuade children to nag their parents until they buy something for them.”
Nevertheless, parents always have a choice, Lauer said.
“They can say, ‘Sorry, we’re not having McDonald’s tonight.”
And herein lies the crux of my issue here. Any parent who thinks it’s healthy to feed their kid McDonald’s daily is delusional. We all know it’s a poor choice. If parents choose to slip their children a Happy Meal once in awhile, that’s their business; however, one can hope that most parents have the sense to make moderation the key.
And a parent who allows their children to dictate whether or not they’re eating fast food by the busload has bigger potential issues on the horizon than obesity.