The Happy Meal as we know it may be on its way to extinction, at least in New York City. NYC City Councilman Leroy Comrie Jr. has proposed a ban on toys in fast food meals for children, unless those meals meet nutritional standards. Kids, he argues, will choose a meal with a toy over any other option. Comrie wants the toys paired with healthier meals, maxing out at 500 calories:
“By ensuring that toys are only given away with meals which meet the nutritional guidelines set out in this bill, children will be more likely to pick the healthier meals when they do visit fast food restaurants. Children, lured in with toy giveaways at an early age, are more likely to develop a habit of eating unhealthily.”
McDonald’s is, of course, against these regulations, saying parents should have choices. Because when your kid is at the counter, begging for that sweet cadmium-coated BPA-molded piece of character licensing, you’ve got two choices: Yes, or Crying.
I must disclose that I am one of those irritating people who don’t take their kids to McDonald’s. This is partly because in New York City, I feel like there are too many easy healthy options to justify that choice, partly because I was freaked out by Fast Food Nation, and partly because I’m a controlling, mean witch of a mother who denies her children pleasure to quell her anxieties. (Note to children reading this in later years: that last part was a joke.)
Those who know me may have heard me complain about the stronghold McDonald’s has on children and their parents. For example, why are fast food restaurants the only ones that give away toys? Nevermind the toys. Let’s talk about the PLAYPLACE. Say you’re an exhausted parent who hasn’t had a break from her bouncing-off-the-walls kids all day. Are you more likely to take them to a restaurant where they’ll get healthy food…but you’ll have to tell them 683 times to get back in their seats and stop sliding under the table and stop irritating these other people who are trying to have a nice dinner out? Or. To a fast food restaurant, where they can shove 683 sparsely nutritive calories down their throats in 8 minutes, then run off to purple plastic helix heaven, leaving you to stare into space and nurse your Diet Coke in fluorescently lit peace?
McDonald’s defends their Happy Meals with quotes from experts and parents: “Taking away toys from kids’ meals won’t solve childhood obesity. Nutrition experts and parents agree. In a national survey of U.S. moms, 83% say that banning toys from kids’ meals is NOT an effective way to deal with this important issue. On average, kids eat at McDonald’s about three times a month; that means about 87 other meals are eaten at home, school or elsewhere. That adds up to a discussion larger than toys.”
Clearly, the obesity epidemic is not about toys. It is, however, about kids eating unhealthily, and about the association between unhealthy food and pleasure. I agree with Councilman Comrie’s impulse to change that association. But I’m not so sure about the implementation. I’m sure there are a lot of parents out there who are fans of the Happy Meal and would be deeply ticked off to have toys taken off the menu. If the comments on these posts about last year’s Silicon Valley ban on Happy Meal toys are any indication, McDonalds is not lying when they claim serious parental support.
What I’d personally like to see is more positive incentives for kids to eat healthily and for parents to help them eat well. If you really want to change children’s eating habits, why not support the growth of other, healthier options to become equally child—and parent—friendly? New York City has a lot of healthy places to eat, but none of them has a purple plastic slide. And as far as I know, none of them give away free toys.
Are you pro- or anti- Happy Meal toy ban?