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Happy meal toys under fire

The D.C.-based nutrition watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is not happy about Happy Meal toys.

The organization has demanded that McDonald's stop offering toys in its Happy Meals, calling the practice "predatory," and last Thursday put the fast-food chain on notice that it has 30 days to comply or face legal action.

The problem, according to CSPI documents, is that heavily marketing Happy Meal toys -- usually tie-ins with movies aimed at kid audiences -- makes tots pester their parents to buy them meals that are full of calories, fat, salt and sugar and contain little fiber. CSPI paints the burger chain's more-healthful Happy-Meal choices, the only ones the company's actually allowed to advertise to kids, almost as bait-and-switch items; too few children actually order the more-healthful options once they've been lured into the restaurant by the promise of a toy.

CSPI acknowledges that parents are responsible for what their kids eat but claims the Happy Meal toy promotions are so powerful and insidious that they make it hard for parents to hold their ground.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. Yes, too many kids are overweight, and we need to do a better job of helping them learn to eat more healthfully. If in fact Happy Meal toys are part of the problem -- and they may well be -- then they deserve added scrutiny.

But CSPI, ever the scold, seems particularly Grinch-like this time around. Though I'm grateful my family's outgrown its Happy-Meal days (oh, how those toys do pile up!), I look back fondly on those days when life was so simple that a little plastic toy was a treasure. Sure, maybe we ate more McDonald's meals than we should have (though never more than once a week, and usually only once a month), my kids have advanced to teendom with decent eating habits. Neither one can remember the last time we ate at McDonald's.

Maybe McDonald's could be persuaded to slow the turnover rate: Instead of offering a new toy each week, maybe it could be every two weeks or once a month. And maybe we parents could use Happy Meal toys as a teaching tool: We don't buy a Happy Meal every week just because McDonald's tells us we should.

Alas, the realm of food has become so fraught these days, it's increasingly hard to just relax and enjoy a meal, Happy or otherwise.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  June 28, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Childhood obesity , Family Health , Nutrition and Fitness , Obesity  
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I hope McD's gets taken to court by the CPSI just so that the CPSI can get slapped down! This group has done nothing but bully restaurants for years. How long has McD's been offering Happy Meal toys? And NOW CPSI is taking them to court? Whatta load! Why stop at McD's? Why not against BK and other restaurants, why only McD's? I don't see how this group can win, therefore, I hope McD's uses their deep pockets to drain CPSI of every last dime they have. Its long time for the food police to disband.

Posted by: ATrueChristian | June 28, 2010 8:40 AM | Report abuse

If you are so weak as a parent that your child (2-8 yrs) forces you to feed them McD's, the issue is much, much deeper than a lousy Happy Meal toy. If I were McD's, I'd tell CPSI to take a flying leap.

At age 48, I still get the occasional happy meal b/c I want the toy - like my Shrek glass. Should I expect CPSI to protect me from myself? And no, I'm not a porker. I'm 5'4 and 117.

Posted by: ms1234 | June 28, 2010 8:43 AM | Report abuse

This is idiotic. I have a 2-year-old and we occasionally eat at McDonald's. I don't need a ban on toys in Happy Meals to keep my kid from eating at McDonald's. I summon my parental cajones and tell her "No, not today", endure the possible tantrum and move on. And sometimes I say yes, and she has a fun lunch and a little treat in her Happy Meal. I think we'll both be o.k. in the end. She'll keep loving me despite the "no" and she won't be obese from an occasional McNugget.

Posted by: kg2273 | June 28, 2010 9:10 AM | Report abuse

This is ridiculous. If a family is going to McDonald's, it already means that they plan to eat unhealthily. It's not like an entire family is basing its meal choice on a Happy Meal toy.

Posted by: mediajunky | June 28, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

You can buy the toy without the meal.

I'm not a parent yet, but my husband and I already have a "no McDonalds" parenting philosophy that we plan to use. If my kid really wants the toy, I'll pick one up, and give it to her without the happy "meal."

Posted by: MzFitz | June 28, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

You can buy the toys WITHOUT purchasing anything else. I regularly take my daughter to play in the "playplace" when it's raining or otherwise nasty outside, and we sometimes get a toy as well.

These people obviously have nothing better to do with their time and money.

Posted by: lmnop77 | June 28, 2010 9:33 AM | Report abuse

As a parent I am insulted. Not by McDonald's, who I do not patronize, but by the CPSI, which makes the assumption that I am unable to say "no" to a young child.

Posted by: baseballguy | June 28, 2010 9:50 AM | Report abuse

You don't have to get the Happy Meal to get the toy. McDonald's sells the toy separately, so if the toy is the problem then this possible lawsuit is ridiculous. It's not widely advertised but it's there. All people have to do is think and ask, which seems to be too much these days.

Posted by: carimwc | June 28, 2010 9:50 AM | Report abuse

We found out that you can buy the toys from McD without buying a happy meal! So nowadays, when my husband is buying coffee from McD and the kids are oogling the new toy being advertised, we buy them the toy only! Cheaper than a Toys R Us visit and we can go home and force feed them some healthy snacks!

