Fast Food Kid’s Meals Are Designed To Target Your Kids With Delicious Poison


When I was a kid, the pinnacle of my existence was to get a Happy Meal. My parents weren’t poor, but they were definitely on a tight budget. Happy Meals were few and far between, and I hoarded the little dinky toys that came with them like precious jewels.

I promise you that I’m not going to go all sanctimommy on you and condemn parents that feed their kids McDonald’s french fries because I’ve done it before. But the more I learn about the reality of fast food, the more I firmly believe that completely unhealthy treats should be enjoyed in moderation—and even less, if possible.

Anyone with a brain knows that fast food isn’t good for you. But we eat it anyway because no one is perfect, and it’s convenient and relatively cheap when you have no other options on the way home from work. I personally splurge on fast food once a week when I have a cheat day from my normal #cleaneating diet.

So, I like to turn a blind eye to the horror that is fast food. But as I read more about McDonald’s Happy Meals—obviously targeted to kids—I’ve come to realize that Happy Meals are far from happy:

The McDonald’s staple seems to be one of the best ways to hook kids on fast food at a seriously young age: Forty percent of children ages 2 to 11 ask their parents to take them to McDonald’s at least once a week, and 15 percent of preschoolers ask to go every single day.

This is not good. McDonald’s is known for aggressively marketing to young children to get them hooked at a young age. On top of that, there are a few more “happy” facts that may scare you away from the drive-thru:

  • McDonald’s is kids’ favorite restaurant in the US because of Happy Meal toys.
  • Disney kicked McDonald’s to the curb in 2006 to end a partnership with child obesity.
  • San Francisco tried to ban Happy Meals because of poor nutrition, but McDonald’s inevitably found a way around it.
  • Healthy Happy Meals aren’t better—healthier Happy Meals at 600 calories are still overkill for little kids.

There’s much to be said about the horror that is fast food, so I’m not going to write a novel on it. I’m sure you’re a very skilled Googler and can figure it out for yourself. I’m also not going to pretend like I’m above giving my kid delicious, salty french fries every once in a while, but let’s not gloss over the ridiculous sham that is the McDonald’s Happy Meal.

(Image: Aleph Studio/Shutterstock)

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You can reach this post's author, Bethany Ramos, on twitter.
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  • kate

    Oh, good grief already, this is the deadest horse I’ve ever seen.

    • Robotic Socks

      Were you looking at a Big Mac when you wrote this?

    • Bethany Ramos

      Lol – I still care, so there’s one of us! Fuck you, fast fooood.

    • Robotic Socks

      Subways are relatively safe

      Also, all things in moderation, right?

      I mean, I literally can’t go a week without In-N-Out… in fact… um… be back in an hour!

    • Bethany Ramos

      I eat it once a week, I smoke cigs once a month, I drink once a day, and the list goes on. :)

    • Robotic Socks

      Remember, it’s only “one drink” if it’s in a single container.

    • Bunny Lou

      I used to enjoy the shit out of McDonalds, and then Celiac’s disease.

      But seriously when I stopped eating gluten it made fast food nearly impossible to go to, I lost like thirty pounds and had so much energy. Now granted I don’t know how much of that energy was from not being sick all the time or how much of it was from dropping fast food. But I like to think that not eating fast food has made me healthier and more energetic person.

  • rrlo

    There is too much noise around food in our culture. I read some health expert say that we should only be eating ancient grains and that olive oil was bad. Way too much noise.

    Fast food is not poison. It is food. However, it has more salt, more fat, more sugar, more calories and less nutritional value than other types of food. But Happy Meals are fun. They are a treat. They come with a toy. It is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things.

    ETA: I realize that I didn’t make a point. Is there anyone in the world that doesn’t know that a lot of fast food is bad for you? Yet, the obesity rates are still rising in most age groups and people are just as confused as ever about what to eat. Something about the rhetoric needs to change.

    • Tinyfaeri

      pffft, being reasonable on the internet. Humph.

    • Bethany Ramos

      I agree with you on your update. :) I am the resident health nut that gets my kicks talking about this stuff, so…

    • CMJ

      McDonald’s has ALWAYS been good at advertising. The Barbie toys in the Happy Meals? GENIUS. The Beanie Babies? Genius.

      I don’t know….maybe the difference now is that parents just don’t know how to say “no.” The part of that study that weirds me out is that they determined how often kids ask for McDonald’s. I mean sure, I could always ask for it, but that doesn’t mean I was going to get it.

    • rrlo

      It would be interesting to know if the kids that are asking to go to McDonalds every week/every day are actually being taken there.

      Also, how many of these kids are overweight. It seems like kids who are overweight also come from families of unhealthy eaters. I wonder if there is a difference in health in children whose parents give in to their whining and take them to McDonalds vs. families that eat fast food together on a regular basis.

      The suing of McDonalds is ridiculous though – especially since you can just buy the toy.

