Fast Food Blame and Taking the ‘Happy’ Out of ‘Happy Meals’

You’re looking at them. Those four, Happy-Meal-item-shaped puppets.

Nutritional criminals.

Dietary outlaws.

And, currently? San Francisco’s most wanted.

You’d think – this day in age – politicians would pick and choose their battles, contending only with the most important priorities. Instead, you’ve lawmakers like those in the state of California, or, more specifically, San Francisco.

Their biggest problem at the moment? McDonald’s.

The actual problem? Childhood obesity.

I know, I know. By this same line of logic, Chicago politics almost start to make sense.

A nutritional Pandora’s Box? Or patsy for America’s obesity epidemic?

A nutritional Pandora’s Box? Or patsy for America’s obesity epidemic?

Instead of combatting the tangible and attainable goals of say, improving upon the nutritional requirements of school lunches…they’ve made that harmless, red-shoed clown Public Enemy #1. It didn’t take me very long to come up with my weekly topic as soon as I read that San Francisco banned McDonald’s from including free toys with the Happy Meals, on the grounds that it rewarded unhealthy eating habits, and encouraged childhood obesity.


You don’t see Bacardi sued for someone’s alcoholism. Nor is Marlboro coming under fire for any one of the millions of lung cancer deaths that occur from smoking. Why? Because both afflictions occur as the results of personal choices.

Fast food isn’t mandated, and – if anything – there are more healthy options on fast food menus today than there have ever been. Sure, you can have a DQPC (Double Quarter-Pounder with Cheese) and wash it down with a large Coke. You also could give those eyes of yours a workout and jog them over to the right of the menu, and find a salad to order with a bottle of Dasani. If there’s a menu, there’s a choice, and if there are healthier options on that menu, it becomes a choice to eat healthily or not. How is a restaurant to blame for people making their own decisions?

Moreover, are all these schoolchildren virtuosic young documentary filmmakers, and – inspired by the likes of Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” – making three trips a day, one for every meal, to McDonald’s? No. No, they aren’t.

As a child myself, sometimes schedules were hectic and we wound up a couple times a week at McDonald’s, but it’s not like we moved the family dining set into the restaurant and made it a second home. It was a treat. Something special. We knew damn well our folks weren’t going to raise us with an expectation for nightly fast-food dinners.

Which brings me to ask, who, California lawmakers, are you blaming for these decisions? McDonald’s? What do you think they are, a 50’s diner with a sassy waitress who’ll have some sort of recommendation for you when you go up to order, and ask “What’s good?” Nope.

Is little Timmy rummaging through his Velcro, SpongeBob Square Pants wallet, and coughing up the money to buy his Happy Meal? Likely not. If the kid can’t reach the counter, I’m guessing he’s not ordering his own meals, either.

So it comes down to the parents. Who – at least as far as this legislation is concerned – are not being blamed for the problem at hand. They are the ones driving the car to the restaurant. They are the ones giving the order, whether it is over a drive-thru intercom, or a restaurant counter. And they are the ones who cough up the change when it comes times to pay for the meal. Even though their child may have a PREFERENCE in what their meal is, they, ultimately, are not making the final decision. The parent is.

Placing the majority of the blame and making a media scapegoat of McDonald’s is far from a solution to the problem, too. They aren’t the only fast-food establishment in America, and they certainly can’t be placed with 100% of the blame for childhood obesity.

Mind you, this is if issue was taken with the food. Here, however, the issue is with the toy.

Not the cheeseburger.

Or the French fries.

Nope. The toy.

Well, I guess it’s healthier to play with your food, right?

Well, I guess it’s healthier to play with your food, right?

I know that, after a long day of classes [and maybe even some extra-curriculars], there was nothing more satisfying than a nice, inedible, plastic toy. Or, if ever Kay Bee Toys was closing early, I knew I could just head right over to the nearest Mickey D’s and pick up something fun to play with, like a cheeseburger.

Again, the amazing logic of the California legal system at work, folks.

The toys don’t make people fat. Food makes people fat. If the child is so hungry he eats the toy because the meal wasn’t satisfying enough, well, that a whole other problem of a different sort.

The best part of all this? What really gives me a good laugh?

Let’s look at a typical Happy Meal: McNuggets, a child-sized portion of fries, apple dippers, and a bottle of low-fat milk. How many Chipotle-Burritos’-worth of calories is that gut-bomb packing?

430 calories.

And if little Timmy is on a self-destructive bender and past the point of all hope for a healthy, fit lifestyle, he could substitute the low-fat for chocolate milk.

500 calories! OH, THE HUMANITY!!!

Humanity? No. More like “irony.” Most children actually need more calories in that for a meal.

You want to fight childhood obesity? Fight it in the classroom. Fight it in the school cafeteria. Moreover, don’t fight it at all. This isn’t an MSNBC “Scared Straight” special, and showing a child a plaqued-up cadaver’s heart isn’t going to make him want to eat more broccoli at the dinner table.

