The Value of a Meal

It’s odd to me that the issue of little toys included with McDonald’s Happy Meals has raised a sense of consumer indignation.  The corporate megalith covets young customers, not least because they have a whole lifetime for eating fast food, and consequently goes to all kinds of lengths to swiftly and surely draw our children in.   Think indestructible plastic seating, the predictability of the salty/sweet food, the concept of a Happy Meal itself, the colourful boxes, the play centres, the mascot – we must not forget Ronald.  Given this, what is it about the plastic trinket that is the rallying cry for ‘unfair marketing’?

I’m no fan of disposable plastic trinkets or sales ploys directed at children, but there are a host of other reasons to fret about McDonald’s.   They span a broad spectrum, from basic concerns over animal cruelty (have you heard of the concentrated animal feeding operation?  there is a very real cost to producing cheap meat), the consequences of mass potato farming, the conscious reduction of the worker’s role to ensure access to minimum-waged labour in the face of high employee turnover, the science behind the food, and the nutritional implications of the menu.

These and other topics are canvassed in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation:  The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, which forever changed the way my husband and I look at places like McDonald’s. We also read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which journalist Michael Pollan traces the origins of four meals, including a fast food meal.  It’s a positive romp through food politics, as entertaining as it is instructive.

We rarely ate fast food before, but after learning about the industry through these and other materials, we had to stop altogether.  This means we have two boys, four and two, who have not yet crossed the golden arched threshold.  Our family members respect our wishes when they take our kids out.  It hasn’t been a big deal.

Some people may see this as an extreme position, perhaps as the withholding of childhood joys or rituals.  These sentiments don’t move me.  I’d rather help my children find their happiness and rites of passage according to our own values, rather than having them handed down by entities that hold no interest in who they are, but the spending dollars they represent.

I understand that my children will likely eat at McDonald’s one day, just as they will experiment with other experiences I may not favour.  When they do, we’ll talk about the choices we’ve made as a family, and hope that those choices will help them define their own values over time.  Plastic trinkets might enter the conversation, but they’ll just take up one small corner of it.


Because I said so!

I just finished reading the three articles we have posted for At Issue this month and I am sitting here shaking my head.  What is it with our society?  Have we become incapable of making good decisions for ourselves? It seems to me that this generation of parents is all about looking for someone to blame.

Teenage pregnancy: blame the media. Blame the school system.

Astronomical household debt: blame the government.  Blame the low interest rates.

Childhood Obesity: blame McDonalds.  Obviously!

Despite a pledge that McDonalds made in 2007 to advertise their Happy Meals depicting the “healthier” choices, The Centre for Science in the Public Interest says that regardless of what’s presented kids will still order the unhealthy option. Excuse me, but shouldn’t the ordering ultimately reside with the adult?  (The Globe and Mail)

Apparently, the lure of a cheap plastic toy is the driving force behind McDonald’s decades long global success.  Parents are just so annoyed by their children’s whining for the free toy that they give in and go to McDonalds.

According to Jacobson of The Centre for Science in the Public Interest:

At some point parents get worn down.  They don’t always want to be saying no to their children.  We feel like an awful lot of parents would be relieved if this one pressure was removed from them”. (The Globe and Mail)

At last count, I have said “no” about thirty times today.

“No, we are not watching Toy Story at 5:30 am.”

“No, you can not have Oreos for breakfast.”

“No, you can not sit in the front seat.”

“No, we are not having milkshakes after camp today.”

“No, we can’t have your friends over today.”

It’s only 3:00 pm and I know that I have many more “nos” left in me before the end of the day.

I don’t say no because I am some terribly mean ogre who wants my children to suffer a life of deprivation.  I don’t say no because I am a sick sadist who wants to endure the endless temper tantrums and hours of whining that the “no” is usually met with.

I say no because that is the job of a parent and no one said that being a parent is convienent or easy.

I should clarify that I usually say no with a follow up statement or question encouraging my kids to think for themselves.  For example:

“No, we can not have a milkshake today after camp but we can have a special treat on the last day of camp.”

“I want a milkshake today!”

“I know, I want one too but we have already had our treats today and too many treats are unhealthy.”

“But I want one!”

“Me too.  But my job is being a mom and part of being a mom is making sure that we stay healthy.  Too bad milkshakes aren’t healthy because they taste soooooo good.  What kind are you going to get on the last day of camp?”

Don’t think that these explanations are accepted easily every time.  There are times, (lots of them) when I have to walk away from a temper tantrum or when I bust out the generations old answer: “Because I said so!”

