By Charlotte Hilton Andersen, REDBOOK
Raise your hand if you consider the McDonald's Happy Meal to be health food. I thought not. I don't know any mom who buys their kid a HamburgerFries concoction because she thinks that the enriched wheat flour is just what her baby needs to be a rocket scientist. Which is why I've been confused from the beginning about San Francisco's ban on the Happy Meal toy. Ostensibly the new law prohibiting restaurants from giving away a toy as an incentive to buy crappy meals is supposed to encourage health but just like I don't know anyone who buys Happy Meals for health food, I also don't know anyone who buys Happy Meals simply for the toys either. And even though I have my own health-nut tendencies, I did get a little giggle when I read about McDonalds' new plan to "charge" customers 10 cents a toy to side-step the law.
As a mom who has bought the occasional Happy Meal for my four kids over the years I can tell you there are many reasons to buy one: convenience, convenience and convenience. Okay, so that's just one reason. But seriously, they're fast, portable food and they're kind of fun. I don't buy them often but I also don't mind the kids eating them as a treat every once in a while. That plus the McDonald's playland is the only way we made it through a cross-country roadtrip with 4 kids under 8.
Don't get me wrong - my kids love the toys but I discovered when I started potty training that I could go to the thrift store and buy a huge bag of old Happy Meal toys for a buck. We currently have a large box of them that my husband affectionately labeled "CPC" for cheap plastic crap. They poop in the designated spot, they get a reward that doesn't rot their teeth. Win-win.
My point here is not potty-training strategies (truly never take advice from me on this matter, I'm awful at it) but rather that the San Francisco law is solving the wrong problem. If you want to use laws to encourage healthy eating, why not start with the abomination that is school lunches? (Pizza is not a vegetable!) Perhaps there are kids who would buy the Happy Meal solely for the toy but a) then they probably wouldn't eat the food anyhow and b) unless they have their own money and car to get there then their opinion is just that.
People are up in arms that McDonald's seems to be consciously evading the law - which they are - and missing the larger point: that they need to serve healthier food. And I'd agree with that point. I wish that McDonald's offered non-fried whole-grain options (Subway did it and they didn't implode). It's just that targeting a toy seems ineffectual at best - as evidenced by McDonald's latest move - and maddening at worst.
Would paying 10 cents a toy change your mind about purchasing a Happy Meal? Anyone else think Happy Meal toys are the least of our public health worries?
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Reprinted with permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.