If you want to make children aware of healthier food and more nutritious options, you need to make them A.) Aware that there are other choices out there, and B.) That some of those choices actually may taste better, and be more filling, than most of the fast food they’ve become accustomed to.

So, the next time your child finds amusement and joy by messing around and arranging his French fries to spell out words….give a pat on the back.

He’s playing with a more nutritional food.

After all – thank goodness!!! – he’s finally kicked that nasty toy habit.

What’s your take on the Happy Meal situation? Do you think toys are linked to childhood obesity?

Image credit to Ransacked Media, thosch66, and happymealy.

Eric Labanauskas

Eric is a data entry specialist and contributing writer for the QLP Blog Squad. He is a city boy with a country heart, with an appetite for anything chicken-fried. He has studied as an apprentice at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, performed across the country as Buddy Holly in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," and can tie a bow tie by himself without the aid of a mirror. 1950's rock 'n roll is his soundtrack, especially while on road-trips with his lovely girlfriend. Suffice it to say, he is also the owner of some good cocktail party stories from his many experiences. You can also connect with Eric on Google+.


  1. Tony Promo

    I don’t care what the research says… We’re the fattest country in the world. Every little bit helps (or hurts) and I can imagine that Happy Meal toys don’t *not* promote obesity.

    • Eric

      Well, big-ass SUV’s probably don’t help promote clean emissions and decreased fossil fuel consumption, but I don’t see anyone dragging GM into the courtroom.

      We’re a country about the freedom of choice, and I think placing blame on the party that isn’t making these choices is not only abusing that freedom, but expecting some higher legal power to babysit our decision-making for us.

  2. david k waltz


    I am a freedom lovin’ finance guy, so I totally agree with the “it’s not McDonalsd’s fault” gist of the article.

    However, I feel the need to correct you in that Marlboro (and all the other tobacco companies) went through many lawsuits in many states and have paid up a big fortune to them for giving people cancer, etc…even though it was their decision!

    And to your point, not sure how that happened either, but it does!

    • Eric

      I’m just going to go ahead and drop the bomb: I think the biggest problem with Americans, today, is the complete inability to admit A.) occasionally, we’re wrong, and moreover, B.) we’re to blame for whatever problem it may be. Eat enough Big Macs, smoke enough Marlboros, what have you, but the outcome is entirely determined by the consumer, and not by the company.

      Ironically, I have to wonder how many lawsuits cigarette companies have endured from giveaway promotions and that of the like. After all, someone probably wouldn’t smoke as much if he REALLY wanted that free inflatable pool raft. This kind of lawsuit-happy logic baffles me. I could go on, but America’s tobacco industry is another post onto itself completely.

      For me, it isn’t so much in the details, so much as it is where blame is placed, here.

      In short? Time to own up, America.

      • Amanda

        These are such huge issues to solve. One of my main questions has to do with: *If you’re smoking 3 packs a day, or eating 10 cheeseburgers a day–who is paying for your healthcare? If it’s you–smoke and eat all you want, that is no ones business. But if it’s the government–should they still have to pay for your bad habits?? I don’t know–but that’s what I think a lot of this boils down to. Some think healthy food is more expensive–so schools and such have to serve what’s cheap. But a can of green beans is what $0.50? And a bunch of bananas is about $1.50. Makes for some great discussion anyway.

        • Eric

          It’s about convenience. It’s about self/portion-control. It’s about what’s cheaper…and not necessarily cheaper simply for the present moment. Most folks see a twelve-dollar box of chicken breasts at the grocery store, and think it’d be crazy to buy those when a bag of pizza rolls isn’t even half that. However, if you take the time to cook, and make different recipes from them, you can probably make it through most the week off that one box of chicken. Once you’ve zapped those pizza rolls? You’ve got to find another meal. Eating healthier doesn’t necessarily take more money, just more time and thought.

          Health care? Don’t even get me started. 🙂

  3. Jenna Markowski

    I couldn’t agree with you any more, Eric. I think it’s silly for lawmakers to blame McDonald’s, mainly the toys, for childhood obesity. As you stated, someone is taking those kids to McDonald’s and forking over the cash to pay for it. The parents are the ones teaching the eating habits that children will carry on for the rest of their lives. So if the parent decides to make McDonald’s the main course every night for dinner, that’s the parents’ fault, not McDonald’s. Because clearly, with only 500 calories in a Happy Meal, one or two a month isn’t really harming anyone.

    Not to mention the fact that if a parent actually takes their kid inside McDonald’s, the kid will chow down on that 500 calorie Happy Meal, and then go burn it all off immediately by running around the playplace like a Tazmanian Devil.

