It's not about the food. What McDonald's is really selling to children is the party. The package with puzzles just for them. The games. In some places, the playgrounds. And most of all, the toys.
The fast-food giant must be basking in its latest public-relations victory. By announcing last week that it was taking cheeseburgers and chocolate milk off its Happy Meal menu, it looked like a chain that cared about childhood obesity, while not really changing a thing. That's right: Cheeseburgers and chocolate milk will still be available. They won't be on the official menu, but parents can order them as part of the meal.
The real problem, anyway, is not the minutia of the Happy Meal menu, but the way it gets children through the door. If children ate fast food once every three months as a rare treat, it wouldn't much matter if they got a cheeseburger instead of a hamburger. It wouldn't matter if they got chocolate milk instead of plain milk, or for that matter, if they got a Big Mac and a shake.
What makes McDonald's and similar chains so pernicious is how often families end up there. The chain reportedly serves 1.2 billion Happy Meals worldwide each year and in 2011 its Happy Meal sales reached around 220 million in the United States. A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that on any given day, a third of the nation's children and adolescents eat fast food.
Despite a move to fast-casual restaurants that has hurt the industry, fast food isn't an occasional treat for children in this country. It's a dietary staple. And a major part of what draws kids to McDonald's — and with them their families — over and over again are the toys.
Of course it is. How many people, including kids, even if they like the white-bread bun dwarfing a barely-there meat patty, would call the Happy Meal a great meal? The food they'd rather have above all else? Ask parents and most of them will say that their kids badger them for a trip to McDonald's for the free toys.
That was what my then-preschool-age daughter was after decades ago when she would beg for McDonald's meals. I tried to tell her that food and toys had nothing to do with each other, but you can guess how far that reasoning went. I finally picked up a dozen little plastic figurines for a dime each and gave her one whenever we went to a restaurant for a decent meal. I'm not proud of that. Toys shouldn't be coupled with food, but they have been for a long time, including the prizes in breakfast cereals during the 1950s.
Another example, from the '90s: My young son's best friend went to McDonald's multiple times a week during a single month because he'd conned his mother into helping him collect the full set of plastic dogs from "101 Dalmatians." (Disney ended its toy promotions with McDonald's in 2006.) Children and their parents went nuts for the promotions that offered mini Beanie Babies and cooler-than-usual "Toy Story" figures.
Parents should just say no, right? But this kind of marketing, and the pleading from kids, coupled with convenience and low cost, are powerful forces.
What McDonald's has done is teach kids to associate its less-than-ideal meals with fun, which is what matters to them more than the quality of the chicken or beef. That's why McDonald's tinkers with its food offerings, but not with the toys. When San Francisco banned toy giveaways with meals that didn't meet certain nutritional requirements, McDonald's simply sold the toys for 10 cents to anyone who bought a Happy Meal. That toy is a canny way to secure lifetime customers.
Plain milk is healthier than chocolate, but until a McDonald's meal contains fewer refined carbs and more vegetables than a slice of pickle, this is not the way America should be eating on a semi-regular basis.
The problem, again, isn't the kind of burger — cheese or plain — as much as the semi-regular part.
We eat too much processed food. And we eat for reasons unrelated to food. Many forces have conspired to shape us this way, and toys with children's meals are among them.
Karin Klein writes about education for The Times' editorial board. As a freelance writer she covers health, science, environment and food policy.