Talking to Your Kids About Happy Meals

With my wife and me increasingly interested in starting a family soon, my antennae are up for articles on childrearing.  Particularly those that deal with food.

The latest, from the Wall Street Journal, has lodged itself in my head.  The article details a father’s experience with young children who come home excited after hearing about McDonald’s Happy Meals for the first time.  Combine food with toys, and you have a powerful way to lure children to your fast food restaurant.

Happy Meal

Toys and cartoons. How can a plain old vegetable compete?

The article’s author and his wife had raised the kids away from fast food as a conscious choice about health and diet.  His wife’s initial reaction was to tell the kids McDonald’s is “poison” and that they should stay away at all costs.  His own reaction was only slightly less brash: bribing the kids to eat vegetables instead.

But psychiatrists, whom the author consulted while writing the article, advise against both approaches.  Singling out “forbidden foods” may only make the kids’ desire for those foods stronger – and their repulsion for the healthier alternatives foist upon them more powerful as well.  And bribery only reduces a child’s appetite for the foods they’re bribed to eat.

Go figure.

So, what to do?  There are a couple approaches even the psychiatrists agree with.  One is to educate your kids about marketing: cartoons may make foods appealing to them, but often it means merely that there’s more money in those foods for the companies that manufacture them, making it worthwhile for them to spend the money creating those cartoons and making them omnipresent.  It certainly doesn’t mean those foods are the ones they should be eating.  In fact, the cartoons kids love most often signal heavily processed, profitable and unhealthy foods.  The foods that are good for them rarely have mascots.

Of course, a marketing lesson may seem a weak motivator to deter kids from unhealthy foods.  Perhaps more influential would be a second line of attack psychiatrists advocate: repeatedly offering healthy options, with the understanding that kids may reject them the first several time they try them, then finally decide they like them.  Why this happens I don’t know, but apparently it happens.

So if you’re trying to keep your kids away from the vast array of disastrously unhealthy foods society repeatedly thrusts in our face, the best approach may not be to fight it directly.  Instead, try talking candidly to your kids about why McDonald’s meals include toys, and keep healthier foods in front of them at least as often as they’re exposed to those unhealthy foods.  After a while, they just may catch on.

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3 Responses to Talking to Your Kids About Happy Meals

  1. We have 4 daughters (aged 17, 15, 8 & 6) and have faced this problem often over the years. We came up with what we thought was a good solution and though some may think it wasteful, I thought it was a good compromise. If there was a toy either of the girls were particularly drawn to then we would let them get the Happy Meal and as it was the toy they were really after, we just didn’t give them the junk food. They got the exciting part, the toy, with out the damage of the terrible junk food, everyone was happy! The older two girls laugh about it now and still won’t eat fast food. To be honest, non of them ever liked the smell of MacDonalds so it’s not such a bad idea to take your kids in and let them experience it for themselves. I also totally agree about telling them why toys are included, kids are so much smarter than a lot of people give them credit for :-) love your blog by the way – very inspiring x

  2. This is a great article! I have been wondering now that I have a little girl how I would handle this inevitable situation someday and these are great solutions! Thanks for sharing I think this is information that all health-concious people should read.

  3. It is actually a great and useful piece of information. I am glad that you simply shared this helpful information with us.
    Please stay us up to date like this. Thank you for sharing.

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