    • Rachel Sea

      If Home Ec went back into schools so that everyone learned how to cook, and food deserts were obliterated, this wouldn’t be an issue

    • rrlo

      Basic cooking skills are so important. I think you’re right – it would solve a lot of problems. Also, think that portion size is a big issue too – we all just eat too much. Especially in the US – the portion sizes are ridiculous even compared to Canada.

    • Rachel Sea

      Restaurant portions definitely contribute to the difficulty I have in putting a sensible portion on a plate when I cook, but if I had had any cooking skills before, well, now, pretty much, I wouldn’t base my idea of what a portion looks like on what restaurants serve.

    • rrlo

      Sorry I jumbled up two points. One is that in general portion sizes are too big (even in my family). And two, restaurant portion sizes in North America, especially the US, are just ridiculous.

    • Sara610

      I agree with you. I’ve said it so many times, and I’ll say it again–I think Home Ec needs to be re-instated in the high school curriculum, and everyone, boys and girls, should have to take it. And it should include not only basic meal prep, but menu planning, grocery shopping and budgeting, etc.

    • Aimee Ogden

      I agree about the noise around food. Take a look at every news article that comes out – “Eggs are bad for you, no wait, they’re good! Drink coffee, wait no, it’s poison! Fish fats are healthy oh god you’re going to die of mercury poisoning!” We obsess about food in this culture in all the wrong ways. But at the same time there is a real problem around what kind of food is available to what people – the real problem to me with McDonald’s isn’t the toys as much as the fact that it’s cheap, calorie-dense food that needs no preparation (and tastes better than ramen noodles). Until the food production and employment system that creates the situation changes (which probably won’t happen any time soon or ever, thanks agribusiness lobby and subsidies) the junky quality of junk food (like McDonalds but certainly not just them!) is a problem for poor families.

  • CrazyFor Kate

    Eh. When I was a little kid I asked my parents to go to McD’s all the time, because of toys mostly. They did their damn job and kept it as a rare treat. If you (general you, not Bethany you) can’t withstand your toddler demanding junk food all the time, maybe you need to work on that and not blame the advertisers?

    • Sara610

      THIS. Exactly this. So kids ask their parents to go to McDonald’s all the time. We did when we were kids, too. But I think what’s changed is that parents tend to be a lot less uncomfortable with telling their kids “no”.
      I’m no fan of fast-food corporations, and as a rule we tend to avoid McDonald’s. But we do eat there every once in a while, and the rest of the time we do our job as parents and say “no” if our daughter asks for it. (She typically doesn’t; she’s only two and we eat there rarely enough that she doesn’t recognize the golden arches yet. But I expect that to change.) It’s not McDonald’s job to parent my child, and parents don’t get to blame fast-food chains for their own inability to lay down appropriate boundaries and limitations and then stick to them.

  • pixie

    Mmmmm. McDonalds is delicious.
    Though I recently learned that at the two in my hometown the employees don’t wear gloves while making the food, which is kinda gross…still delicious…but gross

    • itpainsme2say

      I hate knowing the people who handle my food

    • Rachel Sea

      Chefs in professional kitchens never wear gloves. Clean hands are cleaner than gloves that are worn for hours.

    • pixie

      I understand in professional kitchens, because I trust those chefs to be constantly washing their hands. The kids at McDonalds, while I do like to believe that they do, I’m not always so sure.

    • Shannon

      Employees are required to wash their hands every 30 minutes or every time they touch something like their clothes, a dish cloth etc. They also wear gloves whenever handling meat products. These rules are strictly enforced.
      I assure you, the food safety standards at McDonalds are incredibly high… at least at the one Ive worked at. :)

    • pixie

      That’s good to know!
      It really doesn’t bother me THAT much, because I still willingly eat the food, it’s just nice hearing that there are strictly enforced hand-washing policies.

    • Brainspace

      I worked at MickeyD’s for 3 years in college. We didn’t wash our hands O.o. I mean, we weren’t touching trash or shitting and then flipping burgers, but we seriously didn’t wash our hands every 30 minutes.

    • pixie

      I guess as with every place like that it varies from place-to-place.

    • Brainspace

      Absolutely. And by and large, I would say the restaurant was clean, overall. We were careful with food preparation and storage.

      I’ll still eat it. ;)

    • KarenMS

      I don’t know how you didn’t just feel the urge to wash your hands more often after touching such greasy stuff! Not judging, I’m so not a germaphobe regarding food, I just hate the feeling of anything on my hands.

    • Brainspace

      Ha, I hear you. But we did use tongs and all to assemble things, so maybe that helped? What’s weird is everyone told me I’d end up hating the food from being around it so much, but weirdly enough, I grew to crave it. I definitely believe the crack/fast food comparisons.

