Put Your Own “Happy” in the Meal

I had a major mothering moment last week after my daughter’s dance class. For a number of weeks, she’d been asking me (or my mom, if she had driven her that day) to go to McDonald’s after class. As an occasional lunch indulgence for her, I’m fine with a trip to McDonald’s, but the requests seemed to have become excessive and I just couldn’t put my finger on why! For some reason, on that day, the answer came to me.

“Are you really hungry, sweetie? You had lunch an hour ago!”

“Yes. I’m starving.”

“What would you order if we went to McDonald’s?”

“Chicken nuggets, french fries and milk. Or I’d get apples if you think that’s a better choice.”

Sigh. “Hmm. Well, what if….” (EPIPHANY OCCURS HERE) “we order those things to eat but don’t get a Happy Meal this time?”



“Well….ummmm….the thing is…..then I wouldn’t get a toy, right?”

Smiling. “That’s right. But you’d have food in your belly so you wouldn’t be hungry anymore. Does that food sound good to you?”

PAUSE. “Not really.”

“So really, what you want is a toy?”


“Okay, then what about this idea? What if we go to Target and you can choose something from the dollar aisle and then when you are hungry you can choose some food from home that actually sounds GOOD to you? You know, you don’t have to order junk food like chicken nuggets and french fries JUST to get a toy. We can find a toy you REALLY like (and that you can pick out instead of taking whatever they give you) at another store and you can have whatever healthy food sounds good to you when you are really hungry!”

“Really?! That would be AWESOME!”

Driving through town, I could not believe that I hadn’t pieced this all together sooner! It was never really about the food….it was about that little plastic TOY! Of course, food marketers and restaurants have known this for years…and I’ve studied it as a marketing tactic in multiple classes…but as a parent I just didn’t see it for what it was! In truth, I was relieved after this discussion. I felt like even at five, she’d really understood and, in fact, was a little perturbed that a company would make her order certain foods just to get their toy when OTHER companies would sell the toys by themselves! I was excited about helping her disentangle her desire for the toy from her desire for the food.

When we got home later that day I started googling Happy Meal just to see the latest buzz. I was surprised and really encouraged to read about a law passed (coincidentally, also LAST WEEK) in a California county banning food marketers from offering toys to children unless the meals meet specific nutritional guidelines. That’s brilliant!

Separately, I found this NY Times Article outlining the effect of televised food ads on children’s eating habits. We’ve all had the experience of our child seeing a commercial and immediately begging for the product or food that is advertised – it’s unreal! And it’s tough to fight as a parent.

Nonetheless, it is my belief that as parents, we hold the ultimate responsibility for educating our children by exposing advertising and promotion tactics for what they are – persuasive tactics designed to influence our purchase behavior. How easily we can forget as we fall victim to the same tactics when they are applied to the latest shade of lipstick, the designer bag, or the miracle face cream.

It’s only been a week since our discussion, but I’m pleased to report that there haven’t been any requests for McDonald’s this week! I only wish I could say the same for my own advertising-induced purchases…there is the matter of that Nars lipstick I just bought at Sephora at the recommendation of the kind editors at InStyle. But, hey, at least I didn’t have to buy fried chicken to get it!

2 thoughts on “Put Your Own “Happy” in the Meal

  1. Tricia

    Thank you for this! We also hit McD's every now and then as a special treat. However, I do not always hand over the toy. Based upon what I had read I tried my own experiment by taking the toy out of the picture most of the time. Stella asked on our last visit, "Didn't I get a toy?" and my reply was "Not this trip…" and she accepted it since it hasn't always come with one to her knowledge! Like you, I don't want toys tied to food choices.


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