Posted by: zeenatc | June 28, 2010 9:55 AM | Report abuse

your "experience" and how your kids turned out is irrelevant in this case. I am a vegetarian for crying out loud. What does *that* prove?

All that matters is the stats. It is indisputable the childhood obesity is a problem. It is also indisputable that these toys are heavily marketed and targeted to kids. In a sense they are similar to the Joe Camel in Camel cigarettes.

Subtle marketing to kids is bad enough. Overt marketing should be banned outright.

Posted by: kblgca | June 28, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

The CSPI is trying to shame McDonalds, but I doubt they'd go through with the suit. So many restaurants across the country offer small incentives to kids (crayons, balloons, candy, cheaper prices & freebies, etc.) Even McDonalds has several others than just toys: playgrounds, clown, primary colors, etc.

Not that I'm in love with McDonalds. Haven't been there in at least a decade.

Posted by: sarahabc | June 28, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Lifestyle Nazis should all be shipped off to concentration camps, and fed a diet of nothing but McDonalds food.

Posted by: JERRYB1 | June 28, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

It's not the toy, or even the McDonald's food, it's the parents.

Blaming the food and toy for the child's obesity is like blaming the car or the manufacturer for the senior citizen who drives it through a crowded open air market running over people.

It's misdirection and avoiding the REAL problem.

Simply care enough to control what your children eat, and exert influence over them and their dining habits via good example as to how to eat well and how to handle a junk food "treat" now and again.

You want some legislation that will help reduce childhood obesity (and likely go a long way to solving other child behavioral issues), how about this?

Don't have sex if you cant afford to raise them, or if you're not ready to commit to PROPERLY raising and supervising the child.

If you do not have sex, it is pretty difficult to get someone pregnant, or end up pregnant.

If you can't afford your lifesyle now, having children will NOT make it any easier to make ends meet.

If more people kept that in mind before "deciding" to have children, there might be fewer chldren people can not or do not take proper care of.

Too often even financially able parents are more concerned about making enough money for their BlackBerries, hi-definition big screen plasma TV's, homes with a 2-1 ratio of bedrooms to occupants, multiple luxury cars, exotic vacations, summer homes, spa treatments ,gym memberships, and of course all the latest gadgets for the whole family.

What if those "parents" simply worked enough hours to pay the bills, save some money for the future (plus sock away a few dollars for a FAMILY vacation or two), buy what they need and a treat every now and they could "have enough time" to spend with their kids. Time that could and should be spent cooking healthy meals, talking about their day, helping with homework (or at least ensuring it is being done) discussing nutrition, and going out and being active with their kids?

Instead of so many "families" with two-parents working full time (where EITHER ONES's salary could comfortably support the family), and "Mommy" & "Daddy" making sure they book their "me time" before bothering to make sure they have any time to really spend enriching their children's lives.

This way those "parents" won't need to worry about working so hard so they can pay for a nanny or other child care, they could just provide it themselves.


Or is expecting "ADULTS" to be taking personal responsibility for their family and personal life choices simply too unreasonable?

For the record I am a parent who is a disabled veteran, who has not only helped raise a fine son who is a junior in college (wow, I'm old) with my ex-wife, but I also raised one of my cousin's children as a single parent for a few years until he could get his life back in order after his marital split. I have a LITTLE experience, here.

Be good to one another...

Posted by: ThinkingMan | June 28, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

CSPI should be imploring parents to feed their kids healthy food, not demanding anything from McDonald's (with the possible exception of requesting that McD's post information on calories and fat right on the signboard, as others such as Chipotle are now doing). There are many options for parents here, as other posters have already pointed out -- don't take them to McDonald's, for a start, or buy them a "healthy" Happy Meal, or just buy the toy. There is a political aspect to persuading people to make healthy choices, and CSPI is politically tone-deaf. It comes off sounding like your frumpy Aunt Tillie instead of a group that is advocating sensible choices. Ultimately, it is not CSPI's responsibility or McDonald's responsibility to raise children right or feed them nutritious meals. It is the parents' responsibility.

Posted by: SilverSpring8 | June 28, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

The thing is, parents could use help with this...that's the real focus here. I don't patronize ANY fast food establishment w/my 6 yr. old, but I do realize that's not the choice of many others. And so...if that's the case then, why not take a little help? Why endure the tantrum, if there's not toy to be had in the first place? Parents, take help where you can get it. I realize that patronizing Mickey-Ds indicates a choice itself, but why deal with additional headaches? I take full responsibility for my 6 yr. old's eating habits, but I'll also take some help from legislation or mandates. Advertising to children is banned in a lot of "civilised" countries. Having been around the business of marketing and entertainment, I know for a fact marketers are aware of the "nag factor." It has nothing to do w/the fortitude of the parent who--for whichever circumstances--may give in to a whining handful of children. It has everything to do with the lack of ethics of marketing to kids, in order that the kids then nag the hell out of their parents to buy stuff. Although I don't let my family eat at fast food 'restaurants,' I have to side w/CDPI here and give them a thumbs up.
Alex, Raleigh, NC

