So, there is a debate raging in the public health world about Happy Meals. Health advocates are trying to ban McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants from handing out toys with kids’ meals, since the meals are completely unhealthy and the toy prize just makes kids want them even more. The fast food industry, on the other hand, says that the government shouldn’t decide what kids eat, their parents should. (Conservatives, I should add, also strongly agree with this statement. It fits in so well with their fear of a “nanny government,” and any attempts at regulating the crap that children are encouraged to eat. For a golden example of this, recall when Sarah Palin handed out cookies to school children in order to mock Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign.)
Honestly, at first I wasn’t sure where I stood on this issue. I understand that parents are leery of elected officials deciding what their kids eat. There is something sacred and private about the meals we eat at home. But after a long time thinking about it, I now whole-heartedly agree with the public health advocates who are pushing to ban Happy Meals. Happy Meals are not something we eat in the privacy of our family kitchens. They are high-calorie, unhealthy meals that are marketed deliberately towards children on TV, billboards, stores, and other public places.
Let’s take a closer look at what’s offered in the Happy Meals at McDonald’s. The choices for a Happy Meal are a hamburger, a cheeseburger, or chicken nuggets. They come with a soda and fries. Well, McDonald’s also offers other choices for drinks (milk or apple juice) and a side (apple slices). But the default Happy Meal comes with the soda and fries, which automatically means fewer families will order the healthier option. (See this article on why it’s important to make healthy meals the default at restaurants.)
Let’s pretend the kid chooses the chicken nuggets meal option, with fries and chocolate milk. This means she is eating a meal that gives her 580 calories, 26 grams of fat, 710 milligrams of sodium, and 25 grams of sugar. To put this in perspective, this one small meal provides 41% of recommended daily calories, 65% of daily fat, 60% of daily sodium, and 200% of recommended daily sugar intake. In other words, way too much.
Now, I don’t have an issue with children eating these meals every now and then. But for many families, especially those in food deserts that have many fast food restaurants and few healthier options, these meals are a regular part of the diet. They’re cheap, they’re fast, and kids love them. Happy Meals come with a toy. Seriously, what kid turns down a meal that comes with a free toy and box with a huge smile on it? As a matter of fact, what kid wouldn’t beg for that meal?
There aren’t two ways to look at this issue. We don’t market cigarettes to kids anymore, because cigarettes are terrible for kids. Happy Meals are terrible for kids. They shouldn’t be marketed towards them.
Either fast food restaurants need to step up and offer healthier meals with their free toys, or we need to ban Happy Meals altogether.