What is actually accomplished by removing the toy from the Happy Meal?  Our children are always going to be tempted.  As young children, it might be French fries that are the forbidden fruit, but as they get older, and we are not standing by their side, there will be other pressures they face: drugs, alcohol, reckless driving.  Without teaching them how to handle temptations as young children are we not raising a generation of children incapable of making an independent decision that could be lifesaving?

I take issue with Jacobson suggesting that, “an awful lot of parents would be relieved if this one pressure was removed from them”.  I find it very hard to believe that so many parents are feeling overly stressed saying “no” to McDonalds.

If the Centre for Science in the Public Interest is really interested in relieving pressure for the common family then perhaps their energies would be better spent lobbying for more government funded fitness activities or subsidizing the rising costs of healthy food.

More parents would feel greater stress relief from cheaper childcare or more federal policies advocating for work/life balance than if McDonalds removed the toys from their Happy Meals.

Apart from taking personal responsibility life is about balance.

I take my kids to McDonalds.  I let them eat . . . wait for it . . .the fries!  I let them play with the Made in China, cheap, plastic toy until it falls apart or they tire of it.  It’s not something that we do every night but it’s called a Happy Meal for a reason.

What do you think?  Are parents feeling stressed over constantly saying “no” to McDonald’s Happy Meal toys?  What is the real issue here?

If you are interested in participating in a food share program (inexpensive fresh food baskets) that benefit the health of your family and a needy family in your community, check out the post I wrote last week: Breaking and Sharing Bread.

Garbage in, garbage out?

Recently, the Center for Science in the Public Interest threatened to sue McDonald’s, claiming that their inclusion of toys in Happy Meals violate laws against marketing to children in several states.

And you know, maybe they do. Marketing just about anything to children is done on the premise that if you make something attractive enough to children, they’ll whine and beg for it long enough that even the most hard-hearted adult will finally relent and purchase it. Corporations, McDonald’s undoubtedly included, count on the “pester power” of children to encourage adults to make buying decisions that include their product. Children may not themselves hold the purse-strings, but existence of products like Happy Meals (and Lucky Charms, and, frankly, any other commercially advertised mass-produced toy) demonstrates that marketers know a couple of home truths about parents: (a) they want their children to be happy, and (b) they’ll go against what they know to be “best” for their children, if it means the children will just. Stop. Whining.

Not surprisingly, in both the US and Canada, there are fairly stringent guidelines which prevent certain types of marketing to children under the age of thirteen. I’m off duty, and not knowing in which jurisdiction the law suit is to be brought, I’m not going to opine whether or not Mcdonald’s is breaking any laws. What I will tell you is this: regardless of whether Mcdonald’s has deliberately set out to mislead my children into begging for Happy Meals on the regular basis, I have developed anyway a deep and abiding dislike for Happy Meals in general.

Truth is, I actually loathe Happy Meals. Not because of the food, as we rarely eat at Mcdonald’s anyway, and when we do I’m able to justify the excusion as a treat and don’t terribly mind them eating what they want, so long as they do eat (without any sense of irony, I’ve demanded that one or the other of my boys finish their french fries, if only because if they didn’t, it would mean I’d end up cooking when we got home, and that was what I was trying to avoid by going to Mcdonald’s in the first place.).

It’s because of the toys, those damn plastic, useless, cheap toys that inevitably live in my kitchen or on the bathroom counter for days, until I do the unthinkable and throw them in the garbage.

And that’s the part I hate: that they, like the wrapping of the food accompanying them, are so easily disposable. I should be more indignant about the food. I’ve seen Supersize Me and know that when I step through the doors of the Golden Arches, I’m funding the factory farm machine. I have no illusions that what I’m feeding my children is not really good for them. And they get it, too, and call me on it:  my oldest once asked me why, if I loved him, I would let him have chocolate since it’s bad for him, and aren’t Mommies supposed to take care of their children? But I can’t work up a head of steam about something that my kids eat six times a year.

But those toys make me want to scream.

I hate that they’re usually a tie-in for some movie I probably don’t want the kids to see.  I hate that they’re ultimately fodder for a garbage dump, because there are only so many things in this life that the kids can be interested in at one time, and the free toy from McDonald’s has an interest half-life just slightly longer than the time it takes them to digest their meal. And after that, they join the other bits and pieces strewn around the house (ok, the old one, not this one…yet) in what I am convinced is a campaign to drive me batty. I hate how wasteful they are.

So, go ahead, Center for Science in the Public Interest. I don’t need you for back bone. I have no trouble saying “no” to my kids and McDonald’s is only an infrequent treat for us. But on those rare times when we go to McDonald’s (and notice, though other restaurants offer toys as treats, none is as exciting as the McDonald’s treat. Clearly they at McDonald’s know what they do). and order a Happy Meal, please encourage McDonald’s to find something else to stick in the Happy Meal bag. I’d be ever so grateful if you could.