The McDonald's Happy Meal Dilemma (And How to Solve It)

February 3, 2012   22 Comments

Okay, so your kid just did something amazing (like solve climate change) and you want to treat him to lunch. What does he ask for?

Happy Meal Solution

My 5 year old says, "McDonald's!!" In fact, he said, "When I move out of the house I am going to eat at McDonald's for breakfast, Taco Bell for lunch, and Burger King for dinner."

What? Does this kid know who he is living with? Perhaps, it is in response to his mother's career that he says such a thing, but I couldn't believe it.

The power of marketing is STRONG. The force of commercials, especially the ones he sees while watching football with his father, is more powerful than I could have dreamt.

And, the power of a cute box of food with a TOY?? AAAAAHHHH!!

So, I took him to McDonald's and wondered what I could do to stop this fascination with the Golden Arches. You see, McDonald's isn't cheap. A family of four pays about $25 for a meal there and I could pay less at a local joint.

I feel guilty about all those wrappers, plastic bags, straws, cups, the Happy Meal box which my child inevitably wants to save (and then forgets about). The toy is always a bit frightening too.

I realize that as a parent, I am to set a good example. We don't eat out that often, but when we do, I want to support GOOD food. A place that washes its plates, serves vegetables, and supports MY community.

What to do? I have come up with my own Happy Meal. One that will make the entire family happy! I will take my $25 and I will go to a local place and I will bring a lovingly wrapped toy that is like the Happy Meal toy.

You can find these toys at thrift stores, garage sales, toy stores, and Walmart. There is a great section of "party favors" at my local toy store that has a bunch of things for less than $1 that my kids will enjoy. Just get a whole bunch of strange stuff that will make your kids laugh and wrap them up. Store them in a hiding place in your car.

When it is time for a special outing, give your child a few local options to choose from and promise a Happy Meal (without the box).

And, then you can teach them about GOOD food, table manners, how to order, and how spending money is like voting. You will probably spend a little more than $25 but you will enjoy the meal a lot more.

How do you deal with kids and their love of McDonald's?

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First 20 Comments: ( See all 22 )

Oh this is such a shiny light for kids!!! We went full disclosure with our son about MacDonald's. We talk openly about chemicals and fillers in foods. We have taught him to delight over a meal out at a restaurant which has salmon his favorite meal. Or places like Chipotle where there are fresh kid friendly foods. Oh dont get me wrong we love our treats chocolate especially and so we buy chocolate with no artificial ingredients like Lake Champlain chocolates. we started very early with this approach and I must say he has not gone to MacDonalds only once with his aunt who thought every kid should go there and in fact he did not like it :)

Advice from my daughter that is a dietitian is that you should avoid using food as a reward. While an occasional treat (icecream etc.) can be part of regular meals a life time of holding it out as a reward or treat can cause eating issues where people use medicine to self medicate when depressed, lonely etc. Instead why not celebrate a child doing something amazing by going on a bike ride together, a moonlight hike with flashlights, some dance time with the kinect? Why not have a reward that is you reading a favorite book aloud, telling ghost stories in the treehouse, singing together around the piano. Rewards like these can program our brain that when we want to celebrate or even when we want to make ourselves feel better with a treat that exercise and happy companionship can be that treat!

I agree with the previous poster. It's becoming increasingly common to hear of emotional eating and overweight people eating when they're stressed, happy, bored. Perhaps going away from the "food as reward" concept early in childhood could help this trend.

My kids love going to the park on warm day so I make that the reward instead of the indoor slide at McDonald's. I take snacks and our own water bottles. My kids quickly forget about french fries. Also, with both kids having asthma, they get the extra benefit of enjoying the fresh air.

I agree with not using food as a reward which teaches emotional eating and contributes to overeating.

It's all in how you, as a parent, present it to them! My kids are 4 and 2 and I have explained to them why Mama doesn't eat McDonalds and that has caused them to not want to eat it either. If other people mention it, my kids literally start a chorus of "Oooo!! We don't eat that! It has too many preservatives!!" As a matter of fact, my 2 year old got in a bit of trouble at day care last week and my threat was to take her to McDonald's for dinner and they BOTH started to cry! Put it in terms that they can understand and start letting them know early that what may taste good isn't always good FOR you...

Is it okay to use food for a celebration? I can see why my post is being interpreted as "food as a reward" but I was trying to talk about a treat - and having a special meal together as quality time together. I do think a discussion about using food as a reward is very valuable.

I find it interesting that people are nervous about treating food as a reward. I "get it" about creating the potential for emotional eating, but rewards should be "once in a while" for doing something great, a treat or special occasion. Just as my celebratory and occasional dinner and a movie dates with my husband are NOT causing emotional eating on non-date nights, I think going to lunch with your child creates a great opportunity for bonding. Why not take your meal to the park for a picnic then have a walk, bike ride or playtime after? Combine eating with activity, make it a "date", if you will. If we teach our kids how to eat sensibly and moderation by example, that is half the battle. I see nothing wrong with rewarding my son with a nice lunch or dinner out. We need to be helping our kids create a healthy image of themselves. In my opinion, a healthy self-image and confidence will help keep my family from emotional eating. Especially since I have control over what my family eats on every other day.