    Is McDonald’s the only fast food chain being faced with this ban? Because last time I checked, they’re not the only ones doling out toys with their kids’ meals. California should probably take up some beef with Burger King, Wendy’s, and Taco Bell, too. (Although let’s face it, McDonald’s always has the best toys.)

    • Eric

      Right on, Jenna.

      I think the ban applies to all fast-food restaurants in the area where this took place, but for some reason, the media’s putting good ‘ol Mickey D’s under a microscope with this issue. Not only do other restaurants give toys away, too, but is McDonald’s the absolute worst for children, nutritionally? I doubt it.

      A lot of McDonald’s locations also include a child exercise program, too, parents…i.e., “Play Place.” Let them run around like a money in a jungle for ten minutes, and BAM! Those calories are burned right off.

      Totally in agreement. McDonald’s has always had the best toys. My favorites were those little, Transformer-like ones, where a box of Chicken McNuggets, etc. turned into some sort of dinosaur robot. Think I still have some of them tucked away in a box at home. This one’s probably dating me, because those things have got to be from the early 90’s, or so, but that was the Golden Age of Happy Meal toys, for me.

  4. Mandy Kilinskis

    I feel like so many lawmakers have given up trying to pass laws that will actually help their citizens, and instead, have decided to throw darts at a board and pick a big company to sue next. And I grant you, some of them might need to be sued, but McDonald’s really needs to go under fire for Happy Meal toys?

    This is, as you said, up to the parents to help their kids make healthy options. Let them know that McDonald’s is a treat. Responsibility starts at home. Silly laws about a lack of toys SHOULD NOT substitute for parental guidance.

    • Eric

      The word of Mandy.


      If a kid wants a toy, his parents probably going to roll into – I don’t know – a toy store to pick one up? It’s not like kids are rushing the counters at McDonald’s simply to get the toy and that’s the prime motivating factor in buying these.

      I remember, back in high school we had a Blue Bunny ice cream vending machine. An ice cream vending machine. How in hell things like that skirt by, and things like this become problematic to legislators is beyond me.

  5. Amanda

    Great post topic Eric! I agree with you on these issues. The real problems here lie in the admission of guilt and blame with the parents. No one wants to take responsibility anymore in the US. I don’t think it’s right to put the blame on McDonald’s. These food decisions are made by parents–not children, and not companies. I think they should focus more on school lunches and restaurants offering healthier options for kids. Key word being options–as long as there are healthy choices available, I think it’s off the companies hands. I fully embrace the healthier options that are now available through restaurants and fast food places–but I also will always embrace the choice and freedoms we have to get our food from where we’d like–whether it be a garden, grocery, or restaurant. It’s sad because I think a lot of these lawsuits and troubles come from an endless cycle of issues that are very difficult to solve. For example, if low income families are buying McD’s for their children on a daily basis, and therefore are overweight and have health issues because of bad nutrition, and then they go to the state aid doctors and use state funded meds–it puts a strain of the system as a whole. It’s sad, but all these issues are linked. I think this is just part of how they’re trying to solve these issues. But the blame is in the wrong place. I don’t see the McD’s toys as the problem.

    • Eric

      It all reminds me of that infamous lawsuits from years ago. You remember it. some woman made the mistake of using her lap as a cup-holder, and spilled coffee over herself…however, it wasn’t labeled or clearly marked as “HOT.” Seriously?!?! It’s bad enough they’ve started deliberately posting nutritional information on things…soon enough, hamburger wrappers may start looking more like the Surgeon General’s warnings like the ones you see on a pack of smokes. “WARNING: DO NOT EAT MORE THAN 1 BIG MAC, MAY RESULT IN OBESITY.” Come to think of it, the way things’re heading, I wouldn’t at all be surprised.

      I love the healthier options, and a lot of the places not only have salads, now, but pretty thoughtful, filling, and flavorful ones, too. Sure, it may have been hard to eat healthy when all the menu had were burgers, fries, and shakes…but this day in age? You’ve even got options for side items, which – I think – is more important. I recently started getting a baked potato instead of fries at Wendy’s and I have to say I like it more. Less fried food. Less salt. More nutrients. It’s yummy.

      If I’d a chunk of money sitting around, I’d buy-up enough Happy Meal toys to fill up a flatbed truck, drive through San Fran, and hands those things out like Johnny-friggin’-Appleseed.

  6. BBritz

    Great post Eric! I definitely think that’s BOGUS that lawmakers are banning that from McDonalds. I agree with everyone else on this issue 100%; the parents are the ones that should feel guilty and be blamed for this. Obviously, McDonalds provides childrens toys in happy meals because it makes the kids feel good and it provides them with something to play with. How is that fair to blame the company for something like this? Its not! I know when I was a kid and growing up I loved getting Happy Meals and getting that toy included w/ it, but my parents were the ones taking me to McDonalds. Obesity is definitely an issue in America today, but it lies in the hands of the parents in this case because their supplying their children to these choices of fast food, etc.
    After reading this post it reminds me of that movie/book “Fast Food Nation”. I was required to read the book freshman year of college; it was not only very interesting but very informational. If you haven’t heard of it, I would check it out!