    • Alanna Jorgensen

      I worked at Dominos for years and we got complaints about not wearing gloves a lot. The thing is, it is very difficult to hand toss dough with gloves. I was anal about employees washing hands before coming to the make line and the food also went through a 500 degree oven so it was pretty safe.

    • pixie

      Yeah, I know it’s pretty standard for people in the pizza business to not wear gloves (one of my friends has parents that own a Ginos), and I think the going through a super hot oven, plus in most pizza places I can SEE the employees wash their hands is why I never put a second thought towards that.

  • itpainsme2say

    I ate MD’s four days a week when I did volleyball and I’m pretty sure the damage is done

  • SomminSneakers

    You know what’s scary? I was reading about the shapes that mcnuggets come in: Bell, Ball, Bone, and Boot. Basically some of the first shapes that children are taught to recognize- the marketing is crazy genius and crazy scary.

  • Krock

    So my daughter is two and every time I ask her what she wants to eat she says pizza. The funny thing is she doesn’t even like pizza. So I’m not sure that a two year is very reliable in a survey. On a related note, I bet you children age 2 -11 ask for candy/ cookies EVERY day and yet, we aren’t trying to divine meaning from that.
    Don’t get me wrong, I think eating healthy is really important. My daughter eats a ton of fruits and veggies and I’m pretty sure her favorite food is edamame. I think parents should think about what they feed their kids and incorporate more fresh foods. It should be about eating more good foods not eliminating so called ‘bad’ foods.

  • Angela

    To me a big part of the problem is not so much that fast food puts so much effort into appealing to kids, but that no where else does. Yes, there are plenty of other restaurants where families can eat but how many of them have indoor play areas? My kids do enjoy nuggets and cheeseburgers but honestly it’s the play area and the happy meal toys that appeal to them even more. If a healthier place offered the same things they’d still be thrilled to go but I’ve never seen any (not around here at least).

    • Brainspace

      I guess I don’t get why food has to be accompanied by a play area. I mean, yes, it’s convenient for sure–that’s what ALL fast food is about, though. As a culture, we’ve really moved far away from the purpose of food. It’s not entertainment (play), it’s fuel.

    • Angela

      For sure it’s not necessary. Around here though indoor play areas are pretty sparse aside from fast food places (and the ones that do exist are crazy expensive). When the weather’s bad a lot of people take their kids to McDonald’s just to give them an outlet for their energy. If there was a healthier option available I think a lot of parents would gladly take it.

      Also, no matter what the adults say, kids will always be more excited to eat at the place with the play area (at least mine will). Obviously that doesn’t mean that I need to give in (and I usually don’t) but I do feel it would be nice if somewhere that didn’t serve junk got them that excited

    • Brainspace

      I hear you and that definitely makes sense.

    • footnotegirl

      Well, no culture has ever seen food as merely fuel. It’s always been layered with all sorts of ritual and emotional/societal expectations.

    • Brainspace

      Very true. I just think there’s a big difference between other, ritualistic aspects of sharing a meal (building community, etc) and drawing a clear connection between food and play.

    • footnotegirl

      If you’re going to connect food with something, there are worse and less healthy things to connect it to than pleasant physical exertion. I’d rather kids eat food and then go play in a playground than eat food in front of the TV, no?
      I mean, I’m not defending the selling of unhealthy food to kids here. Kids absolutely should not live on a consistent diet of fast food. Food isn’t just fuel though, and it’s eaten for lots of reasons other than energy and nutrients. It’s not particularly healthy to raise kids never allowing ‘fun’ food either.

  • Tk

    Do you guys have healthier option happy meals? Here in New Zealand you can get a grilled chicken snack wrap, apple slices and a low fat chocolate milk. Our McNuggets are just normal shaped, and are made from 100% chicken breast and tempura batter. They also have the option of having a kids small apple blackcurrant juice, a mini water bottle, or if they want cheese burger fries and coke. But McDonalds here has quite a few healthy options, weight watchers approved meals… I still don’t eat there a lot, but it is not too bad!

    • Sara610

      We have a couple of those things, but not most of them. For example, you can get apple slices, but I feel like I remember reading something about the apple slices having been dipped in some mixture of chemicals to keep them from going brown.
      And chicken nuggets here are still made from all the chicken parts and then fried in God knows what, but it’s definitely not tempura batter. Yours sound delicious! They were selling something over here called “chicken selects” for a while, which were made with 100% breast meat, but they were more expensive and not selling well, so they discontinued them. :(. Which makes me sad.

  • tk88

    I remember going to McDonald’s several times a week whenever they had the “teeny beanie babies”. I didn’t even eat there a lot otherwise but for those toys? Bring on the chicken nuggets! I think what’s worse than the happy meals is the “healthy” happy meals. I mean really, it’s from McDonald’s, we know it’s not going to ACTUALLY be healthy. But, plenty of people are fooled. I hate McDonald’s, I think it tastes like the garbage it is.

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