Posted by: ampruteanu | June 28, 2010 12:11 PM | Report abuse

I think that, while "don't have sex if you cannot afford to raise your kids properly" may sound like a great idea, it's not practical. Again, I say...take help wherever you can, especially if it's mandated. Let's be realistic: there are plenty of people who cannot make the "right food choices" because they are quite expensive. Many families cannot afford to eat fresh, local, organic, fair-trade, etc. etc. Many families shop at Wal-Mart, eat at McDs, etc. So, yes...the responsibility is on the parents, I agree...but there are financial circumstances which render those parents powerless. I don't know many people w/families who can afford to shop at Whole Foods. It'd be great if the entire food supply and the AgroBiz that has a stranglehold on our politicians could be overhauled. Take the help where you can.
-Alex, Raleigh, NC

Posted by: ampruteanu | June 28, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

There's little difference between happy meal toys and the tobacco industry's Joe Camel. Its advertising aimed at kids. The food consumed has both instant negative physiologic impact and long-term health implications. There's also a substantial addictive nature to the food being consumed. Overall- the poor food choices we make are so ubiquitous and driven in so many normal life ways that we fail to link things together. The big food industry has done a very, very good job selling their product. There are differences between big food and big tobacco, but not as substantial as one might think.

Posted by: sherpa | June 28, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

CSPI is getting a long-overdue conversation started - at least. I am of the mind that food like stuff is not food and has no place in the human diet. Fast food of any kind is not food - its filler at best. Shutting up a moody child so parents can find something that resembles quiet. CSPI is pointing to an issue that is an epidemic in all areas of consumption. Advertisers use gimmicks to sell a product and McDonald's is part of the boot camp for kids. Teaching them how to react rather than respond. Teaching them to mindlessly buy, buy, buy - and of course, eat that food stuff that causes a lifetime of illness and misery.

Something that is missing in this article is how toxic plastic is. The masses are starting to wake up to this fact - as xeno-estrogens pollute our bodies raising female cancers and demasculating men. But I suppose this stuff requires too much thought - too much reflection. In a world of ever-increasing A.D.D. such thoughts require too much time...

Sad humans

Posted by: commentbee | June 28, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Cows Kill.
Drop the Cow.

Posted by: NotMeAgain | June 28, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Even if they win this case, all that will happen is that the places that offer a toy with the kids' meals will start selling the toys seperately. You can't tell McDs (or Taco bell, or burger king, or chick fil a) that they can't sell toys.

What really puzzles me is that this group says that the "healthier" options for the happy meals somehow don't count. Why don't they count? My parents take my 5-yo to McD's from time to time, and she always gets the apple slices (without the corn syrup-laden sauce) and a cup of milk. She's not allowed to have soda, so she doesn't ask. And she doesn't seem to care about the french fries, either. Honestly, a small hamburger, an apple, and a glass of milk is not a particularly unhealthy lunch for a young kid. Sure, there could be some veggies in there, but it's not like this is meant to be an everyday meal.

Posted by: floof | June 28, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: RWLA | June 28, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

In all the years I've heard CPSI rant I haven't heard just what they want us to be eating. Plain rice cakes and distilled water?

There can come a point when you're so obsessed with what you eat that you give yourself a heart attack.

Posted by: nomad_990 | June 28, 2010 7:38 PM | Report abuse

I'll weigh in that I think this is ridiculous. No one's forcing anyone to buy happy meals. Parents are fully capable of saying no. If you think McDonald's is over-marketed, just stop letting the kids watch so much TV. Or buy the toy without the meal. Or just don't give in to your child's every teeny tiny craving. All possible. And at any rate, none of it is any of CSPI's business anyway.

Posted by: AnonyMiss | June 28, 2010 10:21 PM | Report abuse

Many - nearly all - things said here have some merit, at least the way I see it. But for what this is worth:

@ampruteanu: it is ALWAYS the choice of the parents to decide what their child gets fed. There is no circumstance or condition which shifts the responsibility here. The responsible adult never, ever has to take children to a fast food restaurant. There is also no math that supports eating out being less expensive than eating at home. If the cost doesn't get you up front, it will get you in the end.

McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, et al. deserve their opportunity to do what they do. They should not, any more than Ruth's Chris Steak House, be forced to show that their food is healthy.

My biggest problem with CSPI is that, after years of telling the public that Life Will Kill You, is that the message is lost. We get it; CSPI is a bunch of stick-in-the-muds who have never been to Mardi Gras and spend Friday evenings at the library. Nerds. If they would take another tack, they might actually do some good instead of looking like a more sodden version of Greenpeace. Another bunch of nutters.

Posted by: info_stuporhighway | June 29, 2010 12:03 AM | Report abuse

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