I occationally take my kids to McDonalds for a happy meal. They have chocolate milk and apples with a cheeseburger. No it's not healthy but if you look at kids menues in restaurants the happy meal is waaaaay better. Half the time they don't even eat it all. I try not to make it a big deal and when given a choice they almost never ask to go there. Right now their fav place to eat is a suishi place near here. I let them eat lots of foods and try new tastes. Both kids dislike kids menues in restaurants. And though I'm no fan of McDonalds, the happy meal is not a huge deal compaired to what the restaurants offer our kids. What really disturbs me when I go to McDonalds is the parents that buy their kids big macs and large fries and pop.

Snack Girl, I LOVE your idea of buying a small toy or treat and then going to a local restaraunt vs. a chain that serves fatty foods.

My daughter LOVES the little Lego guys (you can buy them individually now), and a little guy will satisfy her and keep her busy while my husband and I eat eat at a local diner. She's picky (in addition to eating gluten-free), but LOVES the fries from the local diner, so this is a GREAT solution!


I agree completely with the previous post and with Snack Girl. There is a huge difference between food as a "reward" and a special occasion that includes food. When I take my children out to a special lunch, I think the time saved in preparation and clean-up is bonding time for us, as well as provides us with a different (maybe not spectacular) venue to relax. We have shared some of our most wonderful conversations over lunches out, and as they only happen occassionally, I try not to sweat over the fact that the nutrition is not perfect. My kids do love the food at Chick-Fil-A and Chipotle, so Snack Girl, great suggestion! I have pulled my hair out over the allure of a toy with a meal... I love the idea of making my own Happy Meals at these places so that we can avoid Burger King and McDonalds!!

I don't take my girls to fast food places and talk about why we don't do that, so hopefully we can avoid McDonalds. That being said, we've said we'd have pizza as a celebration, so not sure how good we are being about food.

We have a very simple solution for tackling the McDonald's dilemma-we don't go. We don't eat gluten and the place doesn't accommodate us at all. We do, however, occasionally go to Chik-Fil-A because they have a play area and they will accommodate food allergies. And I don't use the food as the reward, I use the experience and the fun of being there. Never a kid's meal, only something light to eat because we have to buy something to sit there.

All I can say is that I'm a 30 year-old woman who grew up with parents who took us kids to McDonald's from time to time as a treat, or reward, or whatever you want to call it, and I turned out fine. I don't have any adult eating issues and all of my 30 something year-old friends seem fine too. People will look for an excuse to justify their behaviour, but I think "scaring" new parents into not using food as a reward because then their kids will develop emotional eating issues later on in life is just ridiculous. Sure I sometimes overeat or binge on something that's "bad" for me when I'm sad or bored or stressed, but I'm just human and I never for one second thought it was due to my parents taking me to McDonald's every once in a while when I was a kid. I'm grateful I had parents that could afford to feed me, who wanted to spend time with me, and who celebrated my achievements (occasionally with french fries and milkshake!), and I choose not to read anything more into it than that!!

Cryssie, I understand you and your 30-something year old friends turned out fine, but it's the not same world it was when you were a child. Kids weren't targeted to fast food the way they are now, nor did society think that eating "super-sized" meals was perfectly acceptable. We have to remember to take the "times" into consideration.

I have to echo Cryssie's comments. I'm also a 30-something who actually has fond memories of my grandpa taking my brother and I to "special" breakfasts at McDonalds. Obviously, it wasn't something we did often, but I cherish those memories.

When more than two thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, it seems like a good idea to teach kids how to celebrate in ways that aren't centered on food. They'll still have fond memories to cherish because they're spending time with loved ones. Kids get enough messages from ads that celebrating has to involve eating and parents can help counter this idea with alternatives.

Just as a glass of wine or two to celebrate a holiday or accomplishment does not make an alcoholic, having a treat or a special meal for the same reason does not make an overeater/emotional eater. There is so much more involved.

It is a good idea to teach kids there are other rewards out there. It is also a good idea to teach kids that it is not that big of a deal if we treat ourselves to food, within reason.

My concern would be, are you making McDonalds a bigger draw by not going there occasionally? I have a friend whose parents are super healthy, and he is the worst junk food eater in the world! I wonder if they maybe just occasionally taken him there, it would not have become such a huge issue for him. He would rather eat all kinds of crap food, rather than stay home and eat the healthy stuff his parents have prepared. Sometimes I think when you go too far one way, you push your kids the other. As much as I can't stand McDonalds food now, I did take my kids there when they were little. Two of the three would never eat there now. The third one limits her consumption. Not too bad.

There's a difference between having a once in a while treat and using food as a reward. Using food as a reward ties eating with good behavior. This may not lead everyone to become emotional eaters, but emotional eaters have this in common. McDonald's is a master of marketing to emotional eating("You deserve a break today" and even the name "Happy Meal"). Why buy into that and support our children buying into it too?

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