    • Eric


      A lot of the problem comes in the expectation and entitlement encompassing, heck, even something like a Happy Meal. We weren’t broke – we were your typical middle class American family – but my parents always made McDonald’s seem like a treat for me, and shame on me if I ever thought we’d go back the next day and make it a habit.

      Kids are the product of their environment. If Mom and Dad think “making dinner” means bringing it home in a bag, well, what do you think those kids will do when time comes for them to “make” dinner themselves?

      It’s not like I expect someone to go out back to the chicken coop, whack the chicken, pluck it clean, and cook it on a fire they built themselves. But, I will say, sometimes food tastes a heck of a lot better when you know where it’s coming from and how it’s prepared.

      I’ll have to check out Fast Food Nation. From what I’ve heard, it doesn’t paint a very winning picture of the industry, but hey…one my of resolutions for 2012 is to spend more time cooking on my own. This may be a “two birds, one stone” kinda deal. 🙂

  7. Amy Swanson

    I love reading your blogs Eric, they’re so witty and all around awesome. When I was growing up it was considered a treat to go to McDonald’s for lunch or dinner, so we maybe went once a month. Also, I was never allowed to play with my toy until I finished my entire meal (and that’s in the days before apple slices).

    I’m from the school of thought that parents are the ones responsible for their children (what a concept, right?). So if Dad or Mom start noticing that little Timmy is putting on the pounds and not getting enough exercise then maybe it’s time to start eating healthier and putting away the video games. I personally would just feel like a major idiot for even suggesting that it’s the restaurant’s fault for my child’s weight problem. Like you so perfectly said, “Is little Timmy rummaging through his Velcro, SpongeBob Square Pants wallet, and coughing up the money to buy his Happy Meal? Likely not. If the kid can’t reach the counter, I’m guessing he’s not ordering his own meals, either.” Parents own this responsibility 110%.

    Thanks for yet another thought-provoking blog, Eric!

    • Eric

      I guess the most confusing part of this whole ordeal is asking what anyone would hope to gain from toys no longer being served with Happy Meals. Honestly, now. It no longer comes with a toy? GREAT NOW I CAN GET THE LARGE-SIZED BIG MAC MEAL AND EAT IRRESPONSIBLY LIKE A GROWN-UP OM NOM NOM NOM. Probably the same damn parents who bought their kid a Wii thinking it was a fitness program, whereinfact all it turned out to be was a puzzle their child solved by figuring out how to make it through all the Wii Sports without getting up from the couch.

      Totally in agreement with ya, Amy. Nice to see a rare occasion where a parent steps in. I was at a Target awhile back, and the mother in front of us let her daughter buy candy. The daughter stepped up with a handful of change, bought a single thing of Starbursts, or the like, and it was clear this girl knew that it was something she had to earn, and if she bought it, she would have to sacrifice elsewhere. Nice to see little things like that, and have faith in modern parents reaffirmed.

      Thanks, Amy, and thanks as always for reading!

  8. Tony Promo

    I didn’t read all the comments, but this is the real problem: Marketing food to kids. It’s complete bullshit. McDonald’s preys on children to drive sales by marketing food directly to them. These same obese or future-obese kids whine and cry to their parents until they get tired of hearing it. Next thing you know, that kid is 22 and has diabetes. The parents are the responsible party in every situation, yes, but at the same time, the more we take that attitude, the more our healthcare costs continue to rise as us non-obese wind up seeing our premiums go up because nobody was smart enough to tell little Jimmy that he can’t have three happy meals a week when he was 8.

    I’m going to stop myself before I start getting political… because it has EVERYTHING to do with politics and lobbyists.

    • Eric

      Parents should be the ones to discipline their children. It’s exactly because there are parents without the ability to tell their children “no.” Whine and cry all they want, if the parents give in, they’re to blame. Not the company. I don’t care how slanted the marketing it toward the child demographic, ultimately, the parents have the ability to say no, and are in no way obligated to get the children a Happy Meal. The fact the government has to get in the middle, and start passing legislation to do what parents should have done to begin with? Pathetic.

  9. Alex Brodsky

    Having lived in The Golden State, I can tell you two things for sure: 1) California Lawmakers have no clue what they’re doing (re: The Terminator was governor) and 2) parenting is often left to either the television or the 16 year old nanny (at least in Los Angeles, San Francisco may be different, but I doubt it).

    This story is the sad conclusion when those two issues butt heads.

    I wholeheartedly agree that the “It’s everybody’s fault BUT MINE” has become too common a school of thought throughout this country and has no doubt led to so many of the problems the United States is facing today.

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